Monday 1 April 2013

So you like Dragonball, too? We are good friends! Part 1

So, you like Dragonball Z, huh?  Yeah!  Well, there’s a new DBZ film out in Japan right now and the gears of promotion are spinning ever more rapidly with every free toy that comes with the utterly unrelated product that you actually didn’t want in the first place but bought anyway.  That means this is the perfect time for this next post, which is actually the first in a series of posts I intend to write exclusively about DBZ.  Subsequent posts in the series will cover the differences in Goku’s character, his relationship with Vegeta and a little secret about Krillin that you won’t find in the American virgin, uh, I mean version!  Version.  Yes, you are a version.

This being somewhat an introductory post, I’ll touch on some of the obvious differences between Japanese and English versions, and something that wasn’t changed at all.  These differences might seem superficial at first, but they point to some of the potential sticking points that can be encountered with localization projects for very large, mixed audiences.  I’m going to assume that readers are somewhat familiar with the characters from the DBZ universe so I won’t be giving much by way of explanation as to who they are or their backgrounds.  If you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to assume you also practice your kamehamehas in front of the mirror or in the living room.  Or the park.  Or the supermarket.  Or during board meetings.

From now on I’m going to refer to the English language version of DBZ as “the American version”.  The English language release was made, first and foremost, for an American market and the licensors have always been American companies (FUNimation and 4Kids Entertainment).  If I’m not mistaken, America as a single nation is historically the biggest consumer of Japanese pop-culture products after Japan and the localization changes were made specifically with the United States in mind.  Also, referring to it as “the overseas release” would mean making assumptions about a hugely popular series that has been localized for many different places, without knowing how those other versions might be different.  I know only about the Japanese and American versions of DBZ, and my internal adviser informs me I should stick to what I know lest I become stuck in some kind of gloopy crud called "wrong".

Let’s get stuck in!  One of the main characters from the series is known as the Turtle Hermit, Goku and Krillin’s perverted master.  Turtle Hermit is a direct translation of 亀仙人, kame meaning turtle and sen’nin meaning hermit.  To his face, other characters call him Master Roshi.  According to Dragonball Wiki, Master Roshi was adapted from 武天老師 (muten roushi), possibly for pronunciation reasons.  Muten is a combination of the kanji 武, meaning martial/soldier/military and for heaven, and not strictly a real word in itself.  Roushi is a word meaning teacher or sensei, but specifically an elderly master or monk.  I think some English speakers would have difficulty pronouncing muten correctly so it was changed to “Master”.  Still, the pronunciation of roushi is hideous in the American version and it makes my brain shrivel a little every time I hear it.  Perhaps just something like "Turtle Master" would have been sufficient, but alas, we are stuck with a name that transmits no meaning whatsoever in English.

Next up is Hercule, the strongest human on Earth (excluding the Z-Fighters, of course).  But did you know that in Japan he’s known as Mister Satan (ミスター・サタン)?  The name Hercule was probably chosen because of the similarity to Hercules, a familiar name associated with power and bravery, traits Hercule doesn't actually possess.  The reason behind why this had to be changed for a Western audience is obvious, but that’s not the only consideration that was made so as not to touch any Judeo-Christian nerves.  The Namekian guardian of Earth, Kami, has the same name in the Japanese and American releases.  Nothing strange there, you may assume, but in Japanese (kami) means God or a god.  Again, it’s obvious why this name couldn’t receive a direct translation, but I find it odd that by sticking with the Japanese, everybody is saying “God” anyway, just in a different language.  I never knew about this when watching DBZ as a teenager, and I wouldn’t have cared anyway, but it does make me wonder how the Christian and Jewish communities would react were they to latch onto this.  I can imagine a certain Baptist Church’s newest campaign: “Dragon Balls Z is the faggot Spawn of (Mister) Satan!”

While you may well be familiar with DBZ, you may not know about Dragonball Z Kai, known as just Dragonball Kai in Japan.  DBKai is a renovated version of DBZ with improved audio and visuals that follows the same story but with the side plots, certain scenes irrelevant to the main story, and unnecessary powering up removed.  “Yay!” you may think, and it is an improvement in most respects.  I was pleased that that annoying part on Snake Way was cut, but a little disappointed that the scene where Nappa flies through the jet fighters and blows them to smithereens was also taken out.

In Dragonball and DBZ, one of my favourite characters is Mr. Popo.  I don’t know why, he just is.  Maybe it’s his voice, or I feel sorry for him for some reason.  If you don’t know, Mr. Popo is a short, turban wearing, noseless humanoid with pointy ears, large red lips and jet black skin.  This is how he appeared in the FUNimation English dub of DBZ, and the Japanese versions of DB, DBZ and DBKai.  Some people might say that Mr. Popo is a representation of certain racial stereotypes.  I'm sure people will be split down the middle with regards to how they view Mr. Popo.  Culturally insensitive of a shameful period in human history, or just people being overly sensitive about an innocent cartoon character?  I don't think there's a correct answer.

So 4Kids, for the version of DBKai they released in North America, changed Mr. Popo skin’s colour to blue.    Forget intergalactic megalomaniacs and life-absorbing android abominations, Gargamel is the new threat.  I’m sure you can appreciate why the licence holders changed Mr. Popo in such a way, whether you agree with the decision or not.

For an opinion, read this article, riddled with inaccuracies, in The Christian Science Monitor.  The authors’ son was apparently playing a Chinese knock-off game called “Pokmon” and an unofficial version of a DBZ game produced by Sony (actually a Bandai franchise).  And to see just how revolting the new colouration is, have a goosey at this Youtube video.  

I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about what you think of the differences between versions that I’ve discussed here.  If you do decide to leave a comment, please stay on topic.  Remember, this is a blog about the localization of popular (and not so popular) media, not religion or race.


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