The history of Hasbro and Takara’s shape-shifting toy robot franchise, Transformers, is an inspiring and complicated tale of American-Japanese synergy, proving what a company with awesome robot toys but no marketing skills and a company with awesome marketing skills but no robot toys can accomplish when they start holding hands. The complexity of that story is dependent entirely upon who you ask; some are content to say “Takara had some robot toys that weren’t selling and Hasbro had ideas on how to market them” and leave it at that. Some fans will forgo the “Reader’s Digest” approach entirely and spin the yarn all the way back to Mr. Potato Head, the first successful instance of Takara selling a Hasbro product in Japan, and then go through G.I. Joe, Combat Joe, Henshin Cyborg, Microman, Microchange, Diaclone and by the time they’re finished you probably don’t care anymore.
But while the toys that would become the Transformers were products of Japanese engineering, the brand name, storyline, characters and marketing were the work of American imagination (and one British guy with a knack for writing comics in nine page chunks). The original Transformers animated series was written in the US by a bunch of people who really didn’t give a s--t (take a gander at any interview with Donald F. Glut, or just look at the script-recycling career of David Wise) with the animation outsourced to Japanese studio, Toei, like just about every other cartoon produced in the 1980s. By 1985, Takara’s shelf-warming toys worked their way back to their homeland in the form of the Transformers franchise, and thanks mostly to the cartoon series, became an immediate sensation.
And now that you understand an incredibly brief and shallow summary of the back-and-forth history of the Transformers franchise, I can finally get down to the point of this article: The Japanese dubbing of American Transformers cartoons and how very different their versions of our shows actually are.
While calling something “anime” has become extremely fashionable in recent years, the original Transformers animated series was no more “anime” than G.I. Joe, Jem and the Holograms or Muppet Babies. Yes, the actual animation for the show was done in Japan, but just about all animation for American-produced cartoons is outsourced to Japan (or Korea, or the Philippines, or China). The scripting, storyboarding and animation direction for Transformers was done in the United States for an American audience and the series was only dubbed and released in Japan after the fact.
So now that you know half the battle, let’s check out the other 50% and take a look at what those Japanese dubs of the American Transformers cartoons we fondly recall were like…
The Transformers premiered in America on September 17, 1984. Less than a year later, it premiered in Japan on July 6, 1985, under the awesomely melodramatic new name, Fight! Super Robot Lifeform Transformers. While most other countries that imported and dubbed The Transformers were content to just translate the dialogue, record it and air it, the Japanese felt the series needed some extra attention in order to capture the affections of their far more discriminating six year-old audience.
Since the primary purpose of the animation industry in Japan is to act as a springboard for flavor-of-the-month pop artists, Transformers received lengthy opening and ending songs (“Transformer” and “Peace Again” by Satoko Shimonari, respectively). You can clock the American theme song and title sequence at about 35 seconds, with the end credits running maybe 40 seconds, give or take. The Japanese intro ran for 1 minute and 20 seconds, with the end credits hitting the same length. The end result is that about a full minute of content had to be axed from each episode to make room for the J-pop, because really, what’s more important? Priorities, people.
To be fair, the time edits were probably the least offensive thing about the Japanese dub of The Transformers; they were typically very strategic about what they cut. If it was a multi-parter, they’d axe the “previously on Transformers” recap so as to leave as much of the show-itself intact. Or, if they had to take the episode proper to the cutting room, they’d shorten the length of background pans or establishing shots. And if a scene was absolutely meaningless (like a stupid joke or something), that’s what got the taken out back and shot behind the chemical shed (the scene from “Roll for It” where the security guard is surprised by Bumblebee transforming and says, “Well ah’ve nevuh met an Aw-toh-bawt befoh,” for example). Occasionally they lost some fun stuff, such as quite a lot of the sequence where the Decepticons use humans as equipment in a game of baseball at the beginning of “Child’s Play”, but for the most part, they tried to take out stuff “no one would miss”.
And nothing of value was lost.
The casting was also very well-done and most of the voices were perfect fits for the character. I’ll admit that Tessho Genda’s Convoy (the Japanese name for Optimus Prime… well, not anymore, as they’ve begun adopting our Western names in recent years) was a bit too dull; a trait that would follow just about every Autobot leader character in these dubs (the idea of a leader “having fun” or “being silly” doesn’t gel with Japanese sensibilities, thus the Autobot leaders are typically reduced to personality-less cardboard standees). Hirotaka Suzuoki’s Starscream, on the other hand, is probably one of the dub’s better-known alternate takes on the character, as rather than try and ape the high-pitched, effeminate, whiney styling of Chris Latta (which was awesome), they focused on the vain and egotistical nature of the character, making Starscream a young, preening, self-absorbed “bishie”. Basically, if the Japanese voice of Starscream had a human body, he’d be one of those glittering long-haired anime archetypes that you’d confuse for a girl at first glance.
Really, the only “miscasting” I thought they made in this dub was Yutaka Shimaka as Shockwave (Laserwave on their side of the Pacific). Shockwave’s claim to fame is his highly reserved and emotionally barren characterization, and while our actor, Corey Burton, wasn’t always consistent with that portrayal (because The Transformers was almost never consistent in its writing), that’s pretty much how he was. Shimaka’s Shockwave, meanwhile, had a raspy, grizzled old man sort of thing going on. He would growl and scream and curse and lose his temper constantly, shouting villainous threats and so forth.
Praise aside, if there was a major setback to the Japanese dub of The Transformers, what was it?
While Victor Caroli narrated the original version of The Transformers, he could only be heard in a total of 20 of the 98 episodes, and his narration was typically subdued to the beginning of episodes or reserved for the “previously/next episode” recaps. The narrator of the Japanese dub, Issei Masamune, had different ideas.
For whatever reason, it was decided that The Transformers was much too complicated for Japanese children to follow along by actually watching what was happening on their television screens. Thus, it was decided that a narrator needed to be ever-present and describe events as they were happening. If characters traveled from one place to another, Masamune could be heard describing the setting, whereas Western children were left to figure it out on their own via context like a bunch of chumps. Masamune could be heard a few seconds later, introducing each character as they stepped into frame. He could then be heard again a few seconds later, when the scene changes, explaining to the audience the location the story has swapped to. He could then be heard a few seconds after that, describing in detail a plot point you think would be obvious but was apparently too sophisticated for Japanese audiences.
But don’t take my word for it, here are the first nine minutes of the Japanese dub of “The Autobot Run” (keep in mind that this was an episode with no narration in the original US version):
Thrill as he reminds you in the first few seconds that you’re watching a Transformers cartoon. Gasp at the :35 second mark when Laserbeak flies onto the screen and he announces to the audience, “That’s Laserbeak” (Japanese name is Condor, for reference). Feel relief at the 1:05 mark as Laserbeak enters Soundwave’s chest and Masamune gently explains to the audience that he’s relaying the information he gained while spying on Spike and Chip in the previous scene (because how ELSE would you know that if a narrator hadn’t explained it to you!?). Watch at the 1:55 mark as Starscream transforms to jet-mode at Megatron’s behest and Masamune describes what you just saw to you.
And that’s just the first two minutes of the episode. The subsequent 20 are exactly the same. Basically, Masamune’s job was to hold the audience’s hand through the duration of the show, describing everything as it happened. If a full minute went by where he didn’t open his mouth, it was some form of miracle. This may not seem so irritating if you don’t understand Japanese; watching that clip, the audio just becomes a cacophony of incomprehensible gibberish and what’s one more voice you can’t understand amongst dozens? But try and imagine the episode in its original English language version, but with Victor Caroli incessantly talking through the whole thing, stating the obvious every 30 seconds without fail.
Other changes were made to the show; some major, some minor and some legally unavoidable. Being a syndicated program, the US run of The Transformers wasn’t aired in the proper narrative order (characters would regularly appear before they were properly introduced, like the Combaticons, and whole story arcs from the third season were jumbled up, like the conflict over the Quintesson journal or the whole thing with Sandstorm, Octane, Trypticon and Starscream’s ghost that spanned multiple episodes). The Japanese run was a bit worse, mixing up the episodes from the first and second seasons (run as a single series in Japan) and even initially skipping two (“Day of the Machines” and “Attack of the Autobots”). Part of this was unavoidable, as the character of Skyfire was based on a toy Hasbro licensed from Bandai, a domestic competitor of Takara’s, and there was question as to whether they could run episodes starring a Bandai toy in Japan. So episodes where Skyfire played a minimal role (“The Immobilizer”) had his scenes cut out entirely, whereas episodes that starred him wound-up being postponed to the end of the series when things were finally worked out in the legal department (“Fire in the Sky”, “Fire on the Mountain”, “A Plague of Insecticons” and all three parts of “The Ultimate Doom”, for instance).
The third season was also rebranded as its own series, Fight! Super Robot Lifeform Transformers 2010, and received the same treatment. Both series also got a healthy infusion of clip shows to pad-out their length. All three “The Rebirth” episodes were also skipped in favor of a homegrown continuation, “The Headmasters”, but I’m not here to talk about that pile of crap.
And before anybody freaks out, all skipped episodes were eventually dubbed and released on laserdisc (and later, DVD) in Japan. Incidentally, because those episodes went straight-to-video, they didn’t have to be cut for time and are all available with alternate English or Japanese audio tracks.
Beast Wars and Beast Machines
Ah, the bane of my existence.
I’m not opposed to making foreign shows more humorous in the dubbing process; we do it all the time in America. I mean, I don’t think I’d ever be able to sit through an episode of Digimon if it weren’t for Saban’s incredibly clever and charming English dubbing. I’ve tried watching the show in the original Japanese, but without the additional humor of the English scripts, it’s just a boring run-of-the-mill children’s anime show. For a more related example, compare the original Japanese Transformers: Car Robots with Saban’s English version, Transformers: Robots in Disguise. The key difference between the two? Saban’s version is actually watchable.
But all things in moderation, people.
When the Canadian-produced Beast Wars animated series was imported by Takara for Japanese consumption, it was heavily altered in the scripting and performance stage. The original Beast Wars was pretty comedic (this was the series where Megatron was once defeated by a massive fart, after all), but the director of “re-versioning” (a newly made-up word to describe the altering of foreign media to appeal to a different market), Iwanami Yoshikazu, felt that the series needed more humor. A lot more humor. Under his guidance, Beast Wars was transformed into a fourth wall-shattering, self-aware and self-referential comedy series.
A huge proponent of ad-libbing, Yoshikazu’s Beast Wars saw the characters prattling-on, incessantly. The ad-libbing eventually got so out of control that halfway through the series, characters would continue to talk in loud, complete sentences when their lips were not moving… In close-ups. The Maximals and Predacons also became cognizant of their status as cartoon characters and would regularly break the fourth wall (Rattrap would smell what the audience was eating and comment on the food). Anything approaching “subtlety” was lost in the mire of ad-libbing and yammering; if a joke in the original version was conveyed through body language or facial expression, rest assured that the Japanese dub filled the scene up with as much dialogue as possible, again, regardless of whether lips were moving or not.
Personally, watching the episodes on YouTube, I think the most obnoxious thing about the dub was how the characters would make the noises for their weapons whenever they fired. Kind of like how a kid would go “Zap! Zap!” when pretending to fire an invisible laser gun, the characters in the Japanese dub of Beast Wars would make similar noises whenever they pulled the trigger. And this lasted the duration of the entire series.
Though the episode order was jumbled up, as usual, and two episodes were skipped for theatrical release (replaced in the broadcast with clip shows), the story arcs were kept intact and the series, at least plot-wise, proceeded as it did in the West.
What wasn’t kept intact, however, were the personalities of the characters. We all recognize David Kaye’s Megatron as a smooth, intelligent, charismatic villain. Shigeru Chiba’s Megatron, on the other hand, was a screeching lunatic and blundering oaf with a highly exaggerated, shrill voice. His most notable “shtick” was that whenever someone fired on him or he was startled in any way, he would proceed to scream like a girl. He also had a bantering relationship with the Predacon computer (unnamed in the English version, called “Navi” in the Japanese dub). She talked like a helium-toned little girl and would often dote on Megatron or make comments about the episode.
While plenty of other characters got mangled in the dub (Depth Charge went from brooding loner to a silly old man that sang corny fishing songs while transforming), I think the most famous alteration of the Japanese dub is Airazor, who had her gender altered from female to male. Culturally, the Japanese have very different opinions of how a woman should behave than Westerners, and while assertive and individualistic women are slowly becoming more accepted on their shores, the stigma of “how a proper woman should act” isn’t going away any time soon. Keep in mind that the first thing the Japanese did when they got control of writing the Generation 1 cartoons was turn female warrior character Arcee into a secretary (and this was probably the least terrible thing about “The Headmasters”, if you can believe it).
So Airazor, an assertive tomboyish female Maximal considered an equal by her male teammates was turned into a young male character. But what of Airazor’s romance with Tigatron? Well, at first, they played their closeness off as a protective thing. The Japanese dub made Tigatron into a goofy, stereotypical wandering samurai ronin character, leaving Airazor to become his trusty young ward. That lasted as long as it took for them to finally try to kiss each other, then both came out of the closet. While it may sound “progressive” to alter two male characters to be homosexual in the dub, keep in mind that it was originally done as a means to subdue the proliferation of female stereotypes.
Anyway, Airazor was actually made female for the accompanying manga series by Shoji Imaki. But, again, because there’s a very particular opinion on how women are supposed to act in Japan, Airazor lost all elements of her aggressive, gruff demeanor and was rendered a perpetual damsel in distress, constantly moaning about her “Tigatron-sama”.
The 52 episodes were also bisected into two separate series: Beast Wars and Beast Wars Metals. Beast Machines didn’t make it to Japan until 2004, where it went straight to satellite and got a release with little fanfare. Re-titled Beast Wars Returns, Yoshikazu gave it the same treatment he did Beast Wars and it was just as annoying as his previous work. Perhaps even more so, as now the Vehicon drones all had ridiculous chants they rattled off whenever they were onscreen (and they were onscreen A LOT) and it got really old, really fast. As another casualty of the evisceration of all instances of subtlety, the big fake-out where Thrust turns out to be Waspinator and Jetstorm turns out to be Silverbolt was ignored, as both Thrust and Jetstorm retained the voices and personalities of their previous identities, eliminating any ambiguity as to who they really were.
On the bright side, Beast Wars and Beast Machines remain the only Transformers cartoons to ever be released in Japan and not be cut for time. As a result, the DVD releases of both series include optional audio tracks containing the original English language track, as well as Japanese subtitles to follow along. So for any Japanese fans that foundnd the constant barrage of “Zap! Zap!” and “Pikyuu! Pikyuu!” to be aggravating, they could always switch-over to the good version of the show.
In April of 2010, Japan got Transformers Animated, and as with Beast Wars, the re-versioning of this series was led by Iwanami Yoshikazu. The Japanese version of Animated was a bizarre mish-mash of craziness and awesomeness, and while previous dubs of American Transformers cartoons lose points for being plain ole’ terrible, the dub of Animated deserves credit for being very… “unique”.
The time edits that afflicted the original Generation 1 cartoon returned with a vengeance for Animated. This time around, they had to make room not only for the longer title and credit sequences, but for a new bonus segment tacked onto the end of every episode: The Otoboto Family (more on them in a minute). So to clear space for all this new stuff, a total of three minutes had to be hacked out of every episode. When you only have 22 minutes to tell a story, 3 minutes is actually quite a bit of material to lose. While they tried to limit the cuts to thing like long background pans, crowd reactions and other things “no one would miss”, there’s only so much of that sort of thing in an episode. Certainly not three minutes of it. Just in the first episode alone, they lost character-establishing conversations (like Optimus telling Ratchet about his reservations about being a hero, Optimus revealing he used to train at the Cybertron Academy and Sari explaining she never went to school with other kids), some cool sequences (Starscream’s whole speech on the bridge of the Nemesis before the ship explodes) and even bits of comedy (Sari pulling the gum off her face and eating it).
They lost a LOT of content and none of it was restored for the DVD release, either. But was it all worth it?
Well, the newly commissioned title sequence for the series was positively gorgeous and JAM Project’s theme song, “Transformers Evo”, contained about as much hot-blooded burning justice as is possible without cremating the listener. So that was pretty sweet. But the Otoboto Family…?
They were a sitcom-style “typical Japanese family” who had minute and a half-long segments at the end of each episode where they promoted the latest Transformers merchandise, wrapping the advertisement in some sort of corny gag. On principle, I didn’t mind them so much and thought the “clash of generations” angle was pretty funny (Hiroyuki Otoboto, the father, was a fan of the original Transformers in the 80s, while Tatsuya, his son, is into that new-fangled “Transformers Animated” stuff he just doesn’t understand). Sadly, it cost an extra minute and a half of content from each episode and just wasn’t worth the exchange. Mostly, the segments were about showing the kids at home how to transform their toys, and I mean c’mon, I think kids are smart-enough to figure that sort of thing out on their own, Japan.
But the cuts didn’t stop there! In order to fit TV Aichi’s broadcasting schedule, the series needed to have an episode count divisible by 13 (as is the general practice in Japanese animation). As such, three episodes were skipped and never aired on television (“Nature Calls, “Rise of the Constructicons” and “Sari, No One’s Home”). These episodes were restored for the DVD release, though. Also, the episode order got adjusted so that episodes promoting new toys could air sooner (“Sound and Fury” aired as episode 4 rather than episode 7, for example). Edits were made to the dialogue and the footage to accommodate the new story order.
If it’s any consolation, Yoshikazu restrained himself in regard to the ad-libbing and the script was mostly faithful to the source, at least where it wasn’t hacking the footage to bits. Some Japanese pop culture references were included (such as characters talking about “Rescue Fire”, another TakaraTomy toyline, or the super villain Nanosec being renamed Speed King and becoming a Lupin III parody) and a few characters got manhandled (Bulkhead was renamed Ironhide and got dumbed down to the point of screaming “MOMMY!” whenever excited). Certain subtleties were also lost in translation; the writers decided they didn’t want to disrupt the classic Optimus Prime/Megatron rivalry, so Megatron’s inability to remember Optimus’s name throughout the series was lost, with them being arch-enemies (rather than an out of his depth new recruit facing an all-powerful ancient evil).
But if you thought having one weird new segment shackled onto the end of each episode and taking the place of actual content was bad, get ready for…
Super Robot Lifeform Transformers: Prime began airing in Japan only a few weeks ago and boy, are the Japanese in for a treat!
Taking the place of the Otoboto Family segments from Animated is “From the Cybertron Satellite, Transformers Division”. These live action segments serve the same purpose only with new window dressing. As this story goes, the Japanese all-girl pop idol group, Tokyo Girls Style, have found themselves abducted by Vector Sigma, who needs to teach them about the history of the Transformers. As they parade around a sterile room in fluffy loli maid outfits or whatever those things are, they kill a minute and a half by teaching one another how to transform the latest Transformers products from TakaraTomy.
But wait, there’s more!
Following THIS newly commissioned, tacked-on segment is ANOTHER newly commissioned, tacked-on segment. “Arms Micron Theater” features the Arms Microns (tiny robots that turn into weapons and are only available with the Japanese release of the Prime toys) coming to life in the Autobot base and learning how to Transform and do other things all while keeping their identities secret from the Autobots (who think they’re just weapons). And it’s all brought to life with the most state of the art Flash animation 1997 has to offer!
Naturally, there are longer title and credits sequences (and this theme song, “Feeling” by Bigbang, royally sucks) so guess what? Three minutes of content on the cutting room floor. The edits are actually much more intuitive this time around than with Animated and I think it has to do with the very cinematic nature of Prime allotting for more opportunities to cut environmental pans and establishing shots and things such as that. We’re only two episodes in so far, so we’ll see how that goes.
As for the voices and the script, they’re playing things pretty straight. There are some self-aware gags (at the end of episode 2, Ratchet acknowledges the existence of the child audience and says he thought he heard them yelling at him to watch his back), but it’s nothing as obnoxious as what they did to Beast Wars. With the exception of Nobuo Tobita’s Ratchet sounding way, way too young, the cast is a pretty darn good fit.
Next time some shrieking otaku Japanophile is giving you an earful about how stupid gaijin Americans are always butchering classy Japanese cartoons like Generic Boob Harem to meet BS&P standards, let them know just how respectfully the Japanese have been treating our Transformers cartoons for the past twenty-seven years. It won’t shut em up, but it might make you feel better.