There’s a long history of anime in North America – stretching all the way back to 1964 and the debut of Astro Boy at NBC. And there’s been a wealth of content exported since. Shows like Speed Racer and Star Blazers, while becoming cultural juggernauts in their own right, managed to remain reasonably faithful to the original scripts. But it hasn’t always been perfect.
It seems like as long as there’s been anime in North America, fans have debated over how faithful a shows been to it’s source material. There’s always been a rabid fan base that clamors for “authenticity” in its shows. People who will nitpick over every misplaced piece of punctuation in a sub, or refuse to listen to a dub. And while there’s a lot to be said in support of that approach, it does a lot to ignore some of the fantastic work fans and creators put forth.
There are countless examples of shows from the last four decades that were heavily edited or changed to fit American audiences. Astroboy is a good example of this even, where it was apparent to NBC that the original ending could never be aired here. Speed Racer had any number of fatal car crashes removed.
Perhaps more famously, Sailor Moon, as it was presented to American audiences, is radically different than its original Japanese incarnation. Much of the violence, nudity, and homosexuality was dropped. The entire theme of the show was changed from one of love to something closer to a straight shonen superhero romp.
At worst it’s blatant censorship. And while it will be forever disappointing that an entire generation of kids may never realize how good Sailor Moon really was originally, there’s something to be said for the show they did get. For many it was a gateway drug in the same way Astroboy was before. And it had a quality that was in some way injected through the changes DiC made at the time.
In 1995, unprepared children were introduced to Teknoman, a story of Nick Carter (not that Nick Carter), a mysterious man who is the only hope against the Venomoids and their leader, Darkon. Teknoman featured some of the best voice actors for its day, had plenty of action and great animation. But the show we got was heavily changed from its Japanese origins. Entire episodes were dropped. Scenes featuring death and alcohol were cut and the dialogue was changed, making for a far less mature experience.
But you know what? It was in many ways the superior version. Or at least that argument can be made. While some of the voice acting in either language was somewhat bland Simon Prescott as Darkon in the english version is exceptional. The sound effects for much of the weapons is improved and the theme is amazing. And while the translation certainly removes much of the nuance, it also streamlines the experience.
It’s important to remember that shows like Teknoman and Sailor Moon were the tip of the iceberg at the time. While it would be a stretch to say that the anime fanbase was coming into it’s own, there was a clear growth and desire for more. Who remembers reading photocopied transcripts along with their favorite shows? Some older anime fans prefer subs because they grew up consuming content this way. There were businesses that sprung up around the acquisition and distribution of tapes and translations. It was so prevalent that the nascent industry created an entire legal arm to deal with these fans that were rapidly tracking down new shows to import themselves, and possibly threatening the future of the industry.
And we can see that tradition carried into today, with huge communities springing up around the internet. Many subgroups have earned (rightfully) a sort of reverence from their followers for the dedication they have to properly representing a show etc. Now we have debates over whether an official translation is better than something you can find somewhere like HorribleSubs.
Is this what all cultural appropriation looks like? Because every translation is necessarily an interpretation. There are aspects of Japanese culture in anime that will (may?) never translate. At what point does it stop mattering? Do we need the racist aspects of Astroboy faithfully reproduced? Or care that Mr. Popo is blue for that matter?
The truth is that there is no easy answer, and that the industry and its community will continue to deal with the issue moving forward. The best part? That we live in a time when there’s such a wealth of content and options that we can stop to have the conversation.