I’ve been consuming English dubbed anime for the majority of my life. Back when I was about nine years old, I was introduced to shows that would become landmarks in my childhood such as Sailor Moon, dubbed by DiC, Digimon, dubbed by Saban, and Pokemon, dubbed by one of the most infamous and nefarious dubbing companies known to time – 4Kids Entertainment.
Shows dubbed by 4Kids have had such an impact on me both as a child and as an adult, that it sparked my interest in comparing dubbed anime, usually aimed towards kids, with its original Japanese counterpart to see what got censored, what got changed for whatever reason, what got changed for no reason, and what got Americanized in a seeming effort to appeal to American children more so they could sell more toys and other merchandise. In fact, of the 13 shows I am currently comparing for my Sub/Dub Comparisons, six were dubbed by 4Kids. I can confirm that there would be several more if not for the fact that either the dubbed version of the other shows in question are incomplete or lost or the original Japanese version of the shows is lost or not subtitled.
To be honest, 4Kids is incredibly interesting to me as a company. The decisions they made, their edits, their weird views on kids and anime, the shows they selected, their business practices, their skeeviness, their ridiculousness, their misinformed statements, how they could go from being top in their field one minute to seemingly making the most basic mistakes the next – all of it is just so….intriguing and strange. Maybe not entirely surprising because, at the end of the day, they were a cold and calculating company who focused on their bottom line above all else, but there’s a reason that they stand out among other dubbing companies as being the worst. 4Kids definitely has their own style to dubbing outside of just being bad or kiddified. You can typically tell when a show is dubbed by 4Kids even if you have no prior knowledge of it, and that’s oddly impressive.
Over the years, 4Kids has become little more than a punchline in the world of anime. Their use of quickly outdated slang (some slang that was more than outdated even when they used it), terrible catchphrases, over-the-top and sometimes downright confusing censorship, awful dialogue, questionable acting, rap songs, odd edits, scene swaps, scene deletions, episode number restructuring, episode removals, and, of course, the birth of such memes as the Shadow Realm, hammerguns and smoking lollipops, cemented their reputation as such.
The day that 4Kids died was one many people rejoiced, but it’s hard to imagine many of their fans back in their heyday would have had the same response when they were enjoying such favorites as Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and more. How did 4Kids go from a dubbing company that had many beloved fans and was one of the largest licensing entities in North America, to one of if not the most, hated dubbing company in history that died a slow and horrifically painful death? Was 4Kids really as horrible as its reputation and many fans, even myself included, have asserted in the past two decades? Why did they do the things they did? Finally, how and why did 4Kids die?
To understand all that, we need to go back to the beginning – back to before 4Kids was even 4Kids.
4Kids started life way back in 1970 as a licensing company called Leisure Concepts Inc., also known as LCI. Formed by two of the biggest names in classic 80s cartoons and toys – Stan Weston, creator of GI Joe, and Mike Germakian, who laid the design groundwork, designed the logo and came up with the idea for Thundercats – LCI licensed many media products back in the day such as Star Wars, Thundercats, StormHawks, The Legend of Zelda and even Farrah Fawcett’s likeness.
LCI would continue to enjoy success for years, licensing a wide array of properties and making several deals with TV production companies and toy manufacturers to create numerous cartoons and toy lines based on their licenses. Their best deal was in 1987 with Nintendo of America Inc., with whom they established a full licensing deal to market software that would go with their gaming systems. Of course, the biggest benefit of this partnership would not be apparent for over a decade.
In 1987, LCI hired a new Vice Chairman and member of the board of directors – a man who would later become the father of 4Kids as we knew it while also becoming one of the most controversial figureheads in all of English dubbed anime – Alfred Kahn.
Kahn was already well-known in the world of children’s entertainment, previously being the Executive Vice President of Marketing at Coleco Industries, and being credited as the man responsible for making, of all things, the Cabbage Patch Kids a household name. In fact, once Coleco filed for bankruptcy in 1988 and the property passed on to Hasbro and then Mattel, Al Kahn once again picked the property up in 2001 in a partnership with Toys R Us to produce the dolls, other merchandise and animated movies based on the series. Cabbage Patch Kids created a steady source of income for 4Kids that would continue to be a significant part of their revenue stream up until 4Kids’ eventual death, being one of the only properties they kept as 4Licensing up until the moment even that died off.
As a result of its success, LCI started expanding in the early 1990s and started producing TV series in-house as opposed to relying on third-party production companies. At the same time, in 1991, Alfred Kahn had become Chairman, CEO and Director of LCI. This expansion and change of leadership spawned two media-based subsidiaries in 1992 – The Summit Media Group, and, of course, 4Kids Productions. The Summit Media Group was meant to handle the syndication and distribution side of any properties they acquired, in addition to media planning, buying and marketing services for toy and video game properties, while 4Kids Productions was intended to both produce its own series based on properties they had acquired and, eventually, dub and localize anime and other foreign animated series.
Around the same time that LCI had officially changed its name to 4Kids Entertainment, they also began creating their first ever show. Yes, that’s right everyone. It’s time to talk about the show that put 4Kids Productions on the map.
Yep, it might be hard to believe, but Pokemon was not the first show 4Kids Productions ever handled. In a really weird twist, the first show 4Kids managed was not only a fully in-house production of something completely new (they even created the World Martial Arts Council or WMAC that is displayed in the show) but it was also a live-action show co-created by Al Kahn with Carlin West. In addition, it had a very unique concept. It was, as many commenters and fans pointed out, exactly like real-life martial arts (with a real full cast of professional martial artists) mixed with a fighting video game and pro wrestling.
It was the short-lived 1995 show, WMAC Masters.
Each episode would have (staged) matches between the characters, each of whom having their own gimmicks and martial arts styles. The episodes would also have rough stories and life lessons for the kids. During the matches, the characters would have energy or ki meters that would go down depending on how tired they were or how many hits they took. A victor was called when one of the fighters’ energy meters was depleted. The fighters all collected disks on their dragon belts to win a chance to fight the reigning champion for the much-coveted dragon star, which indicated them as the best martial artist in the world.
In order to give the show more credibility as a legitimate martial arts show, they brought in Shannon Lee, daughter of Bruce Lee and sister of Brandon Lee, to host. Although, honestly, she looks like she’d rather be anywhere else.
I feel like 4Kids definitely got some inspiration from Saban and Power Rangers, because this show has such a strong vibe from them that I had to double check to make sure this was 4Kids and not Saban.
I was blown away by how complex this show is on paper and just how detailed the Wiki page was. There are definitely some hardcore fans of this little-known martial arts show who wrote that up.
4Kids’ first production was not without its hiccups. After season one, Shannon Lee either left the show or wasn’t called back to do season two. In addition, season two decided to focus more on action and fantasy plotlines instead of real-world martial arts, and the important life-lessons on real issues fell the wayside. It was canceled after season two, due to low ratings and poor merchandise sales, and only six episodes were ever released on VHS, but all of the episodes are available in high quality on Youtube, much to the delight of the small group of avid fans who loved the entirety of the show, even if most agreed that it started falling off in season two.
Truth be told, this definitely seems like the type of show I would’ve fallen in love with once upon a time. When I was young, like between the ages of five and seven, I went through a huge pro wrestling phase, which immediately coincided with my obsession with Power Rangers. If I had ever known this show existed, I probably would have been all over it, but, sadly, I don’t remember it ever being on TV, even though the Wiki states it was shown in syndication on 4Kids TV on Saturday mornings from 2002 to 2003.
The show ended in 1997, which meant that 4Kids had struck out on its first production venture. No matter, though, because for several years 4Kids Entertainment had still enjoyed a mass of revenue from its dealings with Nintendo, which was reaching a massive boom in popularity with the premiere of properties such as the Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and Legend of Zelda as well as their new gaming system, the Game Boy.
Oh, and, in 1996, one other game series was becoming more popular than anyone had ever dreamed in Japan. So popular, in fact, that it would only be a year before it earned its own anime.
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