In 2001, the anime market was quite limited in the US. Despite Pokemon being one of the key reasons behind the biggest anime boom in the west, eventually leading to anime more or less becoming mainstream years later, there still wasn’t a lot of anime being offered on TV at the time. Some anime was being offered on niche cable channels, and others were offered on VHS and DVD, but weren’t really advertised or pushed all that much in stores. There wasn’t much anime that was shown on TV on easily accessible channels, but the titles that were out there had their loyal fans, even if it had been extremely westernized.
One of the most notable examples being Sailor Moon, which debuted in North America back in 1995 by DiC Entertainment. They later got the rights to also show the second iteration, Sailor Moon R, in 1997. However, DiC did not pursue future series because it was not deemed financially viable after the first two series underperformed. DiC also didn’t seem particularly interested in the anime market, having only two other anime dub jobs under their belt after Sailor Moon’s first two series – Speed Racer X in 2002 and Knights of the Zodiac in 2003.
Speed Racer X, originally known in Japan as Mach GoGoGo was a flop in every sense of the word. Not only did it only air on a block on Nickelodeon that was so obscure even I, who was a complete Nickelodeon obsessed nut at the time, don’t remember at all, SLAM!, but it also failed to get an audience because they were only able to air 13 episodes before needing to pull it due to a lawsuit between DiC and the American company Speed Racer Enterprises – a company dedicated entirely to the American licensing and management of Speed Racer.
Knights of the Zodiac, originally known in Japan as Saint Seiya, also didn’t do very well, leading DiC to give up on the series after 40 episodes, despite having the authority to dub at least 60 of the episodes. Knights of the Zodiac and Sailor Moon would contend with 4Kids for having some of the most butchered dubs in existence, and Knights would also go down in history as having what I believe is the most confusing English dub theme song change ever by having Bowling for Soup do the opening theme – a cover of the A Flock of Seagulls song, ‘I Ran.’
In the other corner, you had Nelvana, who had dubbed another beloved shoujo anime in the States – Cardcaptors (Cardcaptor Sakura) – in 2000. Nelvana would fare a bit better with their dubs, despite being similarly butchered, specifically Cardcaptors, and even more specifically the Kids WB airing, which had somehow taken the butchered series and required broadcast edits that made it even worse. The directive in this situation was an effort to do everything in their power to make the series more oriented towards young boys instead of girls.
Nelvana would go on to dub Medabots, almost the entire Beyblade franchise (until 2016 when ADK Emotions NY, Inc. would obtain the rights), and the entirety of Bakugan.
4Kids’ seeming biggest rival in the anime industry, kids’-wise anyway, at the time was Saban Entertainment, who had been dubbing old anime since 1985 – over a decade before 4Kids would throw their hats into the ring. Since 1980, Saban had been making a huge name for itself in children’s media – whether producing it in-house or localizing anime and foreign live-action shows, particularly tokusatsu shows.
Saban had already become quite famous with its breakout hit, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, which was both an in-house live-action production and a localization since a lot of the footage used was from the tokusatsu show, Super Sentai.
In addition, they enjoyed a good degree of success by being the distributor of the first two seasons of Dragon Ball Z, which was being dubbed by Funimation and Ocean Productions, and was supposedly the reason why the Ocean dub was so mangled. Still, Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z had staked claims for themselves as being some of the most popular anime series in the west in the late 90s and 2000s and helped make Funimation one of the most successful English dubbing companies around.
Saban had many imported titles that were financially successful. In 1999, Saban launched the English dub of one of Pokemon’s biggest competitors – Digimon – even though the company reported in 1998 that were intending on leaving the children’s television syndication business.
If 4Kids really wanted to reap the full benefits of anime in North America as a whole, and if they really wanted to stake a claim as being the top dog in the world of licensed children’s media, they needed more than Pokemon. Whatever they chose would have to have comparatively similar levels of success locked in. Luckily for them, a new cash cow would wander onto their farm soon enough.
Yu-Gi-Oh! was a manga written and illustrated by Kazuki Takahashi in 1996. While it took quite a while for the manga to find its footing, it skyrocketed in success when it did, especially once it toned down its horror elements and became more geared towards kids while still keeping a darker mystique about it that made it more appealing to slightly older audiences.
Yu-Gi-Oh! already had one anime under its belt in 1998, fan-titled as Season Zero, but that was based more on the stories told when Yu-Gi-Oh! was more horror/older audience oriented. Not only did 4Kids never pick it up, but it and the 1999 movie that was produced from it were never dubbed at all. When the manga had a soft reboot to better fit this lighter-hearted and kid-oriented new direction, titled Yu-Gi-Oh!: Duelist, a new anime series was launched in Japan in 2000 to mirror it, Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters.
The series was the perfect target for 4Kids. It was already becoming a major franchise in Japan, it obviously had massive marketing potential for not only toys but also a nearly endless supply of trading cards, and it was geared towards only a slightly older audience than Pokemon’s – meaning that they could keep many of their old Pokemon fans, particularly older boys, hooked into their shows for a while longer if they had started growing out of Pokemon. Likewise, the Japanese consortium who controlled Yu-Gi-Oh! in Japan, TV Tokyo and Asatsu-ADK, the latter of which owning the subsidiary, Nihon Ad Systems, which produced and owned the anime, found 4Kids to be a preferable dubbing company to take the series to North America, considering its good merchandising numbers, general demographic and their success with Pokemon.
And so, on September 29, 2001, already having been primed with a slue of teasers and early access Yu-Gi-Oh! cards in select hobby stores, 4Kids launched the premiere of Yu-Gi-Oh! and a new surge of success for 4Kids started. Yu-Gi-Oh! quickly became an insanely successful hit, especially alongside trading card sales that were only increasing in demand every single day.
The anime required more editing than Pokemon to make it suitable for their intended audiences. They removed darker themes, anything sexually suggestive in the slightest and any instance of implied nudity, even skimpy clothing, instances of violence, gambling, guns and alcohol and any references to death. It was also the dub that spawned the popular meme of saying someone who had died had really just been ‘sent to the Shadow Realm.’ as that was a common method 4Kids used of covering up nearly any death or threat of death in the show.
However, Yu-Gi-Oh! would enjoy a brief and rare stint where they had uncut DVD releases, not only with a full English dubbed version of the uncut and unaltered episodes, but also with an uncut Japanese version with subtitles. The only other 4Kids show to get this treatment was Shaman King.
Even when they did release uncut DVDs, they still tended to be bungled a bit. For example, they changed Katsuya Jonouchi, who was changed to Joey Wheeler in the cut dub, to Katsuya Joey….Yeah, his last name is Joey. What’s even funnier is Serenity. Her name, at least the first, is kept, which begs the question of if her name is Serenity Joey. Also, during her video tape message to Joey, she calls him Joey, which means she’s calling her brother by their last name?
Every other character kept their English names, like Tristan and Tea. Joey’s situation would imply that they changed half the names of characters to be both of the versions’ first names, which might mean Tristan is supposed to be Hiroto Tristan and Tea is Anzu Tea, but as far as I saw Joey’s the only character whose name changed at all. Mai Valentine, Weevil Underwood, Rex Raptor, Maximillion Pegasus – everyone’s names are their Americanized versions, which is quite weird because the uncut dub was also noted as being almost too direct of a translation of the original script, creating some awkward dialogue and speaking patterns, but for some reason they didn’t find it worth it to revert anyone’s names back to their Japanese version, except Joey’s, and that’s only kinda?
According to Mark Kirk, Senior Vice President of Digital Media for 4Kids starting in 2007, the reason they kept the card names as their American versions was for the sake of consistency. It was a business decision, as he put it, so that people could follow along with the duels more easily with their own cards. Fair enough, but why did they keep the character names the same as their cut dubbed versions? Why does that matter? Did they think audiences would get confused?
Sadly, however, while the cut version eventually got a full DVD release, the uncut DVD releases would stop at volume three, ending on episode nine. According to rumors, this was due to 4Kids’ concerns about having the DVD releases clash with the releases of the cut version DVDs. It’s true that Al Kahn at one point said they staggered the DVD releases of the uncut and cut versions to not affect the separate sales, but if that was in place then that would indicate that their sales didn’t clash and wouldn’t be the cause of the eventual cancellation. Even if they didn’t stagger the releases, I wouldn’t see how clashing release dates would affect sales. Anyone who wants the uncut version will buy the uncut version, and anyone who wants the cut version or doesn’t care will just buy the cut version or either one.
I think the real reason they stopped releasing uncut DVDs after a while was because it was expensive to call everyone back to rerecord nearly every line. For the most part, 4Kids was paying to have the same episodes recorded twice while also paying to have the script rewritten. I don’t know how much money the uncut DVDs were bringing in, but I doubt it was enough for them to justify continuing to do that.
This is all speculation on my part, however. The best I can come up with as support for this theory is that the 2005 report does note that television and film production/distribution sales were down 17% partially due to Yu-Gi-Oh!’s domestic home video sales decreasing, but that’s about it.
Lance Heiskell, a representative at Funimation, who was helping 4Kids with the distribution of the DVDs, reportedly said there were legal issues preventing the uncut release (something corroborated by Mark Kirk in 2010, but he wasn’t with the company when this happened so I’m not sure it’s 100%). What these legal issues were, I have no idea. Future fans speculated that there were contract issues with Yugi’s original Japanese voice actor, Shunsuke Kazama, but that doesn’t make much sense.
Yes, it’s true that the Japanese episodes were removed from 4Kids’ Youtube page because Kazama decided not to renew his contract with ADK, and they accidentally caused a bunch of rights issues with the show as a result. However, this went down in 2009. The DVDs were canceled in 2005. They even had two more volumes set to release in April and May of 2005 with cover art and a release date out for volume four, but they just never released them or continued the project.
There was another claim that it was because the relationship between 4Kids and Funimation was dissolving at that point, but why it was dissolving, I don’t know, and why that fully matters, I don’t know. They could just find another company to help with the distribution and whatnot. Maybe it was a combination of all of these factors – they all seem to have a degree of validity to them. We’ll likely never know for certain.
The projected success of Yu-Gi-Oh! coming after the success of Pokemon was not only good for 4Kids in that they had a whole new franchise to piggyback off of for years, but it was also a positive sign that anime was indeed on the rise – meaning they were interested in seeking out more titles to dub.
For instance, in that same year, 4Kids dubbed Tama of Third Street: Have You Seen My Tama?, which they titled Tama and Friends.
Never heard of Tama and Friends? Neither have I.
Part 6: 4Kid—
Oh fine. There really isn’t a lot of information on this show, either original or dub. It’s a show about a bunch of chibi cats and dogs doing random things. In 1999, 4Kids just rather randomly got the rights to dub it, they did, it ran in syndication in the US in 2001, never on Kids WB or anything, never got a home video release, and I never remember seeing it all.
Still, their interest in dubbing new titles would spawn an entire catalog of anime that would impact the world of anime and anime fans….4Ever.
….Get it? Because the next part is 2002, and that’s when…Pokemon……4…..*cough* Nevermind.
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