An Absurdly Deep Dive into the History of 4Kids | Part 10: One Piece in Pieces (2004 cont.)

June 8, 2004 is a day that will live in infamy. It is the day that 4Kids got the license to the anime superstar, One Piece, and created what has been hailed throughout time as the worst English dubbed anime ever.

Just the most ridiculous edits 4Kids has ever done. Cigarettes changed to lollipops, guns changed to super soakers and hammer guns, poison darts changed to poison suction cup darts, editing Luffy’s not-moving mouth to move as he’s yelling so they can have him speak dialogue, a black guy painted into a white guy, pretty much any instance of violence, alcohol etc. completely removed, the soundtrack completely changed, the Marines were changed to the Navy, the voices were grating and overly loud, and yes, the cous de gras, the One Piece rap, which, oddly, they opted to use when they already recorded and publicly screened an English translated version of the first theme song, ‘We Are!’ And that’s not even the tip of the iceberg.

One Piece also suffered the most episode skips of any other 4Kids dub. They reached episode 143 but, out of those episodes, only 104 were dubbed, leaving 39 episodes in the wind. This situation was particularly odd in that there technically wasn’t 39 episodes missing. Only 20 full episodes were removed. It’s just that the episodes were frequently edited so badly that their runtimes would be too short for airing as a full episode, causing them to use footage from the next episode to make up the slack. As a result, the next episode would be short by default and would be made shorter due to content cuts, which means they’d have to take scenes from the next episode to pick up the slack and so on and so forth. This circle of mutilation resulted in enough edits to equal 19 more episodes technically being cut. To make matters worse, only 78 of those episodes ever aired on the Fox Box/4Kids TV, although the remaining episodes did air on Toonami in the US before they shifted to the Funimation dub. (Edit: Thanks to Bluebaron on Twitter for the info regarding Toonami.)

While 4Kids’ dub of One Piece was mostly lost media for many years, there were at least 11 volumes of DVD releases of the dub, reaching episode 52 before they stopped. Despite Al Kahn teasing they’d have an uncut One Piece release, this never happened. Sometime in 2006, 4Kids would reach a new DVD distribution agreement with Viz Media to release their cut DVDs, One Piece included, but, reportedly, Viz wouldn’t participate in an uncut DVD release because they weren’t involved in the dubbing process. I don’t really see why that’s a factor, but that’s what was reported.

The remaining 52 episodes were entirely lost for several years until TV rips were uploaded and posted to the Lost Media Wiki page.

One Piece, despite being a shounen show, was still very much not in the demographic that 4Kids aimed towards. It was loaded with violence, blood, death, fanservice, drinking and much more. Japan has a much different set of views on what is appropriate for children to watch compared to America. So 4Kids choosing to dub the show was a baffling turn of events to say the least. It was either a huge oversight or they didn’t care and just wanted the super popular property in their lap.

4Kids did okay in the merchandising department with One Piece, all things considered. They had several toys, four video games and even a trading card game released with Mattel.

The word around town in regards to the blame for this situation was that Toei tricked or forced them into taking the show. In a much-referenced interview with ANN, Mark Kirk, then-Senior Vice President of Digital Media for 4Kids, claimed that One Piece was part of a bundle of shows that 4Kids was purchasing from Toei. At the time of purchase, they had not screened the show or looked up much information about it and just accepted it as part of the bulk purchase. Poor little 4Kids didn’t know that One Piece wasn’t appropriate at all for their age demographic, so we shouldn’t judge poor little 4Kids for mutilating it as much as they did. They had to. It was out of their hands.

I want to know how many people actually listened to the interview instead of just cited what was quoted on Wikis, because there’s an important note about Mark Kirk’s interview. Before he goes into details about One Piece, he specifically says that the One Piece stuff happened “before (his) time.” Meaning he wasn’t even there when One Piece was being bought and dubbed. He was hired in 2007, which was after 4Kids canceled One Piece and Funimation purchased it. One Piece was obtained by 4Kids in 2004. Meanwhile, this interview is from 2010. What he was conveying was his account based on what he had heard and that was his, directly quoting here, “Non-official take on how (he) think(s) that came to be.” He doesn’t even say that this is based on what he heard around the office or what anyone specifically told him – it’s all just his theory on what happened.

The interviewer asks him what they look for in anime they acquire. He responds that they look for shows where the license is available, they can do marketing and merchandise for the property and that, specifically, it is suitable for their demographic.

The marketing thing is supported by Al Kahn in this quote from an interview with ANN in 2005.

“We look at things such as popularity, but also if it has a merchandising component; can we license it, can we license products for it? That’s really the main issue for us… the playing pattern, if it’s popular and how it merchandises. If we can’t merchandise it, it really doesn’t have a lot of interest for us.”

Something else from that interview that’s interesting:

Because it’s not financially viable?

“That’s correct, because it’s too expensive to do the dubbing and the acquisitions because we rewrite, we re-script, we re-score. So it’s very difficult to do that if you don’t have any other revenue streams and we have to make sure we get that.”

Kirk went on to say that, since Shaman King and One Piece are both Shounen Jump titles owned by Shueisha, that the shows were, directly quoting “probably some sort of package deal.” I don’t know why he’s just assuming that. If their announcements are anything to go by, Shaman King was acquired on May 15, 2003 and One Piece was acquired on June 8, 2004. Even on the official financial reports by 4Kids themselves, Shaman King is on the 2003 report as an owned title, but not One Piece, which would later be added on the 2004 report. They also premiered a year apart with Shaman King premiering on August 30, 2003 and One Piece being aired on September 18, 2004.

In addition, while their manga were both produced and owned by Shueisha, their anime weren’t. Shaman King’s anime was controlled and produced by TV Tokyo, and One Piece’s anime was controlled and produced by Toei. The acquisition and ownership information in 4Kids’ own official documents list Toei Animation, but not Shueisha. Same thing with Shaman King – it lists TV Tokyo but not Shueisha.

The way the actual rights work is confusing, but it basically boils down to this, to my understanding. Shueisha (and Eiichiro Oda, to a degree) own One Piece‘s manga. The anime is an adaptation of the manga, meaning Shueisha sold the anime rights of One Piece to Toei. As far as I can tell, when anime/animation rights are given to a production company, no other company can be given the anime/animation rights unless the first company gives them up or the contract runs out. The animation/production company in question controls the anime side of things with little input from the manga owner besides the ability to pull the rights if the contract allows or not renew them when the contract expires.

It’s basically the same thing as a dubbing company. When a Japanese anime studio sells the rights of an anime to a dubbing company, the dubbing company has control over how they adapt and present their adaptation. In some circumstances, as we’ve gone over with Ghibli, there are restrictions baked into the contract to have certain changes approved by the original company, but that was a particularly unique circumstance and typically isn’t the norm.

As another comparison, take when someone writes a book or a graphic novel and they sell the movie rights. It’s quite common for the book/graphic novel writer to have little to no input on the movie’s production and for the movie to wind up being insanely different from the source material, in some circumstances being an ‘in name only’ adaptation. The original author still probably gets a chunk of change from the movie and any merchandise the company gets as a result of the film, but the author still can’t do much, if anything, about any decisions involving what the production company does with the movie rights outside of selling the rights to someone else. For example, that author cannot force the production company to do something like sell the foreign dubbing rights to the movie to a particular company because they don’t control the movie – they only control the book.

Toei sold the international rights to the anime to 4Kids to dub. Shueisha likely didn’t have anything to do with it because the anime technically doesn’t belong to them. They have some degree of ownership, of course, and the anime would be under their ownership if the anime production company went under or decided to not renew the license, but they don’t have nearly as much control as Mark Kirk seems to imply they have, at least to my understanding. They deal with a multitude of animation studios and production companies who make anime based on their properties, but they don’t control them, at the very least not in regards to how they sell their localization/adaptation/international rights. If it worked the way Mark Kirk is acting as if it worked, Shueisha would have to somehow force TV Tokyo to sell the international rights to Shaman King’s anime to 4Kids at the same time this deal was going on, and not only does that not make sense, but that also doesn’t seem legally plausible or ethical unless Shueisha has some very specific clauses written into their contracts, and even then the timeline still doesn’t mesh.

For another comparison, when the Yu-Gi-Oh! lawsuit was going down, only TV Tokyo, NAS and ADK were listed as the entities pursuing legal action. Shueisha also owns Yu-Gi-Oh!, but since the anime version is not technically theirs, and anti-manga 4Kids didn’t have anything to do with the manga, it wasn’t their legal battle to fight.

There are a lot of additional and strange rumors about this whole ‘bundle’ situation. People have speculated that they bundled One Piece with Winx Club, but Toei doesn’t own that, it’s not even Japanese, or Ultimate Muscle, which is from Toei but was acquired long before One Piece was on the table and was only still going purely because of 4Kids. Some people also threw out Ojamajo Doremi, Tokyo Mew Mew and Futari wa Pretty Cure, because 4Kids really wanted those properties for the sake of hooking in female viewers and took One Piece as part of the deal because Toei was desperate to get the property out, which is probably the most laughable accusation.

First of all, 4Kids would never be so desperate for female-centric shows that they’d need to enter into negotiations to also take a show they have little to no idea about. Outside of branching out a bit, they never gave much of a crap about their female audience. They were always trying to lure in young boys……That sounds terrible out of context.

If they were really desperate for more girl-oriented shows, there were tons of popular girly shows out there that 4Kids could have acquired, either in Japan or otherwise. They didn’t need to roll over to Toei just to get titles like Ojamajo Doremi, Tokyo Mew Mew or Precure. In addition, Doremi wouldn’t be licensed until November 2004 while One Piece had been licensed in June (It’s true that they had been interested in the show since late 2003, but the license dates and announcements don’t match up at all, so the bundle theory still doesn’t make sense to me.), Tokyo Mew Mew isn’t owned by Toei, so that doesn’t hold water, and they didn’t even acquire the license for Precure until 2006.

Second of all, they allegedly desperately wanted Precure, but wound up never dubbing it?

Third and most of all, acting as if Toei was desperate to get One Piece off their hands and had no other offers or choices is ridiculous. In fact, Funimation, in 2003, said they were one of the “top companies still in negotiations” for One Piece, and they reportedly even bought the rights to a domain for the sake of making a website for One Piece. And of course there was intense competition for One Piece – it’s frickin’ One Piece!

It’s suggested that, despite all of the offers on the table, they went with 4Kids because they had massive powerhouses like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, despite both faltering in popularity in the west around that time. They wanted to ensure One Piece would also be a western powerhouse, so they went with 4Kids’ offer. Funimation did have Dragon Ball Z, but at that point it couldn’t touch the popularity that Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! once had, especially in regards to merchandising, so 4Kids probably seemed more appealing in that regard.

To be fair, 4Kids reportedly did want the dub to be more loyal than usual, which is why most everyone retains their names and they were going to use an English version of the Japanese theme song and keep the score. It’s also why Al Kahn seemed to be adamant in telling everyone that two versions of the show (the TV cut and the non-released uncut versions) would be two completely separate entities that needed to exist alongside each other.

Reportedly, the intense localization changes were mostly done on Toei’s behest because they thought that was what American audiences wanted, which is weird to insist upon 4Kids of all people, but I really don’t know if I believe that. Then you have the whole supposed ordeal with 4Kids being put off by how their less-edited version of Shaman King was received to take the same risk with One Piece. Again, hardly any of this is substantiated to any degree. It’s mostly rumors and accounts from people who say they know people in the know who paraphrase from other people who might be in the know.

For example, according to someone named ‘Sam’ in the music department at Toei, which is someone this random banned person on a forum supposedly knows, they were shocked fans liked the original Japanese music and thought they’d like 4Kids’ score and theme song more, implying that either Toei made them use a new soundtrack or 4Kids greatly convinced them that kids liked the dub version better. Considering Al Kahn said he liked the rap better and thought it would be more popular, and I can’t imagine they can be legally forced by Toei to make a new soundtrack, unless it was some weird insanely specific part of their contract, I’m going to assume it was the latter.

Kirk then went on to say that 4Kids, at the time, probably overlooked the content issues because they believed that no anime could really be successful unless it was a kids’ anime because merchandising, toys etc. No company in America, at the time, would even consider making toys or other merchandise for anime unless it was aimed towards kids. They saw that Japan had toy lines for One Piece and just made the assumption that it was suitable for their audience before even looking at a frame of the anime. They didn’t take into account that Japan, is, shockingly, a different place with a different culture and different standards of content for various age groups where anime has been popular for decades.

The interviewer talks about how there’s beer and guns in episode two, but you don’t even have to watch that far. For god’s sake, the opening narration of every episode is Gol D. Roger’s last words before he’s skewered to death in his public execution. Granted, they don’t show the execution, but that should at least be a hint for them.

Did they seriously sign a contract to dub five seasons of One Piece without understanding anything of what it was? In any other show that they’ve acquired, they never had any problems dropping them. They dropped Fighting Foodons, Ultraman Tiga, they’ll go on to drop Mew Mew Power, Yu-Gi-Oh GX, Yu-Gi-Oh 5Ds and F-Zero GP Legends all without a single issue. If Precure is any indication, you can license a show and just not dub or air it at all. Why is One Piece different? Why would 4Kids make that big of a commitment, allegedly, for a show they didn’t screen? It just screams incompetence, if this is true.

In my opinion, I think 4Kids paid a ton of money for that license, took way too long to realize they screwed up, and they simply wanted to try and make back as much money as possible before they ultimately decided to pass the baton and get out of that sinking ship. The way I see it, they were more trapped by a desire to not lose their massive investment than they were by Toei and their contract of doom. Remember, once that license money is out, it’s out, it’s gone. That is Toei’s money now. If 4Kids really did quickly realize the mess they got into and wanted out immediately, they’d lose all that money. And this was the license for One Piece, of all things, and they were competing against Funimation, who obviously really wanted it. I can only imagine how much money they put down for that. That’s the only theory that makes sense to me given everything I’ve learned.

If you don’t take my word for it, take Al Kahn’s.

In that same interview with ANN in 2005, he said that, because Japanese titles are so expensive to acquire, they have to be “extremely selective” about the shows that they buy. This was after they had bought One Piece, which comes off to me like they weren’t careful in their selection beforehand and had already learned that lesson the hard way.

They also had options that would have allowed them to be more free in regards to editing. For example, a good argument was made by Theron Martin of ANN where they talked about how Naruto, which was airing around the same time as One Piece on Cartoon Network, wasn’t nearly as changed or censored as One Piece. They just slapped the Fox Box complete cut version of One Piece on Cartoon Network when you can get away with a lot more on Cartoon Network.

Of course, there were obviously still gore/blood removals, painting over Naruto’s Sexy no Jutsu boobs and stuff like that, but for the most part, pretty much everything else was left alone like the dialogue, the story, the soundtrack, the personalities, the names (which, admittedly, were also kept in One Piece, barring the fact that people like to complain about the Zoro/Zolo thing, which is pointless because Japanese doesn’t differentiate between L and R sounds) the text on screen, the Japanese voices and vocals in their theme songs etc. Naruto became a massive success in the west despite not doing all of the localization stuff 4Kids claimed was necessary to earn success in the west. And they had roughly the same demographic.

I would argue even further for Yu Yu Hakusho. That could be a pretty brutal anime at points. It has legit made me cringe at some of the graphic things they’ve put in the show. That also aired on Cartoon Network on Toonami, and while it was very obviously edited for certain things, again, it was largely left alone otherwise. Yu Yu Hakusho became a very popular title on Cartoon Network, and it ran in reruns for years, even rerunning again, uncut, on Adult Swim numerous times,

One Piece aired in syndication on Cartoon Network just months after it premiered on the Fox Box, which just makes me wonder why 4Kids didn’t opt to make a deal with Cartoon Network to have it premiere on Cartoon Network. If they knew that Fox’s standards and practices were too constricting for a show like Shaman King, and they knew One Piece was a similar situation by that point, why would they opt to cut the show to ribbons in an effort to adhere to policies more firmly than just find a different network to air it on? It’s not as if having a commitment of any sort to the Fox Box was a big deal….they OWNED the Fox Box. Toonami was insanely popular at the time, and they were always looking for new hit shows to have on their block. They probably would have loved to boast that they had the national premieres of One Piece.

The only reason I can think of as to why they didn’t choose to do that is none else but money. 4Kids would get more money if they premiered the show on their block first, theoretically. And they weren’t going to bother spending more money to have a lessened cut for Cartoon Network syndication, so One Piece basically had to be mutilated on all airings.

Some people may argue that Toei was probably a part of that, like they were somehow controlling what network they could premiere it on too, but I don’t buy that. I additionally doubt that they knew enough about American television networks to make an informed decision about that anyway. And if they did, they probably would have been fine with premiering it on Cartoon Network since their ratings numbers for 2003 and 2004 were breaking records. That’s not to say Kids WB and the Fox Box weren’t also doing well, because they were, but there’s absolutely no reason why Toei would care about what network the show premiered on.

Kirk also believes that when it came down to it, after everything was said and done, after the backlash had gotten really heated, there was supposedly two camps in 4Kids – one that basically couldn’t care less about the people complaining because those people weren’t kids, they weren’t their demographic, so who cares? The other “cared” so-to-speak in regards to the reputation of the company because those complaining people were loud, they had platforms in which they could reach thousands or millions of people, and they could easily damage the company’s reputation if this went on for too long. Eventually it just came down to which camp was really right. And, in the end, the camp that “cared” won out, so they decided to just wade through the rest of their contract, which was set to expire in August 2009, until they could shift the rights elsewhere.

That’s not what happened, though. 4Kids announced they were canceling One Piece in December of 2006 and Funimation picked it up in April of 2007, meaning 4Kids must have wiggled out of their contract early somehow, which would be unlikely if this truly was a case of them being trapped….Weird how he doesn’t mention that 4Kids had the option to cancel it, and didn’t, in fact, wait out the contract expiring. It’s almost like he doesn’t know much about what he’s talking about. Not as a sleight to him, because he admitted this is just his own theory about something that happened when he wasn’t there and has no given sources of any information regarding this.

If you want a little extra proof that he doesn’t really know much of what he’s talking about – in that interview with ANN, someone on Twitter asked about what happened to Tokyo Mew Mew/Mew Mew Power. He said that was also “before (his) time” (It was one year after One Piece had been picked up) so he had no idea. He said he’d have to ask someone and get back to them later, which never happened. I’m not saying he knows nothing, he obviously knows some stuff because he works there, but I’m saying his knowledge on literally anything that preceded his hiring doesn’t seem like something he’s actually asked about within the company or researched much himself, so I’m not sure how much of it you can really accept as an adequate or accurate explanation.

I’m also not saying I know more than he does as I also wasn’t in the board room of 4Kids when they acquired the One Piece license nor have I ever worked for the company or in the industry. Admittedly, I could be totally wrong about all this. I’m just also making my own theories based on the facts that I have, but those facts contradict Kirk’s claims very substantially.

Plus, I understand he’s obviously been pressured to talk about this. Apparently, the interviewers avoided numerous tweets in their Twitter Q&A for him because they were hostile, most likely about the One Piece stuff, and the one One Piece-related question they did let through was asking if Al Kahn/4Kids would ever offer a former apology for what happened with One Piece (He skirted around that question more or less). However, it probably would have been better for him to not say anything, because now I just feel like 4Kids was trying to cover their ass and put everything on other people.

According to Mark Kirk, he believes the One Piece fiasco was the main reason why 4Kids’ reputation was ruined, and that, if you took One Piece out of the equation, people would have been much more understanding to 4Kids and what they seemingly had to do in regards adapting everything else. Obviously, this is more than a bit optimistic, as the interviewer points out. 4Kids’ reputation had been terrible way before One Piece, and more shows after One Piece would ruin it more.

He didn’t really change his stance after that, but he did mention that the situation with One Piece most likely would never happen now (IE: 2010) because, in his personal experience with 4Kids and the way they licensed properties after the One Piece ‘incident’ was very professional. They vetted stuff more thoroughly, they did more research, and they were just overall more careful after that.

Kirk denies that 4Kids was being really sloppy and poorly researched what they were purchasing, which sounds really contradictory to what he was saying before. He basically just puts the blame on the fact that they were new to licensing anime, which they certainly weren’t by that point. They had around six years of experience licensing anime and decades of experience licensing tons of other properties, so I don’t believe that for a second. According to him, they were “stuck” with One Piece, so they decided to “do the best they could” until their contact was up and they could drop the show, which I already explained doesn’t line up with what actually happened.

The interviewer then asks if the people at 4Kids feel regret for what happened with One Piece. Mark Kirk starts saying that there’s “been so much turnover here” before stopping himself. Probably because saying “Oh there’s such a high turnover rate at 4Kids that hardly anyone who was there when the One Piece fiasco started is there anymore to show any regret.” is a little bit of a bad idea. I can’t be sure that’s what he was about to say, but it sounded like it. He added that he didn’t ask Al Kahn or any other higher ups about it or anything, and they’re always looking forward to what’s next instead of back at things like One Piece.

That comment also adds a little more validity to him not really knowing much about this situation because, if there’s so much turnover and hardly anyone who was there when the One Piece incident was going on was still there in 2010 or even briefly after the show got canceled, and he stated he didn’t ask Al Kahn or any other executive, then even if he did ask someone lower on the food chain about it, chances are they either didn’t know much about it or they weren’t there either and all they know about it is public word of mouth or rumors around the watercooler. And if they always look forward and don’t like talking about the past, then it probably hardly ever comes up in the first place.

Then Kirk brings up the fact that there were other offers on the table for One Piece since it was clearly a hot commodity. 4Kids basically thought they had to act immediately in order to beat out other companies, so rushing was also a factor in this mistake.

Yup. He pointed the very obvious that I talked about earlier. Something that directly contradicts his ‘bundle’ theory. They weren’t desperate to find dubbers and needed to negotiate with 4Kids to force them into taking One Piece. Toei just made a crappy decision most likely based on ‘Ooh One Piece could be the next Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh!’ As for Toei controlling how they dealt with the dub, there’s a reason I don’t buy that much. If Toei really wanted 4Kids specifically because they were the holy gods who made Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! western hits, why would they insist on micro-managing everything as some people claim?

From the best I can tell, Toei took the leap with 4Kids, hoping it would be this larger-than-life massive franchise in the west, while 4Kids took a chance with either a show they knew wasn’t in their demo and didn’t care or they didn’t know and didn’t care because ‘Ooh look at how popular and merchandisable it is in Japan’ and then gave it the ol’ college try afterwards to save their bank account as much as possible and maybe even profit a bit. After a while, I can imagine Toei regretting giving 4Kids the license just as 4Kids probably regretted taking it while they were in a panic trying to make it work, which was like trying to stop a dam from bursting by putting Silly Putty over the cracks. And after a while I can see Funimation laughing in the background while they put on sexy lingerie ready to seduce Toei the second the licensing agreement was cut short.

In the end, 4Kids is certainly most at fault, but there are also other factors here, most notably Toei, that share the responsibility for the disaster of One Piece’s first dub. It was a dumpster fire, let’s not mince words, but everyone learned from it, even if 4Kids kinda learned too late and should’ve have learned long before they even got the license. One Piece certainly didn’t suffer for it, when you think about it (If anything, a greater appreciation for the original series and desire to see it done justice in the west developed quite quickly. One Piece is doing amazingly now. 4Kids was just a battle scar.) and we can all still make jokes about it.

Phew, we’re finally through that shit storm. Thank god 4Kids didn’t have another big embarrassment in 2004…..

Next – Part 11: Playing Their Cards Wrong

Previous – Part 9: Be Careful What You Wish For


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