An Absurdly Deep Dive into the History of 4Kids | Part 1: 4Kids as a 4Baby (1970-1997)

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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 Their use of quickly outdated slang (some slang that was more than outdated even when they used it), terrible catchphrases, over-the-top and sometimes downright confusing censorship, awful dialogue, questionable acting, rap songs, odd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.

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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.

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WMAC Masters

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.

Next – Part 2: Pokemon – I License You!


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Episode One-Derland: Tokyo Pig

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Plot: A boy named Nori realizes that he has the ability to make his imagination come to life by writing it and drawing it in his diary. When he creates a pig with this power, he furthers his abilities when the pig rams his snout into his head, allowing him to instantly create anything he imagines without the help of his diary.

Breakdown: Before I start, I want to mention that Tokyo Pig is aimed towards a pretty young audience. I’m not usually one to review shows aimed at particularly young audiences, but this one doesn’t seem like its target audience is too young to warrant aversion.

That being said, the only real way to express my feelings on this show so far is by examining the episode step by step.

We start out with a weather girl who will annoyingly be popping up about every minute or so to make pointless and not funny observations. She explains that the weather will be full of pigs today. Well, okay. I don’t think my umbrella can withstand that, but okay.

Cut to a boy named Nori (or Spencer. I think the subs might be basing themselves off of the supposedly horrible English dub sometimes) who is super excited to run home and do his homework, which is to write about the thoughts and feelings about his day in a diary. The diary won’t be read by anyone else but him, so this is one of those moot homework assignments.

Checking to see that he’s alone in the house, he writes how a strange girl in his class has been pressuring him to say that he likes her even though he doesn’t. In fact, he writes that he has no feelings for her at all and doesn’t wish to be with a girl that he feels nothing towards.

His mom and little sister burst from under his desk and in his closet claiming that they were playing hide and seek. His mother freaks out on him since she believes he was studying. She finds education to be worthless since his father also studied hard and got a good job at a company only to have the bubble burst and him end up with a title-less job at her printing plant. Yep, she is actually a mother who not only values physical labor over education but studying in her house is basically akin to doing drugs.

He leaves to go meet his friends, and his little sister discovers his diary in his desk. When he returns, his mother and sister laugh at him and mock him for what he wrote in his diary.

I would understand this if it was just the sister. Siblings just do this crap to each other. But his mom?! She’s laughing about violating his privacy and expressing his perfectly normal feelings about a girl liking him in a seemingly confidential medium. Not to mention they’re acting like he wrote that he did like her when he repeatedly expressed that he didn’t in the diary.

Look, the point of this assignment and diaries as a whole is to have a private place to openly share your thoughts, feelings and dreams without worrying about being judged. In addition to being somewhat of a cathartic experience, it helps people, kids most of all, to feel more comfortable and trusting in sharing their feelings, allowing them to create stronger relationships with people.

Taking someone’s diary and reading it, especially when it’s a young kid’s diary, is essentially shattering every benefit of using a diary. It only makes you feel less trusting of others and more closed-off in regards to continuing the diary out of fear that someone will take it and read it again.

Not really an example, but my sister forced me to write something in my diary when I first got it. I didn’t understand why, but I did it because she kept pressuring me to write it. I forget who it was about, some boy in my class I think, but she made me write “(boy) is sexy.” then she snatched it from my hands and squealed to my parents that I wrote something dirty in my diary.

I was about six years old, I didn’t even know what that word meant, and her doing that, even though I didn’t write in it beforehand, put me off of writing in a diary for many years. Which sucked because I was excited to get my first diary.

Laughing at someone for their diary entries only makes that feeling that much worse.

But I’m probably over-reacting. This is a show for little kids, right? Nori will probably have a hissy fit and run upstairs yelling about how his mom and sister are poopy-heads.

Nope.

He actually has a pretty legit emotional breakdown about his privacy being violated and having his private thoughts being mocked.

In most cases, the worst case scenario here would probably be the kid not wanting to use a diary anymore for fear of the same thing happening.

Nope.

Nori instead decides that the healthiest way to approach this problem and avoid any further “shame,” as he puts it, is by filling his diary with outrageous lies. Way to go, mom. You took away Nori’s feelings of trust, filled him with deep shame about sharing his personal thoughts and feelings and taught him that lying is the best way to avoid that shame all in a matter of minutes. Truly your parenting techniques are top-notch.

One of the lies he puts in his diary is that his mom would grow an incredibly long neck, which she actually does and, surprisingly, not a single person sees this as odd besides Nori himself. He quickly erases the entry and his drawing of it, returning his mom to normal and still leaving them thinking nothing’s odd.

Nori realizes that he manipulated reality with his diary…..somehow…..so he decides to test it again with something equally odd by writing that they’ll be having pencil tempura for dinner, which they do, and, again, no one but Nori finds this odd. His father actually ends up choking on a pencil, only for his mom to cure him by putting an eraser on a cheese grater and feeding his dad the shavings.

Freaked out yet again, Nori decides to write something even more outrageous and says the sky will be filled with pigs tomorrow. Lo and behold the next morning is mostly sunny with scattered pigs.

Yet again, no one finds this weird. The pigs, seeing Nori, cram themselves into his room for some reason. Hearing the commotion, his family comes up to investigate, stating that they won’t be happy if there are pigs in his room, which I don’t really understand. If they believe the pigs are just weather phenomenon then wouldn’t that be like getting mad that rain is coming in through the window?

He quickly erases the picture and entry from the diary, causing the pigs to vanish before his family comes up. However, he realizes that he left one pig picture in the diary and that same pig is in the room. His normally happy-go-lucky dad suddenly takes his glasses off, revealing his scary angry face that is apparently so traumatizing that the show won’t reveal it to us, and he demands that he “dump” the pig.

Nori reluctantly agrees, and he drops the pig off in front of a butcher shop. Nori, why? You were the one character consistently earning my sympathy so far. Not to mention that, while he does quickly return for it and I get the ‘joke’, this is the same kid who was having trouble leaving him period because he kept looking into the pig’s cute wittle sad eyes and feeling insanely guilty. It feels like the scene is reversed. Have him do something that drastic at first and then slowly whittle him down to ‘I can’t abandon you at all.’

Also, do I have point out the obvious question of ‘why not just erase the last pig picture?’

Frustrated, Nori thinks that he’d be able to keep the pig at home if he were a godzilla pig because no one would be able to stand up to him. The pig shoves his snout into Nori’s head, allowing him to transform into the godzilla pig Nori imagined. So now, somehow, Nori no longer needs the diary to make his imaginary ideas come to life – he just needs to be skull-stabbed by a pig snout.

Freaked out by the monster, Nori imagines fighter jets to combat him, which instantly come about. So now, somehow again, Nori no longer needs the stab to his skull to make things come to life – they just instantly do the moment he imagines them.

Everything starts getting destroyed around him, so Nori freaks out. However, he does take a minute to imagine how cool it’d be if another monster showed up to combat pigzilla. He instantly regrets this, but it’s too late and a three-pigheaded dragon emerges to fight pigzilla.

In an effort to save the town and stop imagining these things, Nori slams his head repeatedly against a vending machine until he gets knocked out….which is a pretty serious and downright dramatic way to solve this problem in this otherwise goofy and completely random show.

It does work, and the pig tries to wake up Nori to no avail. In an effort to save him, the pig goes to get Nori’s family, and they soon find and retrieve him from the park, thinking he merely fainted.

Back at home, the family reveals that the pig is now revered as a savior pig who somehow immediately has a collar even though they would’ve had no time to buy and give him one between being alerted to Nori’s condition and retrieving him. Because of this, Nori is allowed to keep him as a pet and Nori decides to name him Sunny Pig since he fell from the sunny skies. However, since his thoughts can be brought to life by Sunny Pig, he now has to keep everything a secret.

The end.

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Okay, for the most part, this partially works as a first episode. We get a good idea of the personalities of each character, and the universe that they live in is somewhat explained, though the whole thing about why and how he suddenly has these abilities is not explained at all. How is his diary magic? Is his teacher a witch or something? Is this whole ‘every thought is instantly brought to life’ power turned on with snout stab and turned off with him being unconscious?

The tone kinda flip-flops. On one hand, it’s very obviously trying to be a light-hearted comedy show. On the other hand, you have scenes like Nori reacting to his mom and sister reading his diary and Nori’s efforts to knock himself unconscious, which honestly seem more emotional and heavier than they should be or were maybe intended to be.

A major issue is that most of the characters are completely unlikable, except Nori. His mom is an education-hating, privacy violating, emotionally damaging crazy person. His sister is essentially the same as his mom, only made more annoying by her repeated phrases and her high-pitched voice.

His dad seemed pretty good until we learned he’s apparently a hard-ass who hates animals. The weather girl is completely pointless and annoying. Nori is still a very fine character, but that scene with the butcher shop won’t leave my mind. Really, the best character is the pig, which is probably why he gets top billing.

Another annoying aspect in that regard is that the family, like the overall tone, also flip-flop in their personality. Most of the time they’re complete assholes or idiots and at the end they’re a seemingly normal and happy family.

Most of the jokes simply didn’t land with me, except one joke involving trying to translate what the pig is saying. I get that the comedy here is mostly in the insanity of everything, but simply being random and insane is not enough to be funny. However, it probably is pretty funny to a young kid.

I will admit that the final scene is pretty sweet, albeit a little predictable.

The art is obviously simplistic, and while most of it is fine, several character designs are just ugly. Backgrounds have little to no detail and are roughly drawn and colored.

Verdict:

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I honestly would’ve been more inclined to continue had I not been so put off by most of the characters. I actually don’t mind the insane and non-sensical plot as it does open up a world of possibilities that are literally only limited by your imagination. However, considering the characters and the fact that the comedy just doesn’t fly very far with me, I can’t find it within myself to feel compelled to go on.


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