So, class, what have we learned over the past 24 blog posts and 100 pages besides the fact that I desperately need a life?
All joking aside, this wasn’t really a passion project or anything, more of a long-standing curiosity that I wanted to explore, thought would just take a few days to research and write, not two months (even as all the parts were sitting in my scheduled posts queue for weeks after finishing the entire thing, I still went back and edited them many times), and wound up finding so many rabbit holes that I think I literally am a rabbit now.
However, I am very glad that I decided to write this up because it helped me understand a lot about why 4Kids was the way it was, a lot of their business practices, what was happening behind the scenes, why they truly died, and I even got to do some sleuthing and maybe clear up some rumors. Maybe you even learned something and had some fun. I hope so.
I think a big takeaway here, though, is that 4Kids, at the end of the day, wasn’t this big boogeyman of anime, when you get down to it. They were mostly just….grossly incompetent. I know it seems weird to say that of such a big name as 4Kids, but, they pretty much were. They propped up their business on a few big titles with no plan as to what they would do should those titles be taken away, they lucked out with a few huge licenses, especially Pokemon at the start, they greatly overestimated their skills and knowledge in the industry, and then whined that Japan didn’t consistently come up with more merchandisable cash cows for them to license on a regular basis as if that was in their control.
They disrespected their audience, which earned them ire, they disrespected anime and manga as a whole, which earned them ire, they disrespected their peers in the anime (and manga) industry, which earned them ire, they didn’t bother to do proper research on their own licenses before obtaining them or research into Japan and how their economy and content works despite working with their properties for years, which earned them ire, and they constantly wanted a pat on the back for doing so much for anime while also desperately not wanting their audience to know what they were consuming was anime….which earned them ire.
Even their production of merchandise and marketing, two things you’d think a licensing company that has existed for over four decades and has had several massive properties under its belt would be able to do quite well consistently, wasn’t all that good at times. From not properly advertising certain shows to supposedly not getting a toy deal for Mew Mew Power to their ridiculously spotty and frustrating release schedule for DVD and VHS releases, especially in regards to ‘uncut’ releases, to making a deal with Miramax and Harvey Weinstein for the Pokemon movies to the disaster that was Toonzaki. It’s amazing how they were both very good at marketing and advertising while also making some incredibly baffling and poor business decisions.
Some things were out of their control, of course, especially the financial crisis and the overall death of Saturday morning cartoon blocks, but many aspects of their downfall were their own doing. If you want to look at the Yu-Gi-Oh! lawsuit from a different perspective, the fact that they said they’d do anything to keep the Yu-Gi-Oh! license, including go bankrupt, was a little on the insane side. I get that Yu-Gi-Oh! was their top earner and losing the license would have been the death of them anyway, but it seems very immature and backwards to basically stamp their feet and say they’d rather kill themselves than let someone else do it. Even if they did rightfully win the lawsuit in the end, they didn’t get anything substantial from it, and they had to have known that.
I won’t really hold Chaotic’s situation against 4Kids because that was also largely out of their hands. It was just a financial gamble that failed in a time of economic turmoil. Again, even without the financial crisis at the time, Chaotic likely would have just been a fairly beneficial property to them through the rest of their years. I sincerely doubt revenue from it would have saved them from their eventual fate. They probably would have just sold it back to CUSA or someone else in the bankruptcy auction. Looking back, maybe one of the reasons 4Kids didn’t want to give up the license to CUSA was because they had injected so much of their own money into it that any offer CUSA gave probably didn’t seem like it was worth it, even though, ya know, it doesn’t make them ANY money by latching onto it forever.
I do think they also had a big issue with their all-or-nothing attitude. They were constantly dead set on finding the next huge thing – the things that would rake in insane profits and make them the top of their field – but they were very bad at long-term strategies. Let me be completely fair and clear – I don’t have a mind for business, much of it goes over my head, but even I can tell that they had a big problem with this. Even when they did say this property or another would be a big earner for years, they either dropped them early because they weren’t being massively successful immediately or they would keep the property but give up on it in spirit, so to speak, by just letting the license rot in their hands.
This reflected very well in their aforementioned attitudes towards Japan in which Al Kahn said anime and manga in Japan were dying because they hadn’t had any generation-defining merchandisable hits in over a decade, which was objectively wrong in a lot of ways. If he thinks an entire country is “over” just because their anime and manga sales were down for a bit, even to the point where he gave up on licensing anime for three years as a result, then it’s not surprising that he views his company in the same way.
This was even reflected when they tried to branch out a bit into female-oriented shows. Winx Club did well, but they had it taken from them because the creator didn’t like what they were doing with it. They gave it another go with Mew Mew Power, which also did well, but dropped it halfway through because they couldn’t get a toy deal for it. Magical DoReMi was good, but it wasn’t good enough so they dropped it. And they didn’t even dub Precure because they likely thought ‘Why bother? If there’s one thing we’ve learned here it’s that there’s no money with girl stuff.’ And then there was whatever the hell they were trying to achieve with Capsule Monsters, which comes off like they gave up on that idea almost immediately while also having no real direction on what they wanted it to be in the first place.
I do concede that a large amount of 4Kids’ edits, as with other child-demographic anime dubs at the time, were a result of FCC constraints and regulations, but I’ll only concede so far with that assessment. Yes, certain edits were necessary to meet broadcast standards, but many of their edits, such as their localization efforts, changing entire soundtracks and removal of all things text, were squarely on 4Kids. As far as I know, the FCC has no regulations about changing foreign content to better suit young American audiences. The only entity that really benefits is 4Kids. In their eyes, it made them more marketable and appealing, and the only people getting offended were the pre-existing fans who knew better, and most of those people weren’t in 4Kids’ target demo, so they didn’t care. Also, let’s not overlook the fact that some of their edits were just entirely nonsensical, and many of their content edits were still commonly present in their movies, which are not controlled by the FCC.
Let’s also not forget that many of their practices were a result of just being terribly condescending to their audience. From making things way too obvious through dialogue changes/additions, editing scenes around or even having new animation created to drive certain points home to thinking every single second of a show needed to have music or talking in it to keep kids’ attention to making mistakes in their dubs and not fixing them on purpose just because they didn’t care and then later claiming it was on purpose as a little weird Easter egg thing.
4Kids, as much as it sucks to say, weren’t entirely wrong when it came to those views, either. Looking back as fully grown anime fans, yeah, we see how bungled the dubs were for a variety of reasons, and we feel rightfully disrespected as fans, but, back when we were kids, most of us didn’t care. The fact that 4Kids, by design, made their shows to trick viewers into not thinking they were watching anime (which failed after a while) definitely had a hand there, but I can’t honestly say that my experiences looking back at enjoying these shows is in any way tarnished knowing what I know now because 4Kids, despite their backwards best efforts, helped make me an anime fan, and they wound up being a significant part of the anime boom in the late 90s and early 2000s.
I don’t attribute my being an anime fan to 4Kids because other shows dubbed by other companies, such as Sailor Moon (DiC), Digimon (Saban) and Dragon Ball and DBZ (Ocean/Funimation) and a slue of others certainly helped push me there too, but they were a big part of it. Plus, many of the shows that they dubbed are now available in high definition subbed versions (not all of them, admittedly), the ones that aren’t weren’t made unavailable or obscure because of 4Kids (It’s likely some people only know of a few obscure shows because 4Kids dubbed them once upon a time) and they also helped pioneer anime streaming options with 4Kids.tv, Toonzaki and even their Youtube channel.
4Kids isn’t even really special when it comes to them mangling their properties. As I’ve already covered in my Sub/Dub Comparison series, companies like DiC, Saban and Nelvana were awful in their own rights with similarly awful and confusing changes, but what makes 4Kids special was that they were the best damn manglers who left a trail of shows and movies in their wake. All of those other dubbing companies had rather limited libraries of anime compared to 4Kids. They wanted that kid anime market cornered, and they cornered it as much as they could. They were the kings of mangling, and I say that with legit praise because they were so much better at digital paint and editing magic than any of the aforementioned dubbing companies.
Even on Cartoon Network where they were more lax on that stuff because their anime was geared towards older kids and teens, and adults with Adult Swim, they had to make edits to suit airing. Some famous examples include Naruto and Yu Yu Hakusho. I specifically remember sloppy paint edits on Yu Yu Hakusho where you’d see the digital paint very obviously shaking as it was covering up wounds and middle fingers. And obviously there were awkward edits to replace Yusuke’s swearing. Even on Adult Swim there was some instances of editing for content. I remember Blue Gender had a sex scene hinted at in the next episode preview with a few clips between Marlene and Yuji, and it just wasn’t there in the episode on Adult Swim where it is there in the Japanese version.
This stuff happens. Sometimes, their dubs were just legitimately entertaining because the cast and writers were having a ball with the show. Their music could even be legitimately good. It was a crap shoot with them sometimes.
Speaking of the cast and crew of their shows, I really do want to emphasize that, in my opinion, they were the best parts of 4Kids. I poke fun at some 4Kids actors’ acting abilities and even just their voices sometimes, and I make fun of a lot of writing choices, but as far as I’ve seen the regular 4Kids cast and crews typically had a blast doing what they did and were proud of their work. For many of them, 4Kids productions were their first foray into mainstream voice acting work, and for some of them it was their first venture into voice acting period. They also seem to be good with the fans, happy to talk about their experiences and were understandably upset whenever a project they were working on fell through, especially in the situation with Pokemon where the rug was pulled out from under them from all angles. The main problem in 4Kids’ wheelhouse were almost always the executives, especially, yes, Al Kahn.
That being said…..there’s a reason 4Kids died when many other dubbing or licensing companies went through similar hardships and came out on the other side with their feet on the ground. As I just mentioned, 4Kids was terribly pigeon-holed. They were exclusively, well, for kids. Older kids and even teens and adults may have had a place in their audience, but their demographic was kids.
When you’re dealing with a kid demographic, you have to work in a landscape that is probably the fastest changing landscape in media. Kids grow up super fast. They outgrow Kids WB and move on to Toonami. They outgrow Toonami and move on to Adult Swim. They may not move on to other anime at all. Within a few years you have an entirely new audience of kids you have to impress with things that are new and exciting, and in the world of licensing, especially when you’re primarily licensing imported shows, you’re chained to whatever is being offered/is available in other countries.
It’s true that trying to make certain properties more fitting for newer audiences helps keep properties alive for years, just look at some of the American kids’ properties that have existed for decades without changing a whole lot, but when you’re dealing with licensing other properties that you don’t have a whole lot of creative control over, you need to find different avenues to evolve.
The thing is that they recognized this. Their problems with having few big properties holding them up and focusing on a demographic that practically demands constant change was in nearly every single financial document as concerns about their company, but they very rarely presented anything that would help solve that issue.
They did create 4Sight, which would’ve been a fantastic move to branch out into older audiences and get a more stable income stream, but, as all-or-nothing attitudes go, they pretty much went the ‘nothing’ route with 4Sight. They didn’t make any big moves with it. They barely made any small moves with it. It pretty much just sat in a corner collecting cobwebs for half a decade.
Toonzaki was a weird outlier in this regard because it’s almost like they went too far in the other direction by having a streaming site where a lot of graphic titles were offered alongside uncut 4Kids properties with no parental controls or age confirmation that I could see. This would have been the perfect project for 4Sight, but they didn’t give it to them. It was entirely a 4Kids website.
Localization is an issue too, but not fully. Yes, some references and jokes need to be changed because they just don’t translate well in English, but that usually not the problem. They were worried their audience would be put off by foreign things. Or, for some reason, an American audience would never be able to connect with Japanese characters and settings. But then again, you’ll never know if the localization is what killed it in the States either. It was largely a matter of gambling with pretty much any property 4Kids acquired.
They were also largely stuck on broadcast TV. They had trouble with releasing movies after a point, and their DVD production and sales were incredibly inconsistent and lacking, something that got exponentially worse when they attempted to release uncut DVDs. Other companies also took to TV a lot, but they tended to be better about releasing uncut DVDs. For example, people complained a lot about Naruto’s censored airing on Cartoon Network, but the uncut version was made readily available as the series aired, starting when the series premiered and completing the DVD releases when Naruto ended its run on TV.
By the time 4Kids broke out into streaming, they just handled it badly. Streaming their edited shows on 4Kids.tv? That’s great. Streaming those and some uncut stuff on their Youtube channel? Awesome. Toonzaki, however, was a great idea that was also somehow a massive mess in practice. As I mentioned, it’s just weird to have a 4Kids streaming service that had so many graphic titles with seemingly no parental blocks or age confirmations. If they were comfortable streaming uncut Yu-Gi-Oh! titles on their Youtube channel, why did they feel the need to use that as a tentpole for Toonzaki? Why not just release the episodes on 4Kids.tv, maybe with a warning or something, and keep all non-4Kids stuff on Toonzaki?
Their official promotions, few of them as there were, didn’t push it as the place to get uncut Yu-Gi-Oh! episodes, just anime in general, but literally everywhere online that’s what it was being hyped as because the little information available, again, mostly from Mark Kirk’s interview, was that it was a 4Kids website for their uncut shows for general audiences. When you don’t have any other frame of reference, that’s what people are going to run with.
They also didn’t seem to realize that just being an aggregate site for anime sourced from other websites with only Yu-Gi-Oh! titles being unique wasn’t a good long-term plan. They acted as if they’d host more stuff directly on their website in the future, but they never did. Everything was hosted from Hulu, Crunchyroll, Funimation, Viz or other places for the entirety of its life.
That’s not entirely on them since the landscape for streaming was in its infancy back then, especially when it came to licensed properties, but still. It was a decent idea sitting on a bad execution. And while it came during a time when 4Kids really needed that opportunity to grow, it also came at the worst time because this was just a year before the Yu-Gi-Oh! lawsuit. If they had a longer lifespan, maybe they could have ironed out the kinks with Toonzaki, but I really doubt it.
A part of their downfall was also the death of Saturday morning cartoons. Animated shows were no longer something only available on Saturday mornings, making their inconvenience a bother. Why would I wake up early on a weekend to catch an anime that I can watch anytime streaming? Or get on DVD later? Or catch on syndication on another network? Or why watch those shows when cartoons are constantly on Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon? Or why watch those cherry-picked kidified anime when I can watch a big variety of less edited shows on Toonami or Adult Swim, or, hell, even blocks like Anime Unleashed on G4 Tech TV?
They were also prisoners of their merchandise. They treated every property as a merchandise machine. Al Kahn and Mark Kirk said it straight out – if they can’t merchandise it, they’re not interested in it. A large portion of their money came from toys and other kids merchandise, which was also evolving at a breakneck speed as Al Kahn pointed out several times. The problem there was evaluating it improperly a good chunk of the time. I don’t really think they allowed a lot of these shows to have enough time to secure an audience before they decided the merchandise wasn’t worth it. They dropped so many shows because of merchandise when they barely had a few episodes to a full season under their belts.
Honestly, the lawsuit really was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. 4Kids was already on the ropes, they were teetering on the edge, and that lawsuit pushed them over and they couldn’t recover. If it wasn’t the lawsuit, it would have been something else very shortly, I guarantee it. It may seem overly pessimistic, but I just didn’t see 4Kids having a significant future anymore. They were consistently going down for years and could barely even glance up a few times. Either they would have died shortly on their own anyway or they would have stumbled into some miracle property that would save them from the Shadow Realm (and Tai Chi Chasers was not going to be it), and even then I can imagine that would only eek out a few more years for them. They just didn’t have the steam to go on.
At the end of the day, when everything is said and done, 4Kids was and still is an icon….an icon of what, is up to you, but it’s still an icon. Let’s be honest, we still have a blast with 4Kids shows just in poking fun at their ridiculousness, and some still enjoy them legitimately. I won’t deny for a second that, even though doing my SDCs of 4Kids shows chips away at my soul sometimes, the shows still commonly wind up being fun either because I’m legitimately enjoying it or I’m just laughing at the 4Kidsisms.
I’m not going to dance on 4Kids’ grave, but I’m also not going to mourn it. 4Kids was, somewhat fittingly, a product of its time. There’s just no way a company like 4Kids could survive today. There are too many sources of good, loyal dubbed anime, and there are plenty of kids anime that are dubbed just fine and made readily available to children because many dubbing companies today will dub a wide range of anime for a nearly endless demographic from kids to adults to every gender and across every genre. And if you don’t like dubs, subtitled anime, official or fansubs, are readily available at thousands of sources.
Maybe we could have seen an entirely different 4Kids over time, but I doubt it. Also, there was a certain charm with shows being on Saturday morning lineups that you really can’t get anymore, and I think 4Kids thrived on that one very specific area that we can’t replicate now. 4Kids cut out a niche for itself and dominated in that one area, and there just wasn’t a place for it once that niche was gone.
It’s an entirely new world for kids, and it’s not a world for 4Kids.
4Kids will always have a special place in my heart for helping me discover some of my favorite shows and helping spark my love of anime. I won’t excuse what they’re guilty of, and I won’t overexaggerate any good they did. I’ll just say “Thank you, 4Kids. As much for dying as for living.”
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