The news that Japanese animation is made in Japan will shock nobody today in 2014. But before the 1990s, many American TV executives were paranoid about viewers realizing that any programming was not “made in America”, especially animation for children. There could be parental complaints that children were being brainwashed with un-American ideas. (And there undoubtedly would have been. Look at all the post-1990s and current complaints about Disney’s release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away animated features; that they are “promoting witchcraft”.)
I have personally experienced this. In 1984, I was part of a production team led by producer/director William Winckler to turn Tatsunoko Productions’ 1975 Tekkaman, the Space Knight into an American TV cartoon show. When we were developing screen credits, I asked to be listed as Translator or Adapter. No, Winckler said; I would be the Writer, and none of the original Japanese credits would be shown. If any TV executive realized that Tekkaman was not an American production from start to finish, nobody would buy it. (Almost nobody bought it, anyway.)
Tekkaman, the Space Knight. (Begins after 24 seconds of black).
To some extent, Americanization is unavoidable. Most obviously, the Japanese dialogue has to be translated into English. But there are often Japanese cultural references that have to be removed. This goes back to Astro Boy in 1963. Astro Boy’s wise old mentor is Professor Ochanomizu, the head of the Ministry of Science. That is clearly Japanese/meaningless, so he was given an American funny name: Packadermus J. Elefun; a reference to his big nose.
However, Ochanomizu is not just a Japanese name; it is a reference. The Ochanomizu district of Tokyo is where Japan’s first Western-style university was established in 1875, and it is still known for the number of institutes of higher learning in its area. Calling the character Prof. Ochanomizu is a reference to his erudition. An equivalent American name might have been Prof. Harvard P. (for Princeton) Yale. But Packadermus J. Elefun is just a gag reference to his exaggerated schnozz.
The classiest job of Americanization, or at least of internationalization, may have been in the adaptation of Space Battleship Yamato by Claster Television in 1978-’79. Of course, the main job was accomplished by renaming the program as the generic Star Blazers. But this was the first anime TV series whose American adapter undertook to keep it in serial format, rather than re-editing so that the episodes could be shown in any order. When Jungle Emperor/Kimba the White Lion was produced in Japan in 1965, NBC insisted that it be written so each episode was independent of the others instead of the whole program being a single serialized story. More specifically, when the World War II Japanese battleship Yamato is resurrected in episode #2 of Star Blazers to be rebuilt as a spaceship, the new dialogue acknowledges that this is the Yamato; but quickly renames her the Argo after the earliest ship known in ancient Greek days, since she now represents all Earth.
The most unobvious job of Americanization may have been in the adaptation of Beast King GoLion into Voltron: Defender of the Universe. GoLion included 52 episodes, and it plus Voltron’s inclusion of the 52 episodes of Armored Fleet DaiRugger-XV left the American producer, World Events Productions, with enough flexibility that whole episodes could be left out if necessary – such as episode #20 of GoLion, “Goodbye Earth”, in which Earth is totally destroyed by the villains. World Events had employed the usual editorial practices to tone down violence, such as, when one of the GoLion team was killed, having the dialogue say, “He’s been wounded. He’ll have to spend some time in the hospital.” – and assume that viewers would not realize that he never came back from the hospital. But the GoLion episodes of Voltron proved to be so popular that World Events commissioned the Japanese producer, Tōei Dōga, to make twenty new episodes, in which a dead leading character does “return from the hospital”, after all; “proving” that he had not been really dead.
Voltron was so popular that World Events Productions tried to import another Japanese animated TV series and edit it into an American TV cartoon program. This was during the success of animated “space Westerns” like Filmation Associates’ BraveStarr and Gaylord Entertainment Company’s The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. So World Events picked Studio Pierrot’s semi-humorous Bismarck, the Star Musketeer (Sei Jūshi Bisumaruku, 51 episodes, October 7, 1984 to September 25, 1985) to do the same thing, as Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs.
Craig Miller of Wolfmill Entertainment, the Hollywood company subcontracted by World Events, has described the problems associated with the Americanizing. Bismarck features a very distinct international team of teenage heroes: a Japanese racecar driver, Shinji Hikari (red); a Scottish aristocratic champion fencer and horseman, Richard Lancelot (black); and an American cowboy, Bill Wilcox (blue). They are accompanied by a French 15-year-old mechanical prodigy, Marianne Louvre, who helps design the Bismarck giant robot. The team dress to emphasize their nationalities. Although the three are supposedly equals, it is obvious that the Japanese teen is the leader. He makes all the important decisions, and the others defer to him.
Firstly, World Entertainment wanted to make the American rather than the Japanese teen the leader of the team. Miller explained that this wouldn’t work. It was more than a matter of writing new dialogue. The “body language” of the animation made the Japanese teen the leader. The American was clearly a “best friend” follower rather than a leader. World Entertainment conceded that the cowboy was not leader material, but insisted that it was impossible for a Japanese to lead the team. Go with the Briton, then. He was an acceptable substitute, and was already a rather aloof aristocrat. Miller said that this meant writing a lot of dialogue where Shinji, renamed Fireball (for the Rising Sun on his costume), would step forward and say, “Saber Rider (the renamed Richard) wants me to tell you that …”, instead of Saber Rider speaking for himself.
Secondly, the setting is the New Frontier, pioneer planets that just happen to look like Old West towns, inhabited by Earth settlers. The galactic government is Cavalry Command, which builds the RAMROD spaceship/giant robot and commissions the Star Sheriffs. The Star Sheriffs’ mission is to patrol the New Frontier in the RAMROD and protect the Earth settlers from the evil alien Outriders from the Vapor Zone dimension. When RAMROD is configured into its Challenge formation, it yells its battle cry, “Head ‘em up, move ‘em out! Power stride and ready to ride!” Every New Frontier world has a saloon, and the Star Sheriffs often stop in for a little drink in anticipation of a fight or a victory celebration afterwards. World Entertainment ordered that it be made clear that the Star Sheriffs were NOT drinking alcohol. So the dialogue has them drinking milkshakes, even though the animation shows them getting progressively tipsy on those milkshakes. (Obviously drunken scenes were edited out.)
The prize for the most brutal job of Americanization has to go to Sandy Frank Entertainment for its adaptation of the Japanese Science Ninja Team Gatchaman into the American Battle of the Planets. This just happened to come along right after the first Star Wars movie in May 1977 was a smash success. Every American TV executive wanted a similar boys’ space-adventure TV series – and there weren’t any. Not American-made, anyhow, and any foreign-made TV cartoons were considered too violent by the standards of the times.
Enter Sandy Frank. He was aware of Tatsunoko Pro’s 1972-1974 TV cartoon titled Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman, literally Science Ninja Team Gatchaman; in better English, Gatchaman, the Scientific Ninja Team. It had costumed superheroes, an international criminal organization, and lots of sci-fi action. It was much too violent for American TV, but it had 105 episodes. A similar American boys’-adventure TV cartoon program was considered successful with only 65 episodes. Sandy Frank figured that he could edit the 105 Japanese episodes into at least 65 episodes acceptable for American TV.
American TV wanted an outer-space program, and Gatchaman was set on Earth, but almost every episode had the Gatchaman team racing to a different locale around the world to confront the evil Galactor organization that was trying to seize control of Earth’s natural resources. Sandy Frank felt that with rewriting and editing, and a bit of new animation showing a spaceship flying in interplanetary space, he could turn the program into one about a human-settled galaxy that is menaced by alien invaders, with a team of Earth superheroes flying to a different planet each week to stop them. So he licensed the American rights to Gatchaman for thirty years, advertised to the American TV market that he had a Star Wars-type cartoon series titled Battle of the Planets, and sold it in enough syndication markets that he could afford to start his editing.
The Gatchaman superheroes became the “G-Force”. The Galactor international criminal gang (which was secretly controlled by a rarely-seen alien General X, viewed only on a TV communication device) became invaders from the planet Spectra, with their local human henchmen. The visible lead villain, hermaphroditic Berg Katse, became the all-male Zoltar, with the character’s rarer unmistakably feminine appearances passed off as Zoltar’s seldom-seen twin sister. The new footage of the Phoenix spaceship flying through space allowed Sandy Frank to claim that each episode was set on a different recently-colonized planet. It turned out that so much violence had to be edited out of some episodes that new animation was necessary to bring them back to half-hour length. This was fine from the point of view of making Battle of the Planets look even more interstellar. A robot similar to Star Wars’ C3PO and R2-D2 was added, 7-Zark-7, who had a robot dog, 1-Rover-1. Sandy Frank took the additional liberty of turning one of the Gatchaman team, the kid sidekick Jinpei, into a robot, Keyop, who only spoke in electronic bleeps and whistles. This eliminated the expense of translating a main character’s Japanese dialogue.
(Although extremely far-fetched, it is impossible to not suspect some connection between the names of Berg Katse and Burg Katz, Katz Castle in Germany, built in 1371; a historic landmark today. The creator of Gatchaman, Japanese manga artist and Tatsunoko Pro’s founder Tatsuo Yoshida, was notoriously fond of puns and in-group references. The first episode of Gatchaman was broadcast in Japan on October 1, 1972, and the French-language Yoko Tsuno mystery-s-f comic-book adventure, The Devil’s Organ, set in Berg Katz, was serialized in Le Journal de Spirou beginning in February 1972. So it was in current serialization in France and Belgium while Gatchaman was in production. Did Yoshida see it? ???)
Battle of the Planets, 85 episodes rather than 65, debuted on American TV on September 1, 1978. It was a big hit. At the time the only other animation on TV was The Three Robonic Stooges, The All-New Popeye Hour, Tarzan and the Super 7, and the like. Two years later brought Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake. Battle of the Planets was just what the costumed-superhero-loving comic-book fan wanted. If the human-colonized planets happened to often have recognizable landmarks, such as NYC’s Statue of Liberty, London’s Big Ben, Paris’ Eiffel Tower, the canals of Venice, or the Pyramids, these were explained away as duplicates built by the colonists to remind themselves of home. “The G-Force has just arrived at the latest planet that Spectra is invading. Here they see the monument built to honor the four brave space explorers who discovered this world.” Cut to a picture of Mount Rushmore’s Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.
If the anime fans cringed, anime fandom was just getting started in 1978 and the 1980s. Today’s society’s attitude toward Japanese animation and violence in TV cartoons has changed. Anime still has to be translated into English, but thankfully it no longer has to be “Americanized” as thoroughly as it used to in Sandy Frank’s day.