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The Prodigious Legacy Of The Digimon Dub

by Christopher Farris,

At Otakon 2023, Discotek Media dropped an absolute bombshell on fans of Digimon: Not only would they be releasing uncut versions of the first three movies from the franchise, but they had assembled every member of the original English dub cast they could get to produce newly voiced versions of the films. Discotek showed a preview screening of these new versions of the films at the convention and confirmed that the new dubs will remain spiritually faithful to the scripts of the Japanese originals, with some stylistic influence from the classic dub. While momentous, it's notable that this isn't the first time a new Digimon project has received a faithful dub, with many of that original English cast coming back for similar dubs of the Digimon Adventure tri. and Last Evolution Kizuna movies. So what is it that gives this old collection of voices such staying power, especially compared to other anime dubs from the same era?

The one-two punch of Pokémon mania and a Toonami-codified anime boom in the West meant that there were several pies that American TV networks wanted a slice of in the late '90s and early '00s. Saban Entertainment's licensing of the Adventure anime and re-versioning of it into Digimon: Digital Monsters for Fox Kids was ostensibly a part of this, in line with how the licensor had edited similar trendy Japanese shows like Super Sentai into Power Rangers years earlier. The approach to adapting anime at this time was famously loose, with series like Sailor Moon undergoing numerous infamous changes to character names, details, and relationships.

Digimon's U.S. title screen

Digimon, as we now know, would wind up surprisingly ahead of its time in how its dub preserved most of its characters' Japanese names and location details like Japanese city and prefecture names spoken on-screen. There were a few direct differences with the Japanese version, and all of the show's music was replaced, partially with a score that Udi Harpaz had previously written for Saban's earlier Masked Rider adaptation. Recycled or not, the soundtrack is almost universally more recognized as Digimon's background music nowadays. Episodes were also edited for pacing or to cut down on a few instances of on-screen violence or death, as well as behaviors deemed inappropriately imitable by the kids in the target audience. And, of course, there was a smattering of extra jokes and puns thrown into every episode.

Still, through all that, the decision to faithfully maintain all of Digimon's characters and stories as presented in the original Japanese version of the anime is arguably the defining trait that has let the dub maintain its legacy. It might surprise you to hear that it could have turned out very differently. I reached out to Jeff Nimoy, one of the primary writers of Digimon's English dub (as well as the voice of Tentomon), to ask about some context on this version of the show. He confirmed some back-and-forth with the producers and companies behind the series that resulted in maintaining those Japanese elements of the anime.

"There was a lot of coordination with Fox Kids/Saban Entertainment, Toei Animation, and Bandai Toys that went into character names. We [Fox Kids/Saban Entertainment] made character name suggestions, and Toei and Bandai would tell us if they approve or disapprove. They had the final say,” Nimoy said via e-mail. “As far as locations go, I wanted to wipe out all references to Japan, considering we had American-looking kids speaking English with mostly American names. But the producers wanted to go with the setting remaining in Japan. If they ever told me their reasons, I don't remember them."

Izzy and Tentomon in Episode 5 of the first season of Digimon

Rita Majkut, one of the series' producers, detailed to the best of her recollection how the decision to maintain many of Digimon's Japanese names and elements came from coordination with the production company and the toy line.

"First of all, the series already had an entire toy line that Saban very much wanted to succeed in America. You cannot simply change the name of a character who is already part of a toy line, video game, etc. It's a giant undertaking. It's better for all parties when you can use existing names," Majkut explained. "At the start of the first season, I was given a large poster of all the existing Digimon at the time. There must have been 200+ characters. I was happy not to have to rename them all."

Majkut elaborated that the team was trying to serve the growing anime fan community in the U.S. Edits to the series had to be made to comply with Broadcast Standards and Practices, but overall, Majkut wanted to keep the Japanese feel of the show.

"Although I imagine we came up with Highton View Terrace, it would have been ridiculous to try and pass the city off as somewhere in New York or Florida," Majkut said.

Majkut also helpfully confirmed that the longstanding oddity of changing Tai's family name from "Yagami" to "Kamiya" was not intentional but resulted from "a translation error of some kind," something fans have long speculated on.

It was a different approach for the time, but we know with the benefit of hindsight that this decision would turn out to be the right one. Not only did it present Digimon's authentically anime aspects in a way that made it an ideal gateway series for kids getting into the medium, but it also preserved the original series's core. This allowed the dubbed versions of the characters to come back in later productions like tri. and Last Evolution Kizuna and still feel like they fit with the classic versions that now grown-up fans remembered, while also assimilating with more faithful dub approaches the movies.

Tai leaves Kari to return to the Digital World in episode 21

The legacy of Digimon's English dub has even outlasted its Japanese version. The series' DigiDestined characters were recast for the Japanese versions of the tri. movies, in part due to the retirement of Taichi voice actor Toshiko Fujita and Sora voice actor Yūko Mizutani. However, Eleven Arts' English dub of the films gathered as much of the original cast as possible to play the characters, including Joshua Seth, who was retired from voice acting at the time. This cast has defined how these characters sound for an entire generation on this side of the world.

Listening to the dub, it's easy to understand why. For all the credit given for sticking so close to the original heart of the show, the other secret of the Digimon dub's success is that it's a very well-acted work by a group of talented performers. A series featuring sixteen main characters has to have them distinguish themselves or otherwise utterly lose its audience. Digimon's cast of voice actors lent incredible personality to their roles, even under the constraints of a rapid-fire production and writing that couldn't be 100% sure where the still-airing Japanese version of the show was going. Joshua Seth's turn as Tai resulted in a generation of fans recognizing him whenever he appeared in other anime dubs. Just a few years ago, viewers were struck by hearing Kari's actress Lara Jill Miller return to the world of anime dubbing with her unmistakable voice coming out of BEASTARS's Haru. The character of Izzy has solidified as a fan-favorite thanks to Mona Marshall's take on him and the coining of his "prodigious" catchphrase. This kind of notoriety holds for virtually every kid and creature starring in the show, exemplified in the excitement seen across social media when Discotek announced the cast would return.

The photo taken by the DigiDestined and their friends in the final episode of the first season

The dub sticks with fans for the same reasons it made the show work in the first place. Even with all the goofy added gags and odder-edited moments, Digimon maintained the heart of the series and communicated it through actors who performed it all so well. The cast successfully sold both the compelling story elements from the original Japanese version and the occasionally dissonant jokes thrown in by the writers. This charm extended to the original Digimon: The Movie, where even some inserted elements like Dorothy Elias-Fahn rattling off cooking-related quips as Tai's mom are fondly remembered by viewers.

It's plain to see how Discotek decided to bring the cast back for the films' new dub. For as much fun as fans had with it, Digimon: The Movie sticks out as an example of the kind of over-edited, fundamentally altered adaptation job that the Digimon TV series dub so pointedly wasn't. This new Blu-ray release will include that old version with its ska soundtrack and welded-together narrative for posterity, but the newly dubbed uncut versions should come closer to the original Japanese movies and what fans expected from the dub of the show itself: an adaptation that converges the show as we knew it with what would come after. The last missing piece of the long legacy of this version of Digimon.

Thanks to Jeff Nimoy and Rita Majkut for answering my questions for this article, and to MrAJCosplay for offering insight and advice that assisted in putting this together.

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