The Mike Toole Show
The Glitter Force Awakens
by Mike Toole,
The last couple of times I've been down to visit my brother and his family, I've had the pleasure of talking to one of my nephews about anime. See, he's right in the middle of that sweet spot after first really getting into shonen fighting anime, a golden time after the child starts telling me “Hey Uncle Mike, let's talk about anime!” but before he starts asking, “Uncle Mike, why do you still watch all that anime?” Late last year, the kid glommed on to The Seven Deadly Sins, because these days even a preteen immediately recognizes the “Netflix Originals” brand, however dubiously applied, as a mark of prestige. He's since moved on to Hunter x Hunter, a show that he consumes voraciously (he's already on the cusp of the brutal, celebrated Chimera Ant arc), in spite of the subtitled-only presentation.
This got me thinking about one of Netflix's other anime originals, Glitter Force. It's been weird to watch this series emerge, a bowdlerized version of Precure Smile! flogged by the Saban people at a couple of annual TV marketing trade shows before ultimately being snapped up by Netflix, ever-hungry for more exclusive programming. It's chock full of little edits here and there, changed names (Miyuki, Akane, and Yayoi become Emily, Kelsey, and Lily!), and some new background music and songs. Glitter Force is the kind of adaptation that you would've expected to see on TV years and years ago, one that serious anime fans would point to as an example of more great anime censored and dumbed-down for overseas audiences. But for some reason, some fans—at least, the kind of fans I talk to on twitter—have been a lot more enthusiastic and welcoming about it.
For generations, it was accepted that any anime on American TV would be full of these droll changes to titles, names, and dialogue, in addition to the removal of any “objectionable” content like smoking, drinking, onscreen death, and of course, witchcraft. (Turns out that the digipainters at 4Kids had to redraw a lot of occult symbols in Yu-Gi-Oh!!) It started with simple stuff—Mighty Atom and Jungle Emperor became Astro-Boy and Kimba, the White Lion, with only name changes to obfuscate the shows' eastern origins. Later popular adaptations would get incrementally more drastic—Mach Go Go Go's serial storytelling would be partly obfuscated in Speed Racer, although you could chalk the fact that the show's dubbing crew had very little time to work and no actual translated scripts. Gatchaman was resprayed as Battle of the Planets. And Space Battleship Yamato… actually, except for name changes and stuff that would've kept them off TV, they left that show alone.
The “they” in this case was Griffin-Bacal Advertising, who really liked their new Star Force show, and worked to alter it as little as possible. But the changes they did make (including eventually retitling it Star Blazers, after watching Lucasfilm sue CBS over Battlestar Galactica's similarities to Star Wars) were necessary, because the shows themselves had to be sold to television by their partners at Claster TV. In a world where seemingly every new anime series is supported by a bumper crop of figures, manga adaptations, Blu-ray box sets, wall scrolls, video games, hug pillows, and pachinko machines, it's important to point that out. There were no Star Blazers toys; the show itself was the primary product, the moneymaker. And that show had to be something that could be sold in as many local TV markets as possible, so it was edited for content.
We got more variations on this practice through the ensuing decades. A producer named Carl Macek hastily bolted Southern Cross and Mospeada on to the end of Macross in order to hit that precious 65-episode daily syndication target, in the process creating Robotech, an enduring international smash hit that's pretty much permanently ruined Macross for everyone outside of Japan. World Events Productions performed similar TV alchemy by shackling Golion and Dairugger XV together in order to produce Voltron. When DIC brought Sailor Moon to TV, it was for two reasons: that all-important 65-episode minimum, which the show's first two seasons would neatly account for, and of course, toys.
The toy thing was also key in Robotech and Voltron's success stories, and it'd play an increasingly important role in getting anime on regular TV for quite some time. Sailor Moon may have stalled in America, but toy deals helped resurrect it, and the sweet lure of toy and licensing deals drove Canadian producer Nelvana to pick up Card Captor Sakura and push it to TV in 2000, under the title Cardcaptors. Most fans who were around back then will best remember the way the show's marketing was tweaked to make the one boy character, Li Shaolin, seem equally important as the series heroine Sakura - which makes a little sense, if your biggest motive is to sell action figures of the characters. I actually give Nelvana a little credit for getting the entire series done, even if it was hacked up and abbreviated for its US broadcast. I've still got vivid memories of going to TOYS R US to buy the dolls, and immediately encountering other anime fans in the section. I always felt like they could've done a better job on that dub, especially with Sakura's ingratiatingly motormouthed mascot Kero-chan, but “What's the best way to render Osaka-ben in English?” could just about be its own column.
But why did some shows get fast-tracked to American TV, but others ignored? The answer to this was given pretty bluntly at a 2002 panel at Anime Expo New York, where Funimation CEO Gen Fukunaga was outlining the company's plans for the upcoming year. The buzz was good—fans had heard that Funimation was pursuing the rights to One Piece, and Fukunaga freely discussed this notion at the panel. The executive bluntly explained that, of the popular fare on Japanese TV at the time, One Piece would require the least amount of editing to make it to Y7, the general-audiences rating that the show would need to make it attractive to TV buyers. That's the key to why these tweaks and edits persist - Y7. If you pull up Glitter Force's page on Netflix, you'll see that Y7 marker straight away.
In retrospect, it's pretty funny to reflect on Fukunaga describing One Piece that way, considering that the show would ultimately be snapped up by 4Kids and saddled with a bewildering assortment of edits, repaints, rewrites, and other nonsense, all in service of concealing the show's large quantity of onscreen fighting, gun-waving, smoking, and drinking. To their credit, 4Kids also gave the show a really fantastic new opening song. (You can tell me it's bad or lame as much as you want—you still remember all the words, don't you?!) It's no surprise that 4Kids took a heavy hand to speed their shows to TV, though, because they were, first and foremost, a licensing company. They picked shows almost entirely on their potential as vehicles for toys and games, and they did this because the system worked, until the shifting market (or in other words, The Pokemon Company taking all of their dubbing and marketing in-house) pushed them back out to the margins.
These adaptations aren't purely an American phenomenon, either; France wholeheartedly embraced Captain Harlock under the title Albator in the 80s, to the point that the title has remained in place to this day. But couldn't they have dropped the title and called that big-budget 2013 film “Harlock” in France? Mais, non! France also presented the Machine Robo anime under the title Revenge of the Gobots, probably because the Gobots really needed some revenge after having the misfortune of going head-to-head in toy stores against the significantly awesomer Transformers. And as late as 1998, Italy's Mediaset took the perfectly straightforward Slayers and retitled it Un incantesimo dischiuso tra i petali del tempo per Rina, with a number of edits and attendant name changes. (To be honest, I think that “Guido” is an oddly suitable revision of “Gourry.”)
The thing is, once we hit that early-mid 2000s time frame, the criteria for what kind of changes were required for a good, safe adaptation seemed to shift pretty hard. The revitalized Sailor Moon, with fewer changes to its later episodes, aired on Cartoon Network without incident, along with an assortment of minimally-edited more recent hits like Outlaw Star and s.CRY.ed. A show aired on ABC Family entitled Tokyo Pig – probably the first time an anime show's title was changed to tout the show's origins, rather than conceal them. A few shows, like Shinchan and Ghost Stories, ended up going the other way, with punched-up “adult comedy” dubs to help sell them to an entirely different viewing audience. These two shows actually strike an interesting contrast; the Adult Swim Shinchan is pretty funny, if a bit onerous (after all, the original series is perfectly hilarious to begin with, a fact ably demonstrated in an earlier English dub), but a seemingly endless procession of profane, “edgy” jokes can't really walk back the obvious mediocrity of Ghost Stories. Around the same time Shinchan aired, when Toei couldn't find a buyer for their big-deal Pretty Cure magical girl series, they dubbed the first season themselves and managed to sell it to YTV in Canada—under the title Pretty Cure.
Details like that make Saban's version of Smile Pretty Cure! particularly vexing. After all, we live in a world where the Japanese hit franchise Yōkai Watch, owing to cultural differences, had to be retitled to Yōkai Watch in the west. (In fairness, there's still stuff like name changes—and that groovy new theme song!—in there.) Can we call that progress? Have we reached a point where kids in the west will turn on Pokémon and actually know what onigiri are, or must they continue to be referred to as doughnuts, or redrawn entirely?
That's a question that Glitter Force neatly dodges, because it falls right back into that 90s mold of drastically changed names, little edits here and there, and other artful and pointless obfuscations of the show's Japanese origins. That's kinda what makes the show work as well as it does, in spite of itself—as fans, we've spent years and years complaining about dubs like this, but now that they're uncommon, something about Glitter Force comes across as weirdly charming and nostalgic. It really does help that the underlying series is bright, colorful, and a lot of fun to watch; Toei has spent the past decade turning Pretty Cure into an industry unto itself, and has honed the talents of some of its best animators, including standout talents like Rie Matsumoto, in the blazing furnaces of Precure.
I have to admit, however, that I'm a bit apprehensive about what Glitter Force might lead to. Like I've been saying, the rules have changed; you don't need to westernize these shows as much as you used to, especially when part of your market is made up of increasingly influential streaming services with looser standards than broadcast TV. Also, Glitter Force is an oddity in that it was clearly engineered to help sell the dolls and tchotchkes that fly off of shelves in Japan, but they're simply not present here. There are no Glitter Force toys in stores, and no localization of the rubbish Smile Precure! 3DS game in sight. All that remains is to see if and/or when Netflix will go ahead and add the second 20-episode “season” of Glitter Force, and to see if the phenomenon as a whole will create a bridge to the west for Precure, or quietly fade into the same historical dustbin that contains the TV dubs of Magical DoReMi and Tokyo Mew Mew.
So what do you think, readers? There was a point when the changes in Glitter Force seemed necessary, or at least understandable. Are we past that point? Do we really need Glitter Force, or will little girls just as readily follow the Minimally-Edited Adventures of Smile! Pretty Cure? Is it cool that Glitter Force is a Netflix Original, just like House of Cards and The Killing, or is that kinda bullshit? Speak up in the comments!
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