The Mike Toole Show
The Soundtrack and the Fury
by Mike Toole,
Last month, after a fifteen year wait, I finally got to see the power-pop duo Puffy (known in these parts as Puffy Amiyumi) again. They were appearing at Anime Boston, which was a good fit; they've actually supplied a good 6 or 7 anime productions with their songs, as well as having that interesting mid-2000s stretch on Cartoon Network, furnishing the channel with both a theme song for Teen Titans and their very own cartoon, which lasted a robust three seasons. The group turns 21 years old this week, and they're actively celebrating it, launching a summer tour campaign called WHATEVER 21. At the con, something like 2,500 attendees packed the main hall to see them play.
There was one odd thing I noticed about both their live set, which was admittedly short, and the 20th anniversary “Best of” collection I bought at the show. They were both missing a tune called “Tokyo I'm On My Way.” That was a little surprising – Puffy had hired Offspring bandleader Dexter Holland to write it, and it was both one of their 10th anniversary singles and the lead track on their album Splurge. They made a music video for it and everything! Turns out that, about four months after its release, a gent named Hans Vandenburg took to Dutch TV to point out that the song had lifted the entire refrain from a song he'd written and performed with his band Gruppo Sportivo decades earlier, called “Tokyo.” This wasn't just some little band and their little song, either – both the band and several of their songs were quite popular in central Europe back in their day. “Mr. Holland seems to be claiming songwriting credit,” commented Vandenburg, “This is something that could be taken to court.” You'll find this similarity reported on in a few places in the autumn of 2006, discussed at length on a number of BBSes, and even added to both bands' Wikipedia pages, but there's never been a definitive statement about this musical similarity from Puffy or their label. The song was just quietly put aside and not used for any further promotional stuff.
Now, just stick with me here, because as usual I got an angle to work. The Big O, one of my very favorite anime TV shows, is coming to blu-ray next month, and it's going to be missing both of its opening theme sequences. Why? They were quietly replaced, ostensibly due to plagiarism concerns. Now, this is not a total surprise, because both the first theme song, “Big O!”, and the second one, “Respect,” were also replaced in the Japanese Blu-Ray release from a few years ago. In fact, the original OP songs were kinda cycled out back in 2007, when the series got rerun on TV and reissued on DVD in Japan. Once again, both Sunrise and Bandai Visual didn't actually state that there were plagiarism concerns; the material just quietly disappeared, overwritten with a new song. But if you compare, say, that “Big O!” song to Queen's “Flash Gordon,” you might see why they were a little nervous.
In my non-expert, non-legal opinion, “Big O!” is undoubtedly pastiche. It's close enough to both the Queen song and the Ultra Seven opening visuals to evoke them, yet adaptive enough to stand apart as a tribute rather than simply a cover. At some earlier point, Bandai agreed with me, because the sequence is all over the original DVD releases from the early 2000s. It drew a lot of attention for its similarities to earlier genre material, and creator Keiichi Satou commented that the sequence was important, because reminding the viewer of those two productions was essential in setting the mood of The Big O.
There was actually a plagiarism scandal when The Big O was first announced on DVD in North America, because Bandai Entertainment's marketing department just grabbed my introductory article from my Anime Jump website (I'd been buying the Japanese DVDs and developing a mini-site about the show, well ahead of its US debut) and copied it, with few changes. Alright, maybe it wasn't a scandal, but it was kind of funny. The thing is, Bandai didn't have any marketing collateral from Japan when it was time to make that announcement, and they needed to put something in their press release. I've done that kind of copywriting and could understand their position, so the whole thing got smoothed over.
A couple of years down the road, I was relatively close to the production of the second season, because I'd had some correspondence with both Chiaki J. Konaka, the show's writer (hey, I'm still mentioned on his site!), and the project translator Dave Fleming. I particularly remember Dave complaining animatedly about this one piece of music that just kept coming up in the episodes he was working his way through. It was alright, but repetitive and overly punchy. To Dave's dismay, it turned out to be the show's theme song, “Respect.” Compare that song and sequence to Gerry Anderson's “UFO” opening.
Don't go getting excited, because UFO isn't nearly as cool as that opening makes it seem. Anderson had a knack for that, creating these amazing openings to fairly unexceptional shows. But you can see the similarities, right? This one was too close to comfort – you can hear snatches of “Respect” on the show soundtrack, but the opening wasn't included on the DVD release at all, at least in North America. Maybe this was where either Sunrise or Bandai started getting spooked, because if you ask me, “Respect” is way too close to “UFO” for comfort. Ultimately, both songs were superceded by “Big O! Show Must Go On,” a totally new, original song by Rui Nagai… that bears some pretty obvious similarities to the Kinks' “All Day and All of the Night.”
It's kind of funny and a bit infuriating that the replacement song seems to have the same issues that the originals do. The only difference is that the visuals don't explicitly appear to be based on something else. I'll still get those Blu-Rays, because The Big O is one of my favorite shows ever, but the lack of those two opening sequences drives the historian in me kinda crazy. Quietly pulling the questionable songs off of the release may dodge potential legal problems, but it also makes the footage harder to obtain and watch, which just ain't an ideal outcome.
In the eyes of some fans, the North American release of Gunbuster is completely ruined because of the replacement of about sixty-five seconds of background music. It happens halfway into the first episode, as protagonist Noriko Takaya finally starts to train seriously, and composer Kohei Tanaka cheerfully riffs on Vangelis's famous “Chariots of Fire” theme. I say “riffs on,” because while Tanaka uses the same synthesized instrumentation, the tempo is notably faster and the notes are in a totally different sequence. Still, you can tell that the song is meant to evoke Vangelis's music, and I guess that was enough to give the publisher cold feet, and have the background music replaced with something far more generic. This time, we actually got something of an explanation from Bandai Visual USA, who said that the bit was replaced due to “copyright reasons” and was done with the approval of the original creators. I don't think this particular example is onerous enough to skip getting the DVD release, but I can well understand the frustration. At least the Japanese version still has the original music, as well as another interesting soundtrack wrinkle – a re-recorded version of the dialogue. This happens from time to time in Japan, usually when it's time to remaster an older soundtrack for 5.1. We'll circle back to this phenomenon.
Some of the odd soundtrack issues I'm chronicling here were featured at a panel put on at Sakuracon by my friend Jesse Betteridge, host of the Zannen, Canada! Podcast. Jesse focused mainly on anime music that appeared to rip off other sources, and he had a big pile of other examples I won't get into here, because I want you to go to his panel if he presents it at your local con. But one of the centerpieces of his presentation is something that I hadn't previously known about, and that's the complete and total replacement of a TV show's soundtrack halfway through, due to plagiarism concerns. That TV series was Dragonball Z Kai.
The whole new soundtrack treatment is something that's happened to Dragonball Z before; we've all had to deal with Funimation's decision to replace Shunsuke Kikuchi's bangin' 90s music with Bruce Faulconer's reasonably good but notably less bangin' 2000s music, for the purposes of making the dub sound more modern. When the series got the Kai treatment, which involved rescanning in HD and lopping out filler episodes, it was also decided that it would get a new soundtrack, complete with re-recorded voices and brand new background music. Kenji Yamamoto was tapped to provide this soundtrack, which made perfect sense – he'd been contributing songs to the franchise for over a decade, and had been in charge of the Dragonball Z console games' music for quite some time.
As it turns out, Yamamoto had a little problem with lifting bits of music from other sources for his video game and anime compositions. Usually, these were not egregious – a riff from Pink Floyd swiped here, a few bars from Led Zeppelin there. Honestly, a whole lot of musicians do this, and not always consciously. Years and years ago, I sat in the back of a club as a singer/guitarist acquaintance workshopped a new song, and was obliged to point out that the refrain was lifted directly from a 60s ska song. He had no idea; he thought he'd dreamed it, or something. Yamamoto went a few steps farther, however, effectively lifting entire songs by the power metal outfit Stratovarius for a couple of the console games. Most of these examples weren't noticed at the time of release, and later on were simply noted with wry amusement by fans of the games.
Yamamoto's habit came back to bite him in the ass with Kai, because he couldn't help himself and swiped music from the likes of Avatar, Terminator Salvation, and possibly other movies from that weird, brief period in 2008 and 2009 when all movies were contractually obligated to star that Sam Worthington guy. This time, we got a concrete response; Toei posted a statement on their website confirming “multiple suspicious musical pieces” and said that steps were being taken to remedy the situation. In a matter of days, new broadcast episodes were rolled out with Shunsuke Kikuchi's original soundtrack hastily bolted on. But since this happened midway through the series, a number of home video releases have Yamamoto's version. It's been replaced in subsequent reissues, but Funimation's first four Dragonball Z Kai releases have become unlikely collector's items… not just because they're going out of print, but for the pilfered soundtrack.
In a corner of the entertainment business where music is sometimes swiped in bits and pieces, this is a spectacularly egregious example of plagiarism. It's also bizarre if you ask me, because Yamamoto's own original work is perfectly good. While this series of swipes was going on, Yamamoto created a huge trove of clearly original music for the games; his style meshed well with the series' combat and aesthetics, which is why he seemed like such a natural choice to rescore Dragonball Z Kai. So why did he start ripping off other musicians wholesale? Was it writer's block? Did he run out of time? Did he just figure that since he hadn't been caught and cautioned before, it wouldn't happen this time either? Unfortunately, the artist never really made a statement, just quietly disappeared and hasn't been working much lately. As for how many of these examples of potential plagiarism resulted in a lawsuit, or even explicit threats from the original publisher, there were none.
Sometimes music is rearranged or omitted for far simpler reasons than plagiarism. The likes of Zeta Gundam and Beck and Kodocha and Speed Grapher have all had DVD releases that omit or alter songs because of music publishing issues, mostly related to money. When DIscotek, the DVD publisher I sometimes moonlight for, announced the release of the TV series GoShogun, we got a barrage of questions about whether the Saban Productions dub would be included. These inquiries were a bit facetious, because the Saban version is chock full of licensed covers of popular 80s songs like “Beat It” by Michael Jackson,“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benetar, and most importantly, “Ride the White Horse” by Laid Back. These songs are obviously gonna be off limits, but the Saban dub also includes a new BGM soundtrack. Saban always rescored their imports, because this meant that TV networks would have to pay a separate licensing fee to use the new music – money that the licensors couldn't touch, a clever trick. Now, I'd love to be able to include this soundtrack – I really like Saban's dub, it's goofy but the voices are great! But there's a far simpler reason that the soundtrack can't be included, and that's because the original Japanese footage doesn't sync up with the English version – there were too many edits in Saban's version.
Most of these examples of replacement soundtracks have their issues, but I can live with them. However, there's one that really sticks in my craw, and it's one that just arrived in my mailbox this week, in brand new sparkly Blu-Ray form. I'm referring to the original Gundam movie trilogy. Remember earlier, when I touched on the practice of re-recording dialogue for the purpose of punching up the soundtrack? This happened in full force for the Gundam movies when they came out on DVD. This makes a certain amount of sense – new digital format, new digital soundtrack, right? Once again, the historian in me hates this practice, because the older audio recording tends to get tossed on the woodpile. The problem with the Gundam movies arose when it became apparent that the original music elements weren't in great shape and couldn't easily be remastered for 5.1 audio.
Ultimately, what we got was a version of the films where the dialogue is changed subtly, and some musical cues are tweaked - par for the course for these re-recordings. But also, there are several long stretches of the movies where the soundtrack has been re-sequenced wholesale, with completely new music. This comes to a head in the trilogy's final scene of Amuro Ray rejoining his friends. Instead of the original's winsome pop ballad “Encounter,” there's an instrumental segment. It's not terrible, but the emotional texture of the scene is completely, utterly different as a result of the change. It still hits the target, but it just doesn't seem as poignant to me – possibly because of bias, because I saw the original version first and knew it had been changed. Re-recordings like this are spun as bonuses, exciting new material for the films' re-release, but I wish more effort was made to retain the original elements.
What's your favorite example of musical borrowing that might kinda sorta count as plagiarism? The examples I've discussed here are particularly notable, but anime is full of these little swipes. Some escape major scrutiny and become in-jokes. My favorite happens to be this particular song from the Southern Cross soundtrack, which is a bald-faced ripoff of the Police's “Synchronicity II” song. As you watch anime, listen to the soundtrack carefully, and appreciate what you hear. Somewhere down the line, for reasons good or bad, there may be changes!
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