The Mike Toole Show
Canada's Anime Legacy

by Mike Toole,

One of the best things about anime being a fairly hot ticket in global entertainment is the multitude of ways it just suddenly shows up, be it in theaters, on TV, or online. Once upon a time, you could keep track of pretty much everything that was being aired and screened in the west, because that amounted to a couple of dozen titles per year at most. This reality of being an anime fan nowadays was driven home yet again a couple of weeks ago, when Amazon's streaming portal suddenly bloomed with a whopping 52 episodes of the 2004 Black Jack TV anime, all of them dubbed in English. Obviously, my first question was, “Where the hell are the other ten episodes?!” My second question was, “Wait a minute, where'd this come from?!” Like thousands of episodes of dubbed anime before it, this tranche of English-language Black Jack TV episodes came from Canada.

I noticed this not too far into episode one, when a character used a word that's way more common in Canadian English; it might've been “washroom,” but I'm not totally sure. Anyway, this made me suspicious that the dub was Canadian and not the earlier Hong Kong dub; in Hong Kong dubs, which are way better than they used to be, you might notice a general lack of contractions (they're not unheard of, just not as commonly used) or the use of the word “let” instead of “rent,” for example. Part of why I love collecting dubs from all over the world are the minor dialectic differences like these. (Note: you can also always tell when a non-American person subtitled an anime, because they'll usually use “Mr” instead of “Mr.”. That period is an American thing!)

My suspicions were confirmed via an actress named Sunni Westbrook, who tweeted that she had recorded the voice of Pinoko for the series some time back. Not only was this a neat return to the medium for the actress herself (Westbrook also starred in LBX! Who remembers LBX?! …Nobody, right? I'm assuming nobody does.), it meant that, like vast multitudes of anime before it, Black Jack was dubbed in Vancouver! This new-ish Black Jack dub makes some interesting choices. Money is referred to as dollars rather than yen, personal names are westernized (but institutional names, like city names and the Diet, are retained), and they changed Pinoko's trademark nonsense exclamation of “acchonbiruke!” to a somewhat more western-sounding nonsense word—it sounds kinda like “ammo moby!” to me, anyone know what it's supposed to be?! Anyway, it's not altogether surprising that Black Jack was dubbed in Vancouver, but it was a surprise that it was dubbed at an outfit called Digital Sound Magic, rather than Ocean Studios.

For a brief time in the mid-to-late 1990s, Ocean Studios were the kings of anime dubbing in North America, and it came down to a few factors. One of them was a combination of tax breaks for locally-produced entertainment (Canadian Content, baby!) as well as generally favorable currency exchange rates, which made Ocean cheaper to hire than many stateside competitors. Ocean also had fancy, state-of-the-art DAR SoundStation consoles to record their ADR sessions; these units included a nifty feature called WordFit, which helped automatically match script lines to mouth flaps. Using this system meant that script adaptation and ADR recording itself moved a bit more swiftly… with sometimes clunky results, if you ask me. Anyway, this enabled Ocean to handle a large volume of ADR work; their list of clients included Viz, for whom they dubbed virtually every release in the 90s, CPM, and Bandai Entertainment.

Finally, Vancouver was emerging as a massive hub for filmmaking work in the 90s – the well of acting talent was both broad and deep, enabling venues like Ocean to utilize a variety of of experienced movie, TV and stage actors instead of the smaller sets of veteran voice actors that places like Animaze and Intersound utilized. The X-Files was just one of many TV shows filmed in and around Vancouver in the 1990s, which means that you can go back and try to spot the cast of Ranma ½ as incidental characters. This proximity to bigger entertainment names meant that Ocean sometimes had their own biggest names depart for other opportunities. Once upon a time, Mark Hildreth was the voice of Heero Yuy in Gundam Wing, but more recently, he starred in the ABC TV series Resurrection. Jason Gray-Stanford left his lead part in Maison Ikkoku to play Disher in the TV series Monk. Most remarkably, Alessandro Juliani had already begun work as L in the Death Note TV anime when he blew up as Felix Gaeta in Battlestar Galactica. Fortunately, he stuck around to finish the anime series. I think my favorite member of the Ocean Studios diaspora is David Kaye. You know him as Treize in Gundam Wing, or perhaps more recently as Clank in the Ratchet and Clank game series. As for me, I can't hear his voice as the announcer for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver without exclaiming “MEET BOB!,” his signature line from a series of Enzyte boner pill commercials from the mid-2000s.

I've had Ocean Studios and other Canadian ADR houses on my mind lately, because it was just a year ago that Sunrise announced that they were creating a brand-new English dub for the HD remastered version of Gundam SEED. This was interesting news, and to me it made sense to update the series top-to-bottom in order to appeal to a younger audience that hadn't seen it yet. At the same time, I had friends north of the border who raised their voices in concern; more than one of them spoke a bit gravely about how this was yet another example of the gradual erasure of Canadian anime history. It sounds kinda goofy, but my friend was absolutely right to be worried. Just a year prior to the SEED news, the old Ocean Studios dub of Escaflowne was more or less replaced by a new Funimation version, as part of their Kickstarter campaign. After some steady complaining on the parts of completists (yours truly included), Funimation threw in the older dub as a separate, DVD-only deal; it was still no longer the definitive English version.

There are several other examples of Canadian dubs being tossed on the woodpile, and they're all remarkably significant ones; NIS America's wonderful uncut release of Cardcaptor Sakura doesn't have any of the Nelvana “Cardcaptors” dub. Viz's generally excellent re-release of Sailor Moon (except for that first Blu-Ray set, which we're not allowed to argue about over Thanksgiving dinner anymore) also features a new dub made in Los Angeles, rather than the old one, made in Toronto. There are obviously gonna be some hurdles to getting the old material out there; the original Sailor Moon dub is so heavily edited it would have to be a stand-alone product, and there might be weird licensing issues with the western-made background music. Still, Viz probably could at least include the Cloverway dubs of Sailor Moon S and SuperS on those releases, but they're absent. Ronin Warriors beat out Saint Seiya to become the first boys-in-armor hit in the US, but the Canadian TV dub isn't included on the latest DVD release due to issues with the paperwork. And good old Dragonball Z, the original North American dub which Funimation eventually made into a TV hit in the late 90s with the help of Ocean Studios, is long since gone from DVD and TV release.

Of these examples, only Dragonball Z got a fair shake after the fact. Long after Funimation took DBZ dubbing in-house to get the show finished, and later circled back to get the earlier material dubbed by their cast, they released something on DVD called the “Rock the Dragon” edition—a release that included every Ocean Studios Dragonball Z episode that aired on American TV, just as it was. I don't think that this version broke any sales records (though it bears mentioning that every last copy eventually sold out and it goes for $200ish on eBay; remember, when your discs go outta print, you'll make a mint!), but Funimation recognized something interesting and important about how the show was originally presented. This old stuff is worth saving, so I'd love to see a “Fighting Evil by Moonlight” edition of Sailor Moon from Viz.

There is one enormous chunk of Canada's anime legacy that hasn't yet been overwritten or tossed aside, and that's Beyblade, the massive battlin'-top toy franchise that's up to about four or five hundred TV episodes, every last one of them dubbed in Toronto or Vancouver. I'm pretty sure that the latest show to be screened on YTV was originally titled Beyblade Burst God, as in “God, I can't believe how much damn Beyblade there is.” The franchise's currently-airing-in-Japan season will probably show up on YTV sometime next year, like clockwork.

YTV is yet another part of the Canadian anime puzzle. It bears repeating that Canada doesn't get the same Cartoon Network and Adult Swim programming we do in the US, because a lot of people don't realize that. It's true, and it kinda sucks for Canadians! But in Canada a lot of anime screens on YTV; those endless YTV airings are a big part of why Beyblade remains a big player up north. About a decade back, Toei decided that they wanted to turn their Pretty Cure series into a hit in North America, so they went to Ocean Studios to get the first series dubbed, and shopped it around aggressively at licensing shows like MIPcom. Nobody took a chance on PreCure… except YTV, who duly aired the adventures of Cure White and Cure Black a good year or two before the franchise became a neverending cult hit with magical girl nerds around the globe. Listen, I don't care about the newer PreCure shows that may or may not have been rewritten for English-speaking audiences by Kosh from Babylon 5, and I don't care how big of an army you raise, Cure White and Black will literally beat them senseless. Toei may have worked with their partners to put aside the old Sailor Moon dubs, but they better not take Canadian Pretty Cure away from me. I want Hannah Goddamn Whitestone and Natalie Bloody Blackstone on Blu-Ray, dagnabbit!

Places like Ocean Studios are a big part of the whole worldwide story of anime turning from a Japan-only phenomenon to a global one. There are many, many ways that Canada was absolutely essential for the growth of anime culture in North America, but somehow keeps getting the short end of the stick. My friend Jesse's Zannen, Canada (“Tough luck, Canada”) podcast chronicles some of these stories. In the meantime, Ocean continues to make Canadian anime history. The DVDs and Blu-Rays we buy from Funimation and Viz and Aniplex are more than likely gonna have English versions produced in Texas or Los Angeles, but there's still a whole lot of anime that shows up in other channels. A significant but as-yet-unknown quantity of World Trigger was dubbed at Ocean at the behest of Toei, who wanted to make it the next Shonen Jump hit series. Sadly, the anime is nowhere near as good as the manga, but eventually a network called PrimoTV picked it up. How many episodes did Primo air? Nobody can confirm this number, because nobody can watch Primo TV unless they live in the parts of Provo, UT and Spokane, WA that get the channel over the air. Nowadays, Primo's dropped World Trigger, but they're airing the brand new Captain Tsubasa anime, so make sure you watch it… as long as you're in the dozen or so municipalities that get PrimoTV.

In recent years, Ocean's also dubbed the Gintama and Kiznaiver dubs that showed up at Crunchyroll before anywhere else. That trilogy of generally decent Sinbad anime movies on Amazon? Also Ocean. SEED might be facing a redub, but Sunrise and Nozomi are getting ready to release a fancy-pants collector's set of G-Gundam that includes the corny, altogether wonderful dub made in Calgary. I look forward to once again hearing Mark Gatha and Dave Pettit as Domon and Master Asia starting the series off with these halting, shouty performances, then gradually growing into their roles to neatly match the show's titanic finish. My Discotek Media colleagues occasionally hit up Ocean for English-language audio masters of 90s anime we re-release—fare like Darkstalkers and Cyber Six. One of these days, I'm gonna have to go up there myself and visit, so I can sneak into their archives and steal copies of the Ring ni Kakero and Legend of the Galactic Heroes pilot episodes they created.

In considering Canada's anime legacy, I'm left wanting all of these old versions to be saved somehow. I don't care how bowdlerized they were—they're still worth keeping around, if you ask me. Part of it is because I'm an anal-retentive completionist, like so many fans. Dammit, I will not rest until I get a fancy collector's box of LBX that includes both the Canadian and Hong Kong English dubs! But mostly it's because these older dubs mattered to a lot of people, and so we must believe that these versions are worth saving, even as they're superceded by newer, more fan-friendly versions. Yep, even the 4Kids version of One Piece, and even the Illumitoon version of B't-X. As for that charmingly weird new Black Jack dub, produced right in Vancouver? Well, it's geographically restricted. Turns out you can't watch it in Canada…


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