The Mike Toole Show
The One Truth, And Nothing But the One Truth: An Oral History of Case Closed
by Mike Toole,
In the far future year of 2000, the Fox Broadcasting Company had some interesting designs on Japanese animation. Several shows, including Escaflowne, Dinozaurs, and my beloved Moncolle Knights, aired regularly on their mainline TV network's Fox Kids weekend programming block. During this period, Fox acquired cable TV network The Family Channel (which itself had aired anime under its old name, CBN) and rebranded it Fox Family, with the idea of continuing to both license and create family-friendly programming. (Note: In this case, ‘family friendly’ means 'boring and terrible.') The likes of Multichannel News, Media Live, and Variety reported that Fox Family would debut several new shows in 2000 and 2001, including Da Mob, an animated show about an untalented hip-hop act, and Detective Conan, an anime series about a pint-sized crime fighter.
In fact, the trade papers reported, Detective Conan was right around the corner, slated to join Flint The Time Detective on the new network in autumn of 2000! This never happened. In the ensuing years, rumors have stuck around—rumors of overseas airings of a Fox Kids-style dub, and rumors of a pilot episode dubbed at Ocean Studios called “Conan's Capers”—a pilot so severely edited down from the original Japanese episode that it was only about seven minutes long. Whatever happened, or failed to happen, Detective Conan, beloved mainstay of Japanese television, didn't show up on a Fox-affiliated network in 2000, or 2001. Instead, a few years later, Detective Conan went to Funimation and Adult Swim, and an arguably even weirder saga ensued. Let's look for some clues!
The cultural phenomenon of Detective Conan is an unusual one. Gosho Aoyama's story of a brilliant teen detective trapped in the body of a first-grader is chock full of murder and mayhem, cartoon violence and adult situations, schoolyard adventure and doomed romances, but it seemingly appeals to every single segment of the Japanese public. Kids love its title character's bubbly charisma and his reliable “Detective Boys” gang of elementary school buddies. Adolescents and teenagers are drawn to the show's action and romance. Adults prize the series' twisty mystery stories and constant literary and pop-culture references. And old folks? Well, perhaps they like it because it reminds them of the boy detective manga they read in the 1950s and 60s. In any case, Detective Conan is a perennial #3 in the Japanese TV anime ratings game, right behind the twin towers of Sazae-san and Chibi Maruko-chan.
Because of Detective Conan's durability and broad appeal in Japan, it was a frequent topic of discussion among fans anytime licensing came up back at the end of the millennium. The trade papers trumpeting Conan's arrival on US airwaves in 2000 were noticed immediately by fans, and the news item was picked up and reported in Animerica Magazine. For a few years afterwards, it became just another rumor, to be filed away next to the new Dragon Ball series Toei was definitely about to start making, the anime version of the Powerpuff Girls Cartoon Network was secretly cooking up, and the sequel to FLCL that just had to be right around the corner. Naturally, Cartoon Network had some sort of involvement in all of these silly rumors when they eventually turned into real things (some of 'em quite recently!). And when Detective Conan hit American airwaves on May 24, 2004, it was courtesy of Adult Swim, CN's still pretty fresh late-nite programming block for grown-ups, cool teenagers, and tweens quiet enough to sneak down to the family room and turn the TV on without waking up mom and dad.
But Detective Conan had taken on a strangely altered form. Despite being on a programming block renowned for running anime with minimal localization and edits, Case Closed, as the series was now known, had quite a bit of both. Along with the title, there were a number of name changes—Shinichi Kudo and his girlfriend Ran Mouri were now Jimmy Kudo and Rachel Moore, though Kudo's pint-sized alter-ego was still called Conan. Kanji titles were often carefully painted out, edited, or overlaid with English text. The opening song was reworked in English. Even Conan's signature catchphrase, “Shinjitsu wa itsumo hitotsu”—“There's always only one truth!” was massaged into the simpler “One truth prevails!” Despite that, the first episode made no real effort to hide the murder, which involved a rollercoaster and decapitation. You know, for kids!
How'd this happen? It's worth pointing out that, by 2004, the notion of making heavy changes to a series in order to make it appealing to American TV audience was on the wane. A Fox Kids airing of the 2002 TV anime Fair, then Partly Piggy renamed the series Tokyo Pig, because Tokyo is where it's at, man. 4Kids, who happily butchered wonderful shows like Magical DoReMi in the service of toy licensing, even backed off a bit, dropping a proposed “Hollywood Mew Mew” retitling of Tokyo Mew Mew. (Their eventual choice of Mew Mew Power was… a little better, I guess?) To get a handle on how Detective Conan became Case Closed, I talked to some of the principals involved in localizing the series—both the anime, and the manga, which hit newsstands courtesy of Viz starting in September of 2004.
The most obvious question is: how did Detective Conan end up on Adult Swim, becoming Case Closed in the process? A FUNimation rep who asked for anonymity cleared some of this up for me. “The title change was simple—we were concerned about Conan Properties, the people in charge of the Conan the Barbarian intellectual property and trademarks. Rather than risk legal action, we opted for a title change.” First, there was an internal-only Y7 pilot episode created with the idea of running the series on Toonami. The problem was, almost every damn episode of Detective Conan involves murder or violent crime, so the editing would've become pernicious pretty quickly. From there, attention shifted to Adult Swim. “Every idea that FUNimation had regarding the show was pitched to Kim Manning,” comments the source, referring to Adult Swim's then-programming coordinator, who's since moved up to VP of programming. “We had to license the series in 52-episode chunks, so it was quite an undertaking.”
Well, Adult Swim rolled the dice on Case Closed, which meant that a whole lot of dubbing talent got cracking on creating the dub. Naturally, the first person I went to for some comments about this experience was Alison Viktorin, the voice of Conan himself. Comments Viktorin, “I booked Case Closed immediately after I graduated from college. I had no idea what anime was. It was a total shock that I could even do a boy's voice, but when it came out of my mouth it was actually pretty good. LOL!” Viktorin spoke of practicing the character's grunts and screams in the car, and carefully jotting down every single direction from the ADR Director on the script, for her to reference and the other actors to puzzle over later. I think she did a fine job; my favorite line in the entire series (caveat: I've only seen like a dozen episodes in English. Plus the movies they dubbed! The movies own) is hers, when she wryly and knowingly chirps “One truth prevails on the next Detective Conan: Dead Hobo!”
You know, the original title may have been a little more flowery, but I think Dead Hobo really gets to the nitty gritty of what the show's all about, man. My next stop was ADR Director Mike McFarland, one of FUNimation's longest-serving dubbing directors. "I was one of the first ADR directors on the series," he comments. "There were probably two or three [of us] from the start, and then several more as the series continued. I held auditions over a period of about two weeks and was responsible for casting Conan, Mitch, George, and a few episodic characters for the early episodes. I recall auditioning Alison specifically, and thought she had one of the most natural-sounding 'little boy' voices I had ever heard." And what about the Y7 pilot episode, remarked on above? "There were a couple different versions of the pilot floating around, with various differences here and there," remarks McFarland. "I don't recall what the specifics of the differences were."
I also spoke to Caitlin Glass, who played a variety of incidental characters as the show went into production at FUNimation. “I started my anime voice acting career with Case Closed,” she comments, “In episode one as... Erica? I don't recall the girl's name, but her boyfriend lost his head on a roller coaster!” In fact, Glass came in to talk about voiceover work at FUNimation on a Thursday, ended up auditioning on the spot, and returned to record her first lines on Sunday…! “[Detective Conan] was a great show for actors to cut their teeth on,” remarks Glass, “Because you could come in one day and play a lady, a young boy, a grandma, a cat, an ice cream truck... you name it! I loved working on that show, and actually really miss it!”
Glass isn't the only one who pines after Detective Conan. I'd always kinda known about the Detective Conan People, the narrow but vocal, ardent, and extremely loyal fanbase that the show has in North America. I vividly remember the first one I met, a young lady carrying a ¼ scale Conan Edogawa maquette. I was running karaoke at Anime Central 2004; she had me cue up one of the show's many, many high-powered opening songs, and on the convention's nifty little ampitheatre stage, she sang to her hero. It was cute, but kinda goofy. Another old FUNimation hand from those days remembers the Detective Conan fans, too: Adam Sheehan, who's more lately been running events for Crunchyroll, but in the mid-2000s ran convention stuff for FUNimation. “I want to say there were both hardcore Case Closed fans and casual Case Closed fans we'd run into at conventions,” muses Sheehan. “Almost all of the hardcore fans were nice, just extra passionate about specifically Case Closed. I even ran into a few [who told me] that it was the only show they would watch, anime or otherwise.” That anecdote in particular really makes sense to me, I've met Columbo fans like that!
One encounter sticks out in Sheehan's memory; it happened at the tail end of an industry panel in 2004 or 2005. “[A Case Closed fan] came up to the mic stand in the audience, and was really loud, and wanted to make sure that we knew that Case Closed was partly based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Of course, we knew that…! This fan didn't actually have a question, they just wanted to share facts about their big favorite…. Afterwards, I stepped off the stage and started to walk out of the room, and they followed me and kept on talking loudly about Agatha Christie, Edogawa Ranmpo, and such. This encounter continued down the hall, across the hotel lobby, down the stairs, and then I turned into the restroom where they finally stopped following me ...or so I thought, until I heard the fan's voice behind me while standing at the urinal 10 seconds later!” Sheehan was able to extricate himself from the chat politely enough. That's sort of an extreme case, but the Detective Conan fans I've met are intense but cheerful, absolutely certain that their favorite can finally break big in the west if the right circumstances emerge. You've got to hand it to a series like Detective Conan, one that can capture a fan's entire imagination.
My central question about Case Closed is this: who mandated the localizations? Who was it that decided that One Truth Prevails, and that we'd be following the adventures of Conan, Anita, Mitch, and the rest of the Junior Detective League, rather than Conan, Ai, Mitsuhiko, and the Detective Boys? An answer wasn't that quick to emerge—Sheehan directed me to the show's old brand manager, who didn't respond to an email inquiry. The actors remembered the show's style guide, but couldn't tell me who'd written it. Comments ADR Director McFarland, "I'm not sure who made that call [on the style guide], but it was someone higher up than myself or any of the other ADR Directors or adaptive writers."
Still on the hunt for more clues, I turned to the editor in charge of localizing the Case Closed manga from Viz, former ANN regular Shaenon Garrity. As far as she knows, the localization choices (except for the title change, which she agrees was a strategic move to keep the Conan the Barbarians away from the gates) were Funimation's, and Viz went along with their style guide so the manga would be a match for the anime. Gosho Aoyama's original comics followed pretty quickly on the heels of Case Closed's TV debut, hitting comic shops and bookstores in September of 2004. Nowadays, the manga is far beyond the stories that FUNimation initially covered—when I talked to Garrity, she'd just turned in the pages for Volume 72! Because of that, Viz no longer localizes names for new characters and places. The last character to get an Anglified name in the manga was Ai Haibara/Anita Hailey, introduced in Volume 18—which saw its debut in 2007, three years after the last new episode of Case Closed debuted on Cartoon Network. You'd think that this kind of drift would affect the manga's popularity, but the series' English-language release is still chugging along, complete with Case Closed title, with volume 73 slated to ship in January.
Garrity has had numerous other challenges in localizing Detective Conan, while being mindful of the Case Closed business. “There have been several points in the manga where a plot point depends on the Japanese versions of the characters' names, and then I have to decide how to handle it,” she comments. “In Volume 70, for example, a murder victim is named Shinichi Kudo, Jimmy Kudo's original name, and the characters comment on the coincidence. The victim's name can't be changed to “Jimmy” because it turns out to be part of a code essential to solving the mystery. In cases like that, I add a footnote briefly explaining that the characters have different names in the original Japanese. I imagine most people who have been following Case Closed for 70 volumes already know that.” An earlier example goes all the way back to the two Black Organization agents who give Shinichi the serum that de-ages him; they're Gin and Vodka in the original scripts, but known as Men in Black agents Kaspar and Melchior in FUNimation's localization. “I don't know why FUNimation picked the Three Wise Men as namesakes,” Garrity comments, “but there are way more than three Men in Black in Detective Conan!” Garrity eventually saw an opening; in volume 24, she was able to introduce the original, alcoholic monikers as alternative code names.
Case Closed may be plugging along in manga form, but its tenure on Adult Swim was short-lived. Just 48 episodes were aired, and while those stuck around in re-runs for a while, the network did not order any new episodes from FUNimation. But I'll give FUNimation a lot of credit; absent the TV situation, which was out of their hands, they tried a lot of different ways to make Case Closed work as a home video product. Since the series touched down near the height of the 2000s anime bubble, we first saw “starter sets” with fancy artboxes, then season collections, then priced-down “Viridian” sets, and finally, a 5-volume re-release of their entire run of the series under the good n' cheap old S.A.V.E. imprint. The S.A.V.E. sets actually did alright—my earlier unnamed FUNimation source affirms that this price point—thirty bucks for a season's worth—was what fans seemed to want to pay for a somewhat accurate, if odd, release of Detective Conan on home video. FUNimation also dubbed and released the first six Conan movies, and these are my favorites of their releases—very solid, snappy, fun one-and-done affairs.
But there was one problem: with the series tanking on TV, DVD sales wouldn't bridge the gap and allow the series to keep going. “Home video sales alone did not justify the cost of dubbing,” comments my source, “Sales for Case Closed were among the lowest for any [of FUNimation's] TV shows-- people watched, but they weren't collecting it. So it was crucial for the show to stay on Adult Swim. When Case Closed was dropped from Adult Swim… that's what did the show in.” FUNimation went on to dub one hundred and thirty episodes of Case Closed and dutifully ran them on their own little cable TV experiment, the FUNimation Channel, in the hopes that some sort of TV deal would give it some new life, but it wasn't to be. Even still, long after it pancaked on TV, they kept the series in print. The publisher's license to release Case Closed expired just last year, in May of 2018, almost exactly 14 years after the company first registered the “Case Closed” trademark in March of 2004.
I once again have to circle around and wonder: Who mandated the “Case Closed” localizations, from titles to character names? The show's production office at NTV certainly had oversight, but that doesn't mean every single change was handed down from them. Still, I tried opening a line of inquiry a couple of years back, when I moderated a panel discussion with Michihiko Suwa, NTV's producer for Detective Conan, at Anime Boston. That's us up there-- he's the dapper gent on the right, and I'm, er, the other fella. Mr. Suwa was fired up over two projects—a brand-new City Hunter movie, and the latest big-screen installment of Detective Conan, Zero the Enforcer. I wasn't really able to get any interesting details out of Mr. Suwa regarding NTV's relationship with Case Closed, because he was so into the new film, but his insights on the franchise are worth repeating here. Mr. Suwa is sort of a celebrity in his own right in Japan's anime/manga scene; one of his signature quirks is his habit of reading every single manga periodical in print. Because of this habit, he spotted Gosho Aoyama's Detective Conan early, and helped cheerlead for it in the run up to its 1996 debut as an anime serial. Mr Suwa has been NTV's producer for Detective Conan for so long that he's even appeared on the show (with minor alterations) a few times, including one memorable episode where his character is murdered! (The anime "Mr. Suwa" is below. You can see the resemblance!) At this point, the producer is mostly just cheerfully amazed that the franchise is a box office champ; production of the annual Conan movie, which always stars in the box office top 3, feels more like a celebration than a typical tough animation job. What's Detective Conan's secret, in Mr. Suwa's opinion? At the panel, he credited Aoyama's genius in creating the characters, which the audience hasn't grown tired of in 25 years.
Beyond Mr. Suwa and the parties mentioned earlier in this piece, nobody's been all that eager to talk about Case Closed with me. One of the show's first ADR directors responded positively to my emails, but expressed concern that FUnimation wouldn't want them talking candidly about the show, and so didn't offer any comment. I also was able to get through to an assistant to Kim Manning, the TV programmer who placed Case Closed on the buoyantly popular Adult Swim to begin with, but she, too, ultimately passed on commenting. I even reached out to a couple of performers with Red Angel Media, who created a Case Closed dub for Asia's English-language Animax network that purportedly used the FUNimation style guide… but their trails had gone cold.
Another thing that makes the whole Case Closed angle interesting, fifteen years later, is that most parties have quietly abandoned the Case Closed style book. New streaming episodes still bear the moniker for some reason (they make no attempt to use the western names in the subtitles!), and there's still the manga from Viz, as well, but on the anime side, my good buddies (and occasional professional partners) at Discotek Media have the unlikely honor of being the sole standard-bearers for Detective Conan on home video in its original name, simply because Discotek released the two Lupin the 3rd vs Detective Conan crossovers. (Full disclosure: while I sometimes work with Discotek, I did not work on either of these films.) The thing is, there was real concern that the films' Japanese licensor would require Discotek to use the well-known “overseas” name, and then we would've been stuck with Lupin the 3rd vs. Case Closed! But it didn't happen. Just last year, Conan got a turn on the late-night comedy TV talk show hosted by Conan O'Brien, who glibly asserted that the famous manga/anime character was clearly profiting from his good name, and rode that joke all the way to Hokuei Town, where he was welcomed by a delegation of locals representing the famous detective and his manga creator, a local. The whole “Case Closed” deal wasn't really discussed in these segments, either. (I tried to reach “Coco” for comment, but for some reason, he wasn't listed on LinkedIn, so I wasn't able to ask if I could add him to my professional network.) Most recently, this year's Anime Expo featured the unexpected English-language premiere of the aforementioned Zero the Enforcer film… starring a brand-new dub cast, portraying Shinichi Kudo's pint-sized alter-ego and his clearly Japanese-named friends and adversaries. Does this mean the case is truly closed for Case Closed?
For now, it's a cold case, but some good memories of the franchise's wild stab at western success remain. Comments Adam Sheehan, “I personally wish that Detective Conan had a chance to find its audience. If it could have aired completely unedited for the late-night timeslot for at least one season… that would have been a good test, I feel.” In his opinion, the biggest challenge that Case Closed faced, beyond the fan-unfriendly changes, was that the show's cute art style is at odds with intense intense subject matter. The anime and manga localizers recall similarly good, interesting experiences. “The manga is filled with references to mystery literature,” comments Shaenon Garrity, ”And I try to honor that whenever possible.” Recalls Caitlin Glass, “Case Closed was also the first show I did any ADR directing for. Somewhere around episode 120 I did a handful of episodes, mostly revolving around the character we called Harley Hartwell (originally Heiji Hattori), Jimmy Kudo's rival. He's supposed to be from Osaka, so there's the rivalry between Tokyo and Osaka as well in the original version. Because of the localizing, our Harley was placed in Canada! I didn't have the actors give the incidental characters accents or anything, but an 'eh' or two might have made their way into the dub, just saying.” Mike McFarland recalls the show bringing opportunities for the studio's stable of actors to stretch out, and for directors like him to try out new talent. "I very much enjoyed working on the series," says McFarland. "It was different from so many of the other series we had worked on up to that point, and the different characters that showed up for each new mystery allowed lots of room to try out lots of different actors. It even offered up a chance for some seasoned actors from out-of-town to have a sizable episodic role!" Most amusingly, Alison Viktorin recalls a singular experience at an anime goods store. “One time, I went into a store to pick up a Conan toy,” she recalls, “And the employee looked at my then-boyfriend, now-husband and asked, 'Does she do the voice for you when you're alone?' My husband was totally horrified! I was so young… it's an interesting time to look back on.”
In talking to the professionals tasked with bringing Detective Conan to the west, and in the process transforming an already-transformed hero, one truth does prevail: the franchise enjoys a passionate and protective fan community— but that community had some trouble really engaging with Case Closed, and the series was just off-center enough that new audiences couldn't quite connect to it, either. In his comments to me, Sheehan compared it to the situation with One Piece when 4Kids were flogging it, but I think it's a bit more similar to Geneon and FUNimnation's contemporaneous attempts to turn Lupin the 3rd into a big deal. A decade later, the right approach from another publisher finally yielded some fruit. Maybe that's what Detective Conan needs! I, for one, sure would like to see the latest movie, The Fist of the Blue Sapphire, in American theatres. In the meantime, there are still some mysteries to solve—who did write that Case Closed style book? One truth may prevail, but this particular truth has not emerged… yet.
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