International incident

Dragonball Z is the Cartoon Network's top-rated show, thanks to a Fort Worth-based company that's unleashing a controversial American version of this Japanese hit

Gohan, the spiky-haired, monkey-tailed kid hero of Dragonball Z, has fallen asleep during his studies. He dreams he is being embraced by his long-lost father Goku, a tower of muscle with a geyser of brunette hair sticking straight out of his head. Parent and child stare into each other's eyes with relief and longing, but the dream quickly becomes a nightmare.

Little Gohan is abruptly in the icy metallic grip of one of his arch-nemeses, Frieza, a silvery androgynous giant who looks like a cross between the monster in Alien and Batman's Mr. Freeze. Sweat pours down Gohan's face as Frieza leans in close and hisses slowly:


It's Japanimazing! Chris Sabat, one of the main men behind FUNimation's version of Dragonball Z, voices Vegeta, seen on the screen behind him.
Mark Graham
It's Japanimazing! Chris Sabat, one of the main men behind FUNimation's version of Dragonball Z, voices Vegeta, seen on the screen behind him.
The holy trinity of Dragonball Z, from top: Goku, Piccolo, and Gohan
The holy trinity of Dragonball Z, from top: Goku, Piccolo, and Gohan

But the hiss comes out as an asthmatic squeak -- nothing to be afraid of here. Linda Chambers, the voice of Frieza, has fallen prey to the flu bug that's swept across North Texas and, thus, the Dragonball Z universe -- specifically, the FUNimation headquarters in Fort Worth. Sitting alone in a black recording box with a microphone and a script, facing a big-screen TV upon which the animated video is paused on Frieza staring down Gohan, Chambers apologizes profusely. Still, she can't salvage a decent evil tone from the wreckage of her respiratory infection.

"We need the voice you used before," says FUNimation casting and voice director Chris Sabat, urging Chambers toward a more unabashedly evil direction. "Very confident. You should relish what you're saying." He has headphones on and is speaking into a handheld microphone.

Next to Sabat sits John Bergmeier, audio engineer and script supervisor, who keeps his hand on a computer mouse that commands the Dragonball Z video to move forward or rewind so they can dub in the characters' voices. Sabat refers to this as "the ironic recording session," because even as father and son embrace on screen, Bergmeier is helping direct Linda Chambers -- his mother -- to relish the torment her villainous character is heaping upon our young hero.

Chambers tries her best, but it's a no-go. She's afraid of ruining her vocal chords if she pushes herself too hard.

"I'd say your voice is a quarter of what it usually is," says a concerned Sabat.

Sympathetic, he reschedules her for next week on a big wall chart. After everyone grabs a cookie from the batch she baked and brought in, Chambers sits down to talk to her son in the cramped, makeshift recording room of FUNimation. The atmosphere is just as convivial as beer and cookies, mothers visiting sons. You could almost call it a college atmosphere, because a big chunk of the FUNimation staff -- including audio engineers, the Web site manager, the script supervisor, the casting director, much of the voice talent, and the computer painter who censors out the Japanese cartoon's violent and licentious edges -- are University of North Texas students and current or past residents of Denton. They've converged on two floors of a bank building on Loop 820 in Fort Worth to edit, score, dub, and mix the American version of Dragonball Z, the Cartoon Network's top-rated show -- and, perhaps, the heir to Pokémon's explosive success with the American mainstream.

If you watch episode by episode, the fast-paced, ferocious Dragonball Z is deceptively simple -- just a repetitious series of WWF-style face-offs between a group of earthbound good guys and the cosmic evildoers who attempt to take control of the world. But there is an overarching design to the show that's somewhere between Greek mythology and soap opera: Viewers -- nearly two million of them -- watch the protagonists grow up, grow old, fall in love, fight for their cause, and, in some cases, die for it. The separate adventures of Dragonball Z, called sagas, last until the particular villain who's battling the Z fighters is vanquished.

Yet FUNimation has experienced some sagas of its own along the road to shaping America's second-favorite Japanime show. This cabal of Denton-Fort Worth-Dallas talent has had to weather national syndicators nervous about violence in children's programming, as well as the reflected infamy of a recent Toys "R" Us decision to pull Dragonball Z comics from its shelves because of some nude content. But there's pressure mounting from the other side, as delirious Cartoon Network viewers are frustrated that their hunger for Americanized versions of the show is bigger than the manpower of the relatively tiny company.

And that's not even mentioning the rabid anime fans, many of whom abhor what FUNimation has done to their favorite Japanese show. So is FUNimation's Dragonball Z "gay and crappy," as one typically charming e-mail diatribe states, or is it "the greatest show ever made for TV," reflecting the other extreme?

"We're pinched in the middle," says producer Barry Watson, just one of the locals caught between fans and detractors. Who would have thought Fort Worth would be battered by an international anime hailstorm?

Dragonball Z has boasted top ratings in England, Mexico, France, and Spain for years, where uncensored versions of the show have appeared ever since Toei, Ltd. -- the animation company often called "The Walt Disney of the Orient" -- began producing the show in Japan in 1987. There are actually three parts to the DB TV mythology -- Dragonball, Dragonball Z (by far the most action-oriented of the trio), and Dragonball GT, all of which deal with the same family (namely, Goku and Gohan). DBGT, the third show, just recently stopped production in Japan.

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