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

FUNimation was formed in 1994 with a handful of private investors headed by Fort Worth's Daniel Cocanougher. The intention was to release Dragonball in the States, but the company's creators decided to forsake the more kiddie-oriented Dragonball after they had dubbed, remixed, and rescored 13 episodes of that first series and moved on to Dragonball Z. Under company president Gen Fukunaga, FUNimation bought the master license to Dragonball Z in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, giving it the right to exploit its full commercial potential in arenas from home video to merchandising.

Along with the master Dragonball Z tapes from Toei, Ltd. come direct, often bizarrely obtuse English translations of the Japanese dialogue, which are turned into rhythmic English dialogue by script writers and veteran voice actors in Austin and Canada. Bergmeier, the script supervisor, and Sabat punch it up even more, adding references to 401(k)s and collectively christening three villains named Mustard, Vinegar, and Garlic Jr. "The Spice Boys."

In short, it is the responsibility of FUNimation to Americanize a wildly popular anime phenomenon -- even if that means deleting some of the show's more graphic (and, perhaps, appealing) elements.

Barry Watson, Dragonball Z producer, wrestles with the definitions of "action" and "violence."
Mark Graham
Barry Watson, Dragonball Z producer, wrestles with the definitions of "action" and "violence."
Gen Fukunaga awaits the day when Dragonball Z merchandise brings in the Pokémon-ey.
Mark Graham
Gen Fukunaga awaits the day when Dragonball Z merchandise brings in the Pokémon-ey.

Before joining cable outlet The Cartoon Network in 1998, FUNimation licensed a syndication company called Saban to distribute Dragonball Z for Saturday-morning broadcasts across the country. Many of the fans who are outraged at the censoring done to Dragonball Z focus their rage on these first 53 episodes, which were edited according to standards for network syndication rather than cable. Also, for reasons that aren't entirely clear to FUNimation execs, Saban imposed stiff guidelines through contracted third-party censorship teams.

Fukunaga says it's not uncommon in a children's entertainment industry periodically pummeled by congressmen and parents' groups to have its content watchdogs hired from the outside. Politically, it's smart; if people start complaining, you can always blame the third-party censors for their decisions.

But even so, "[Saban was] extra harsh on us," Fukunaga admits. "I'm really not sure why, except that possibly, since they didn't own the show and weren't making that kind of profit on it, they weren't willing to risk backlash."

From whom isn't always clear in the slippery world of TV programming content. Contrary to popular belief, the FCC offers few hard, clear don'ts in the guidelines it issues for American television. The feds have determined, somewhat vaguely, that there are different standards for broadcast (the free programming that includes CBS, ABC, NBC, et al.) and cable, which is invited into the home of the viewer via monthly fees. There are also different standards for children's and adult's programming, mostly having to do with the time period in which the program is aired. But they pretty much leave it up to the programmers to keep their noses clean.

The Cartoon Network and FUNimation make the calls about the Dragonball Z content for American audiences, using the fact that they've been rated "TVY7" (suitable for ages 7 and older) by the federally mandated TV ratings systems. This is merely a label used to warn viewers what to expect, and it doesn't come with an itemized list of compulsory edits. It's actually bestowed after the programmers make their cuts. In general, the stuff that's trimmed or computer-painted out, frame by frame, consists of your predictable naughty bits -- cleavage, cigarettes, beer bottles.

Also removed for U.S. viewers is spurting, flowing, or coughed-up blood (turns out pools of blood and blood stains are A-OK) and what is called in the kid's entertainment biz "imitatable violence" as opposed to "fantasy violence" -- say, kicking someone in the face vs. destroying a mountain with energy blasts from your palms.

But Dragonball Z has always been intended for older children and teenagers in Japan; the show has never been explicit in its language or sexuality. Dragonball Z producer Barry Watson thinks the difference between broadcast syndicator Saban's version and the Cartoon Network's version is overstated.

Indeed, if you compare the censored episodes with the uncensored ones FUNimation releases on video, there is little discernible difference in the level of mayhem. When you get into an argument about blood stains versus blood flowing, even Watson and Fukunaga admit that it's ridiculous. Problem is, discussions about children's programming too often end for righteous watchdogs over these niggling details. When the word "violence" is raised, they refuse to make distinctions about the nature or purpose of that violence, apparently desiring to remove conflict -- the fulcrum of drama -- from kids' consciousnesses altogether.

But Watson does have a theory as to why Saban might have been extra cautious.

"They were probably nervous because they had been the syndicators of The Power Rangers on American television," he says. "They had gotten some strong feedback about that show, and it made an impression on them. They were very sensitive about bringing another action show to TV. Even so, some of their censorship decisions baffled me. They told us to take out the word 'idiot' because it was a clinical term for mental illness and we might offend people. We said, 'You don't want us to call someone an idiot because an idiot might be offended?' Getting away from Saban and The Power Rangers has been good for us."

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