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

But while the small changes FUNimation makes to the show may seem piddling to all but the outspoken margins of American anime fans, there is one point that's hard to debate: Dragonball Z is a violent show. Characters kick, punch, stab, slam, burn, crush, crunch, shoot, and explode. For starters.

Watson and Fukunaga defensively use the word "action" rather than violence, and both contend Dragonball Z is a "moral" show with a nerdy hero who says such things as "That's not playing fair." They insist the frenzied action is an integral part of the show. As Watson puts it, "If you're going to tie the hands of how bad the villains can be, then you tie the hands of the justice that's served when they're vanquished." And they're always vanquished -- or, at least, their nefarious deeds are always thwarted.

Watson insists those fans who think FUNimation heavily sanitizes the show are guided by a mistaken impression from so-called fansubs and fandubs -- unauthorized copies of the show dubbed or subtitled illegally and available widely on the Internet and in anime stores. (There are two such retail outlets in Dallas.)

Byron Watson used to frame houses; now, he uses his skills to hide some of Dragonball Z's more, ah, top-heavy elements.
Mark Graham
Byron Watson used to frame houses; now, he uses his skills to hide some of Dragonball Z's more, ah, top-heavy elements.
Chris Sabat tries to relax Melissa Bradley before an audition.
Mark Graham
Chris Sabat tries to relax Melissa Bradley before an audition.

The hardcore fans often insert English profanity in places where the Japanese translation could go either way. For instance, if Gohan, our monkey-tailed boy hero, screws up and utters an expletive, it could "correctly" be translated as either "Oh, fudge!" or "Oh, fuck!" But one isn't necessarily closer to the original Japanese dialogue than the other, and given that Toei, Ltd. originally targeted Japanese adolescents, it's simply a matter of transferring the standards for that same target audience in America.

It's a mission that Viz Communications, which publishes Dragonball Z comic books in the U.S., doesn't share. Fukunaga notes that comic publishers are more interested in keeping the original Japanese show pure (or is that impure?) for fans. Toys "R" Us made national headlines for their decision to pull Dragonball Z comics from the shelves because they contained a nude Gohan and a little girl who lifts her skirt to show an old man her panties.

Clearly, there was confusion about content responsibility: FUNimation makes cuts for Dragonball Z on The Cartoon Network, but they have nothing to do with the creation of the comics. But how many parents and Toys "R" Us execs do you think stopped to consider these different sources for the same title?

Barry Watson refers to a "malicious" recent Dallas Morning News story in which an angry Dallas dad compares the comics to soft porn. And in truth, if you compare even uncensored Dragonball Z to pornography, you obviously haven't rented a porn flick recently. Dragonball Z is not alone in incurring cross-cultural flaps: The American makers of Pokémon trading cards recently had to recall one because it featured an ancient Asian symbol for friendship that looks remarkably like the Nazi swastika. When stuff like this pops up, it seems to reinforce a general nervousness that Americans have about the 30-year-old Japanese phenomenon known as anime.

If Speed Racer was the first bit of Japanimation to burrow into the U.S. pop consciousness, that syndicated show appeared a long while before the term "anime" became Stateside lingo. Feature films such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell and the recent Perfect Blue and Princess Mononoke instead became synonymous with eerie, brooding, violent, sometimes erotic images that often don't moralize about sexuality and gore by Western conventions. Fukunaga thinks Americans stereotype and dismiss anime as a result.

"Because the first anime to come over to the States was the more outrageous stuff aimed at adults, people think that's all there is," he complains. "It would be just as ridiculous for a Japanese mother to say, 'I'm not going to let my child watch Bambi because The Simpsons is crude.' Pokémon has helped enormously to soften the American impression of anime, to realize that animators in Japan make it for all age levels."

But don't talk that "soften" stuff to purist American fans of Japanimation, especially where FUNimation is making the call. Message boards and Web sites all across the Internet were creaking under the weight of outrage when FUNimation changed the word "HELL" written across the chest of three demon brothers to "HFIL." What the hell is HFIL? It's short for "Home For Infinite Losers," a tyke-friendly version of eternal damnation. For Watson, this had as much to do with theological concerns as with dirty words, and there, he does err on the side of caution.

"Dragonball Z is filled with characters named Mr. Satan and references to gods and devils," he says. "The show has its own mythology that's very hierarchical. You bring that to America, and you start a whole other debate. There are many religious factions in this country that I'm not interested in angering. A kid's show is no place to start a theological discussion about heaven and hell."

Byron Watson, a former UNT painting major who also happens to be Barry Watson's brother, is an amiable fellow with a heavy Texas drawl who sits at his desk with a board on his lap. He moves a pencil-like object -- an electronic paintbrush -- over the board, and frame by frame on his computer screen, lines are redrawn, color fields are expanded, cleavage is covered up, blood is drained out.

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