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

Sabat's Denton connections have made that city, Fort Worth, and then Dallas the exclusive pool for the dozens of characters that populate the Dragonball Z universe. A number of folks from the Good/Bad Art Collective have participated. Sonny Strait, who cofounded Impulse Theatre of the Fearless, voices Gohan's best friend Krillin, as well as Cartoon Network announcements during the weekday 4-6 p.m. "Toonami" block the show inhabits. Brad Jackson, Chuck Huber, Bart Myer, and Lydia Mackey, all constant presences on Fort Worth stages and members of the improv troupe Fuzzy Logic, regularly loop with Sabat and John Bergmeier.

And then there's monkey-tailed hero Gohan himself...or herself: Stephanie Nadolny, a blond and ebullient backup singer for Vince Vance and the Valiants. The rule for being a Valianette, she reveals, is that "your butt can't be bigger than your hair," so criss-crossing tresses of near-platinum are piled high atop her head, keeping her bottom a distant second. She does a raspy little-boy voice that sounds a bit like a smarter version of Milhouse from The Simpsons and nothing at all like Stephanie Nadolny. She isn't a voiceover professional, but hanging back and watching her cook in that little recording booth, you can see the wisdom in Chris Sabat's mission. No academic degree could prepare someone for the way this woman matches her lip movements with Gohan's and still comes out with an unfettered, expressive character voice.

She reads from a script formatted into blocks of lines by John Bergmeier, who uses his computer mouse to click on a character name. The scene for that line appears on the big-screen TV, and three electronic beeps inside Nadolny's headphones cue her when to begin reading. Even with Nadolny's crack-shot professionalism, Sabat and Bergmeier have her repeat lines over and over to match the human voices to the cartoon mouths as closely as possible. It's fairly arduous, even banal work, especially for the actors who play major characters. There's a reason the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors accept lower hourly payments for animation voice actors: They realize these performers work longer hours than, say, your average Nissan TV commercial pitchperson.

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

"I think the Japanese have more tolerance in general for bad dubbing than Americans do," Sabat explains of his oft-repetitious voice directions. "In fact, the history of Japanese television is badly dubbed American products. The volume of product they get from us is much greater than what we get from them, so they've just grown accustomed to it."

But if the Japanese have grown acclimated to watching voices that don't match mouths because of the language difference, there are scores of American Dragonball Z fans who feel cheated, babied, condescended to by the American alterations.

"Hey, if it was up to me, I'd run it with all the cigarettes, beer, cleavage, and coughed-up blood the Japanese have," Sabat declares. "But we're trying to bring the product to the American eye, and that means there are things the FCC doesn't want us to show. People in America come from crazy, diverse backgrounds, so there's less agreement about content here the way the Japanese are able to agree as a culture."

There are three kinds of disgruntled Dragonball Z fans -- those purists who hate FUNimation because of the changes they make to the show for American TV; those who hate FUNimation for changing the voices in its third season; and those who hate how long it takes the company to dub, mix, edit, and score the new, Americanized episodes.

Right now, the Fort Worth FUNimation offices get hundreds, sometimes thousands of e-mails a day; workers divide the messages into "Good Feedback" and "Bad Feedback." Certainly, there is plenty of effusive praise from what seems to be mostly 12- to 17-year-old males -- lots of misspelled messages that say things like, "You guys are the best thing to happen to television since color. I watch the show every day. Its [sic] like a religious custom and im [sic] a fanatic."

Much of the "Bad Feedback" can be chalked up to the frustration fans experience at coming to the end of one saga, then having to wade through weeks of reruns (specifically, the first 53, Saban-diluted episodes, which now also appear on Cartoon Network) to get to a new one. Then, there are the one-line flames -- "You whores!" and "Frieza is a lez" -- from fans who simply can't stomach the edits and the new voices. Snowballing in length and intensity are the e-mails that read, "You people suck! You should change your name to FUCKthenation! I hope you people rot in the deepest, darkest, hottest riegions [sic] of hell!" to an articulate 15-page complaint about the new American score (recorded in North Dallas) and a comparison of the Canadian voices and the new Texas voices. Watson does not know how this viewer managed to ascertain who does what character, since actor and character names are not matched in the closing credits.

When you turn the microscope on addicted American anime fans, there's very little in the way of change they'll tolerate, even if there's a lot of hard work put into the Dragonball Z looping process. As usual, the Internet can be relied upon to unearth the fanatics in any realm, and they heap scorn with (usually badly misspelled) relish on FUNimation.

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