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

The scorching criticism can perhaps best be summed up by one Web posting, the eight-point "Rules and Notations of FUNimation" that includes the following fictitious guidelines supposedly posted on the Fort Worth office walls: "2. Nothing may be translated. We here at FUNimation thrive on bad dubbing and awful character voices. We can't give our mature viewers what they want, now can we?" and "7. When a character makes a facial expression, he MUST be saying something. Piccolo grits his teeth: 'RRRrrr.' Kuririn shakes his head: 'Uh-HUH.'"

Sabat admits this criticism hurts sometimes, because he insists his crew puts a lot of sweat and soul into the Americanized version of Dragonball Z. Indeed, 12-hour days are a frequent occurrence in the recording studio. But that is precisely FUNimation's mission -- to Americanize it, to make judgment calls about trimming down episodes for time constraints, including the removal of what is an anime trademark, long pan shots full of ominous passages of silence.

Sabat insists that silence has more significance to Japanese audiences than to American ones. To U.S. viewers of the Cartoon Network and syndicated Saturday-morning TV, it simply means a sudden break in the action. But he notes that FUNimation is about to expand into the anime-snob market by releasing the unedited Japanese series with English subtitles on DVD.

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

"It's definitely a love-hate relationship," Watson says of Dragonball Z's American audiences. "They're the most devout fanbase anyone could hope for, but that means they keep you on your toes. The same person will send us an e-mail one week that says, 'I hate Frieza's voice,' and the next week they'll say, 'Piccolo sounds better [than in the Japanese version]."

They may be venting their frustrations with FUNimation, but American audiences are not switching off the Cartoon Network weekday afternoons. The show averages about 1.7 million viewers per episode, prompting the national cable station to program two more anime series. Media outlets from The New York Post to Billboard are already predicting that Dragonball Z will soon eclipse Pokemon in popularity, if only because the wild action in the former guarantees a wider appeal with everyone from junior-high schoolers to college students (Dragonball Z videos with the FUNimation imprint regularly appear on Billboard's top 40 sellers).

It's not easy walking around Fukunaga's Fort Worth offices, as the floor is piled high with toys shipped from major American companies trying to obtain a license to make Dragonball Z merchandise. FUNimation has about three more years' worth of dubbing, mixing, and scoring the American Dragonball Z before there are no episodes left, but right now they feel poised on the edge of mainstream breakout. Helping fuel all this commercial success is a Denton-Fort Worth-Dallas network of actors who are becoming famous internationally for their voices, not their names.

"I need a bloodcurdling scream," Barry Watson says, sticking his head in the small FUNimation recording room. "I mean, a really terrified, teenage-girl kind of yell."

Stephanie Nadolny, as Gohan, sits back from the microphone inside that little black box and begins wailing her head off. Sabat urges her to repeat it: longer, louder, more agony.

"Remember, dear, you're being torn apart by cats," Sabat says. "More agony, more horror."

Nadolny takes a deep breath and lets 'er rip, ending this longest scream with a dying trail-off. The third time's a charm. For an instant, you believe this woman has just been dismantled by felines. Soon enough, she'll find out whether the fans take her apart as mercilessly.

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