By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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:
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.
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.
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."
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.)
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.
In some cases, he has redone small scenes; Byron is the one responsible for Gohan's being picked up by his shoulders rather than by his hair. He makes the alterations that can't be simply clipped clean by a video editor, as in a too-skimpy bikini or a cigarette in someone's mouth. The work load is a lot less now that FUNimation has left syndication with Saban and moved to The Cartoon Network.
"I remember those days," he says, referring to preparing the first 53 episodes for syndication. "Sometimes we'd have 14-hour days. And when you'd sit there for that long erasing a woman's breasts, you'd just have to tie one on that night."
Byron Watson knows that, as the man hired to carry out FUNimation and The Cartoon Network's censorship instructions, he doesn't have the most glamorous or beloved job in the company. But it pays the bills. It beats house framing, which is what he had been doing. The hardest part, at first, was getting the hateful e-mail messages from strangers. It seems Dragonball Z fans are so passionate, they don't just criticize what FUNimation edits -- they criticize how they edit.
"I'd get an e-mail from some 14-year-old saying, 'That guy sucks dicks. I could do a better job repainting Gohan with my Commodore 64,'" Byron recalls. "I don't take it personally anymore, but when you first start getting that shit, man, it hurts."
Although FUNimation was incorporated in Fort Worth, the company has been using area voice talent for only a year. Prior to that, producer and voice director Barry Watson would fly to Canada to supervise loops at a Vancouver studio that handled some 300 animated shows a year. With executive offices in California and licensing headquarters in Alabama, Watson and crew began to feel as though they were being jerked all over the North American map. Shipping delays began to affect the rate at which Americanized versions of Dragonball Z could be recorded and mixed.
The decision was made to consolidate in Fort Worth (although licenses are still sold out of Alabama). Initially, Watson says, there was some trepidation. "There were a shaky few weeks here while we surveyed the scene," he notes.
National and international companies brought $60 million worth of business in TV commercials and corporate and industrial films to Dallas in 1998. But it could take approximately 40 hours a week for six months to create a cycle of new Dragonball Z, and that's not typical for the studios and the available talent who want to make a living off their voices. Not to mention that most cartoons are looped first and animated around the voices. Even seasoned, professional voice actors aren't used to trying to sync their voices to lips on a TV screen.
"It's kind of like dancing," Watson says. "You have to have rhythm. Some people we auditioned had amazing voices, but when you tried to get them to do it rhythmically, they just couldn't."
"The rhythm part wasn't difficult for me," says John Freeman of Denton art-rock band Dooms U.K., who played supervillain Vinegar -- "a big purple killing machine with Viking horns" who was destroyed after about 10 episodes. "What was hard for me was having a naturally higher voice and then doing this evil character who had a deep, gravelly voice. At the end of the sessions, I'd sound like Tom Waits. But I didn't have too many lines. Most of it was grunting. About 80 percent was evil cackling. But I had a blast. I hope I get to tour all the fantasy conventions and sign autographs."
The new vocal talent are stage actors, standup comics, singers, librarians, even mothers from Denton, Fort Worth, and Dallas whom FUNimation casting director Chris Sabat enlists for characters both major and minor. He actually does about 20 different characters and is the only on-staff voice talent for the show. He insists he was instrumental in convincing Barry Watson and FUNimation that all the vocal chops they required could be found in the surrounding area. They began recording Texas voices in February 1999, and those shows, Dragonball Z's third season and its first post-Saban episodes with the Cartoon Network, began airing last September.
"The fans are just beginning to get over the shock of the voices being changed," Sabat says. "I think you'll find the e-mail starting to shift in the positive direction. I mean, in some ways, I can sympathize with the fans. When they changed actors on The Dukes of Hazzard because Tom Wopat -- God bless him -- thought he was going to start a singing career, I was pissed."
Sabat is currently a Dentonite who came to UNT on an opera scholarship, went back to Houston to tend to an ailing parent, came back as a Radio-Television-Film major, then chucked the whole college thing because he was already getting voiceover work -- a lot of phone-service announcements, along with radio and TV -- while folks with advanced degrees were scrounging for gigs. Sabat has a deep, rich, inflective voice that belies his small stature and kid face; there probably wasn't a lot he learned in UNT broadcast classes that didn't already come naturally. This background fuels his determination to look for talent, not credentials: Some of the performers they've used had never done this type of work before. He cites a UNT librarian, a woman with "one of the most incredible high-pitched voices I've ever heard."
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.
"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.
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 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.