America has always had a strange relationship with Japanese media and pop culture. From the weirdness of DiC’s Sonic Cartoons to everything about Digimon: The Movie, it’s plain to see that licensing companies rarely trusted Japanese material in its original form. In fact, Digimon: The Movie, specifically its soundtrack, brings up one of the most interesting and bizarre aspects of America’s long history of localizing anime: music. For most of the 90s and early 2000s, anime licensing companies like Saban and 4Kids saw fit to create brand new theme songs and re-cut openings for their shows’ English dubs.
For a generation of anime fans, almost every one of our favorite shows had a unique, sometimes incredibly catchy American theme song. But why exactly did localizers feel the need to replace original anime openings? To answer this, we must delve into the history of America’s relationship with Japanese media.
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Early Anime Exports
While anime streaming services are a relatively recent development, America has been importing Japanese cartoons since Osamu Tezuka’s Mighty Atom was turned into Astro Boy in the states. The theme song of Mighty Atom was translated and re-sung in English to incorporate the show’s new title, a choice that makes perfect sense, thus not what I would consider the first example of weird dub-original theme songs — this was merely a translation.
No, the earliest example of the classic American dub opening came in the form of the next big anime to be exported to America, Gigantor. This was the first anime to have a theme song written specifically for its American release, as well as a recut opening — here’s the original and here’s the American version. With this change, Gigantor would lay the groundwork for what would become the most utilized method of presenting an anime to an American audience: creating a new, shorter theme song to sell the idea of the show.
The Saban/4Kids Method
Licensing companies Saban and 4Kids were, in their prime, the kings of the dub. If there was an anime that could possibly be reconfigured into a kids’ show, you could bet either one of them would scoop up the franchise and attempt to turn it into an American phenomenon. The first significant example? Dragon Ball Z.
DBZ provided Saban with the perfect model for dubbing and distributing anime in the future; moderate edits (rather than the heavy edits/repackaging that resulted in prior series like Samurai Pizza Cats) and, more importantly, a kickass theme song, which, for DBZ came in the form of the metal-riff-infused “Rock the Dragon.” And, boy did it work. DBZ did gangbusters for Saban, and 4Kids would soon follow in its footsteps, picking up a little franchise by the name of Pokémon, which outdid DBZ so badly that Saban retaliated by picking up their own “mon” series, Digimon.
Thus, an arms race of sorts began, the war of the Saturday morning anime fought between the licensing companies of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. The greatest weapons used to wage this war? Original theme songs.
The Anisong Vs. The Commercial
Companies were fighting to make their licensed anime series the next DBZ or Pokémon, and to do that, they needed viewers, customers for their product. And how do you get people to “buy” your product? Marketing. That’s what dub openings were. In the age of channel surfing, every Saturday morning cartoon was fighting for kids’ attention. And so, anime had to adopt the same commercial-like openings of American-produced series, ones that could sell the idea of and up the rad factor of a show in as little as five seconds. This was the standard for selling toyetic cartoons in the US, and American broadcasts of anime eventually adopted the method. Additionally, the dub opening may have served the purpose of making a foriegn show feel less so by having a theme song and visuals similar to that of American action shows of the time.
With anime, the original openings served more-or-less the same purpose as openings of adult dramas or really any TV show that wasn’t meant for kids. They served to set the mood, to establish themes. But, since animation had a reputation of only being for kids in America, popular anime were all edited and censored to be kids’ shows for their English dub. And so, the theme songs had to be changed to compete with other shows, the openings being made much shorter and filled with action-packed clips of the series, visual hooks to keep kids watching. This is how we got such hits as One Piece’s Dub opening, Kirby: Right Back At Ya!’s boppin’ Jazz track, Sonic X’s (eventually meme-inspiring) “Gotta Go Fast,” Digimon Frontier’s chant-heavy “World For Us All,” and Shaman King’s catchy-as-hell theme song, all of which have no right to rock as hard as they do.
But the system wasn’t perfect. It also produced results like Saint Seiya’s conversion into Knights of the Zodiac, featuring a Bowling For Soup cover of a Flock of Seagulls song. Or consider Rave Master’s “Rave-olution,” which was written and performed by Reel Big Fish. Both of these were failed attempts to use popular bands of the time to boost appeal. Other attempts to be “hip with the kids” would mean incorporating hip-hop and rap elements, like with Monster Rancher’s opening, and Dragon Ball GT’s… whatever this is. There were also some genuine stinkers, like Beyblade’s opening and the maybe-a-little-racist theme song of Fighting Foodons. Then there were the lazier efforts that simply put an instrumental over eye-catching clips from the show, such as Zoids and Naruto’s first dub opening.
The Death of the Dub Theme Song
So what happened to the dub opening? By 2010, it was practically extinct, and to this day, it really only exists in legacy series — long-running kids’ franchises like Pokémon and Beyblade where it’s tradition to have an alternate dub theme song. The death of the dub opening is due to a combination of a few different things. Partly, it’s a result of the mainstreaming of anime in the US and the collapse of companies like 4Kids. But another significant factor is the advent of streaming services, and before that, widespread DVD distribution. Anime isn’t competing for attention on American television anymore. You can choose what you want to watch whenever you want to watch it, thus the dub opening isn’t needed to hook viewers in with flashy, action-packed clips. What was once the norm is now a thing of the past, a strange relic that only lives as nostalgia for some, embarrassing memories for others.
But, for kids of the ‘90s and early 2000’s, the Americanized dub with a wacky opening was the only way we knew anime. So while we look back on the dubious dubs of anime past and their cheesy Americanized openings with facepalms and regret, there’s no denying that, by many accounts, the dub openings did their job. We got hooked on these shows, and by extension, hooked on anime as a whole. We may never want to hear that old One Piece opening ever again, but without it, I, and many other fans my age, may have never formed a lifelong love of anime.