Ghost Stories: The lightning bolt that struck future comedy
What is the perfect anime dub? Some common answers are Cowboy Bebop and Fullmetal Alchemist. Maybe Afro Samurai. Ask this question at an anime convention full of true believers, however, and the answer should be obvious.
ADV Film’s dub for Ghost Stories is infamous in the anime community. It was a conglomerate of offensive jokes about religion, race, gender, and mental illness that you wouldn’t normally see in a localization. Especially not one where most of the characters are 13 or younger.
According to ADV, Ghost Stories was a huge flop in Japan, so when they licensed it, they were told that they could do whatever they wanted to make it sell.
They only had to follow three rules:
- Do not change any of the names.
- Do not change the way the ghosts are killed.
- Do not change the meaning of the episode.
ADR Director Steven Foster followed these rules to a T and ended up with a mishmash of ridiculous bullshit and offensive stereotypes. The sole purpose was to shock the audience. While this unorthodox approach would be met with harsh criticism today, it was well-received by critics and fans at the time.
The cast consisted of Hillary Haag, Monica Rial, Chris Patton, and Greg Ayres. What many people don’t know is that they didn’t really have scripts to work with. Instead they were given outlines with minimal dialogue, forcing them to improv most of their lines. They were mostly given free range to do whatever the fuck they wanted within the rules and conditions set by the studio.
For better or worse, this is how the Ghost Stories dub was born.
Ghost Stories isn’t the first gag dub. The most popular is probably the Saban Entertainment’s dub of Samurai Pizza Cats. The earliest example I could find was the ZIV International dub of the 1978 Space Pirate Captain Harlock. They only dubbed four episodes, a more faithful dub for two episodes (1 and 9) and a gag dub for the other two (2 and 3).
ADV may not have been the first company to make a gag dub, but they capitalized on the gimmick and made the approach popular again. While it may have worked for Ghost Stories — and many consider it to be the grandfather of abridged series — it’s not appropriate for all titles. Sometimes it leads to things like this:
Which brings me to the question — how did Ghost Stories affect the future of dubs?
In order to answer this, we have to look at what’s happened with gag dubs in the 15 years since ADV’s release. Three examples of dubs that don’t follow the original script that I’d like to talk about are Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, Gintama, and Sextra Credit.
When Illumitoon Entertainment dubbed Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo in 2005 — the same year Ghost Stories came out in the US — the writers didn’t think Americans would understand the Japanese humor. They wanted to get the series on Cartoon Network, so they did what Phoenix Wright did and rewrote the jokes. This worked because Bobobo is a wacky character that fights with his nose hair. It’s also a kids show, so most people didn’t care.
This did not work when Sentai Filmworks dubbed Gintama in 2016. When the first season came out, it did not sit well with fans. Character personalities were changed, and the translation was full of American cultural references. The first episode had more than one John Cena joke. Let that sink in.
Sextra Credit is a strange case because it’s a hentai, and those don’t typically get dubbed. The dub was produced in 2006 by Kitty Media, the hentai division of Media Blasters. They also dubbed Bible Black. Apparently they weren’t satisfied with people sitting back and popping a boner while watching anime porn, so they gave it a ridiculous gag dub. Along with Bible Black, the dub went on to become a cult classic. They followed it up with A Time to Screw, which dared to ask the question on everyones mind: Have you ever tried to fuck a box?
Side note: The main voice actor for Sextra Credit and A Time to Screw is credited as Pete Meat.
Ghost Stories normalized the practice of dub writers ignoring the original script and opting to be offensive, ridiculous, and referential. For the most part, people didn’t care because the results were usually funny. That is, right up until Funimation dubbed a little show in 2012 called Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt.
I’m not gonna lie to you — Panty & Stocking is one of the reasons I stopped watching Funimation dubs. It’s overt sexual humor wasn’t funny to me, and it changed how they approached their dubs moving forward. It was the first step on the path to what I consider their downfall.
Even though Space Dandy and the simulcast dub trend didn’t start until 2014, Panty & Stocking was so popular that they started incorporating some of those nonsensical things into more of their dubs. They began changing things to the point that they don’t work.
One of the biggest examples is how they dubbed Reiji Ando in Prison School. Reiji has an unusually small face, but a normal voice in the Japanese version. That was the whole joke. Funimation negated this by giving him a funny voice. For no reason.
There was also a weird GamerGate reference in the simulcast dub, but they received so much backlash that it was removed from the home video release. And don’t even get me started on what they did to the Danganronpa 3 dub!
If ADV hadn’t popularized gag dubs with Ghost Stories, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen outside of the occasional hentai dub. Localization writers would be less inclined to take risks and add their dumb jokes. I may be a fan of Ghost Stories, but sometimes I wish it never happened, because dubs would be a little bit better without it.