When it comes to the industry of television, there is barely any margin for error. There are any number of things that can go wrong and seal a project’s fate. Whether it be poor writing, slipping interest from viewers or just plain bad luck for the production staff, there is hardly any room for second chances. But despite this, one Japanese anime that was doomed to fade into obscurity became an unlikely success years after its release. By transforming from a mediocre adventure story into an outrageous dark comedy, the anime Ghost Stories got a second chance at life.
Ghost Stories first started out as a series of books calledGakkou No Kaidan, written by teacher Tōru Tsunemitsu. Tōru collected stories from his pupils, some of which included pieces of folklore, and rewrote them to be easy for children to read, releasing the first volume in 1990. The book’s popularity grew to the point where it would inspire many different adaptations, such a mini-series, movies and even a video game. However, one of these adaptations would go on to make history in the genre of anime, and that was Ghost Stories.
Even before its release, the show had a lot of hype behind it. It was being animated by Studio Pierrot, a heavyweight within the world of Japanese animation, having done projects like Yu Yu Hakusho and Great Teacher Onizuka in the 90s and eventually going on to work on anime classics like Naruto, Bleach, and Tokyo Ghoul. It was to be directed by Noriyuki Abe, who was the director of Great Teacher Onizuka, with music by Kaoru Wada, the composer of Inyuasha. The talent that was working on Ghost Stories didn’t stop there: among the voice actors were Takako Honda (who regularly acts as the dubbing voice actress for Halle Berry and Milla Jovovich as well as her many anime projects) and Ryūsei Nakao (the voice of Freeza from Dragon Ball).
It seemed like it was slated for success: it came from best selling source material, was being adapted by a studio with many accolades under its belt, and had many talented individuals working on it. The project was in safe hands. The show itself is a twenty-episode long anime that follows a group of friends who try to exorcise the ghosts terrorizing their hometown. The first episode aired on the 22nd of October 2000, and despite all the hard work that went into it, Ghost Stories bombed. According to a Q and A with one of the dub actors, it was the fact that it wasn’t so well received by Japanese audiences that would determine its future.
It was a change in the anime market that would give Ghost Stories another chance. Animes like Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon would cement the medium’s place in Western pop culture towards the end of the millennium, and anime’s popularity in North America would explode during the early to mid-2000’s. Additionally, Manga was finally being released in English and the internet served as more fuel for the fire, expanding fan connections, with early search engines being used as a popular method of finding related content. With that, licensing companies competed to dub any anime that they could get their hands on.
Five years after the first episode aired in Japan, an American multimedia studio called A.D. Vision AKA ADV films would obtain the rights for Ghost Stories. During the licensing process, Japanese studios would typically give the American licence holders certain guidelines on how to handle their project. However, Ghost Stories wasn’t handled to the same extent as other animes. Instead of a structured set of legalities and guidelines, ADV films were basically told anything goes. The Japanese producers didn’t really care what they did with it, as long as it made money. The only conditions that they were given were that the names of the characters and the basic plot structure of each of the episodes would stay the same.
And so it gave rise to one of the most infamous English dubs in the genre.
The dubbing was written bySteven Foster, who at the time worked as ADV’s ADR Director. But instead of simply translating the original script, the dub did a complete flip, replacing the serious dialogue with more comedic writing. In addition, the voice actors were given leeway to improvise and throw in lines they found funny. Much like the original, the voice talents behind the dub were big names in the trade: Chris Patton (who provided voices for Fullmetal Alchemist, Dragon Ball Z, and Soul Eater), Monica Rial (gen:LOCK, Assassination Classroom, and One Piece) and Greg Ayres (Clannad, Samurai 7, Ouran High School Host Club) just to name a few.
A lot of the jokes in the new-look Ghost Stories included pop culture references, politically questionable jokes about religion, race and sexuality, as well as the show’s poor animation quality. One of the more innocent bits of comedy features voice actor Rob Mungle thanking the people behind the production for the opportunity, but usually it wasn’t that gentle. As an example, one scene features the characters going down a hallway, hunting a ghost, which originally saw the exchange:
“Wow, you’re all so courageous. Huh? There’s something there.”
So, some no-frills dialogue written to create tension. Meanwhile, the same scene in the English dub went like this:
“You’re such brave strong handsome men. Have you accepted Jesus as your personal saviour?”
“No, I’m Jewish!”
One other example is when Amanojaku, a demon entity sealed in the body of a cat, is being held in a cat basket and ends up trying to convince one of the group to let him out.
“I see, so you’re going to treat me as a culprit too.”
Pretty normal, and then the dub:
“You pussy! You always do what your big sister tells you too!”
It was this approach that made the dub so infamous. Even the characters got a complete rewrite, with the student characters receiving more adult dialogue and unrecognisable when compared to their Japanese counterparts: most notably, the character of Momoko is a hardcore born-again evangelist who condemns anyone who doesn’t follow in her beliefs, when she used to be a quiet but polite school girl in the original.
Though anime fans hated the dub when it first came out for its sharp deviation from the original, it has since garnered appreciation and a following much like any cult classic. ADV films has since gone under as a company, but their dub of Ghost Stories still lives on. Some fans even contemplate that it could be the first example of an abridged anime due to its self-parodic nature – abridgments are projects which feature the original animated source material, but alter the script to typically be more comedic.
Ghost Stories is certainly one of the most famous examples of these ‘gag dubs’. While abridgements have taken off, like SAOA or Neon Genesis Evangelion Abridged, Ghost Stories is the only officially licensed dub of its kind. As for the Japanese producers, as far as they were concerned, what was originally a disastrous flop turned into pure offensively hilarious gold.
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