Yuri Bear Storm and the Ikuhara Curse

For those not in the know, Texas dubbing studio FUNimation Entertainment recently acquired the rights to Yuri Bear Storm, aka the latest from Japanese mastermind Kunihiko Ikuhara. If this were any other show, my reaction would be along the lines of:


However, considering the past track record of Ikuhara’s work in the West, this is a massive relief. To understand why, I should give those not in the know a history lesson.

See, Ikuhara has a reputation for having his works ruined in translation. The extent has varied, but it began with 1992’s Sailor Moon. Those who’ve read my Shonen/Shoujo critique article should no doubt be aware that the show made its way to North America due to the efforts of DiC Entertainment. What you didn’t know was that Ikuhara helped write a great deal of the show’s episodes, although to what extent I’m not sure. Regardless, it was Sailor Moon, the ultimate “girly girl’s” show, that gave Ikuhara his start as an anime writer.

As expected for anything anime-related, a dub shortly followed. And one would think the dub would be good, especially for something so important in the anime world, but that wasn’t the case. And while the opening for the dub was fine, I kinda like it, the show itself was…um…why don’t I demonstrate with a video?

Courtesy of JayZarag.

Notice the difference between the two clips? In the Japanese, the exchange is sincere. It’s not a serious moment, it’s someone revealing his secret identity to someone else, but the use of music, dialogue, even animation? All played straight. There’s no hint of irony, sarcasm or humour anywhere, it’s 100% deadpan. Hence why it works so well.

The dub, on the other hand, is the opposite: the dialogue is forced, hammy and in-jokey, even making the main character an idiot. The music is generic. It cuts out important lines. The tone is comical. Nothing about that scene screams sincerity in the dub, hence why it fails.

And I wish this were an isolated incident, but it’s not. I was never the biggest fan of Sailor Moon growing up, but even then I thought it was stupid. The acting was hammy, the characters idiots, the music generic, the story cookie-cutter and the tacked on morals at the end, because DiC always included morals in their shows, forced and preachy beyond belief. It was only once I got older that I realized these were changes from the source material, and that they weren’t the only changes either. The show was also heavily censored, with inferences of playful nudity, lesbianism and Japanese culture either rewritten, edited or cut out altogether. In short, the show was barely a shell of its Japanese original by the time it arrived on TV.

Fortunately, Viz Media has taken it upon themselves to faithfully re-dub the entire show as of last year, so it’s not the best example of how Ikuhara’s work has been ruined anymore. This leads to Exhibit B, 1997’s Revolutionary Girl Utena.

Often considered to be Ikuhara’s magnum opus, Revolutionary Girl Utena, which tells the story of a girl who dresses like a boy, attends a royal academy and fights men in an attempt to win the heart of a maiden who’s been cursed (I hope I got that right,) is largely regarded as one of the best anime shows of the 90’s. I’ve yet to see the show in its entirety, let-alone a full episode, but from what I’ve gathered it’s laden with imagery, subtext and metaphors about puberty and female sexuality. Also, like Sailor Moon, it too was dubbed, this time courtesy of Nozomi Entertainment in the early-2000’s. And this time, it was surprisingly faithful to its source.

So how does this show’s fair in relation to Sailor Moon? Surely it can’t as horrible as-

Courtesy of 08dguy.

Okay, it’s…better. Considering Ikuhara’s first show had a horrible dub, you can tell the people behind this one were actually trying with such difficult material. However, the dub doesn’t feel too lively. I’m not an expert in analyzing English dubs, especially since I’m not trained in what qualifies as a good performance, but from what little I’ve gathered it’s a mid-point in “give a damn”. The characters all sound like they needed a few more takes with each line, and it overall comes off as passable, but nothing special. I’ll be generous and give it a C+ grade.

Then again, it’s a 4-minute clip of a much longer show. From what I’ve been told, the script lacks nuance and there are performances in it that are downright awful. I’ll leave it up to you to judge for yourselves what that means exactly, but the point isn’t about the reality that the dub deserved much better. I’m being lenient considering not much was known about dubbing when Revolutionary Girl Utena was released in English, but I can say for certain that every line in that clip, right down to Shiori’s scream at the end, lacks the emotion needed to make it convincing.

In other words, this was the beginning of “The Ikuhara Curse”, namely that any show Ikuhara writes would have a less-than-satisfactory dub.

But wait, it gets better! Between 1997 and 2011, Ikuhara took a break, save for writing a feature based on Revolutionary Girl Utena, from anime altogether. When he finally came back with Mawaru Penguindrum, fans were pleased. Sure, the show was more polarizing than his last, thanks to it tackling more ambiguous and cryptic themes, but it still made its way overseas in the form of a dub. This time, however, the studio was Sentai Filmworks, a company notorious for its bad business decisions and one of anime’s most-infamous ADR directors: Steven Foster. Having 16 years of experience in the anime dubbing industry, and someone who finally retired last year, Foster gained a reputation for being a joker when it came to anime. His dubs were notorious for their bad buns, hammy acting, poor translations and lack of quality care. That wasn’t to say that everything he did was that way, his work on Le Chevalier D’Eon is considered excellent, but even on a good day his work usually screamed “I don’t care about this stupid cartoon.”

For those who still don’t understand, here’s an example of Foster’s work:

Courtesy of MrHagarenViper.

Charming. FYI, that was unedited. There’s no joking here, this is genuine material from Guin Saga’s dub, 100% final. Steven Foster simply didn’t care when he oversaw it. Sure, the acting isn’t terrible, but it’s littered with bad jokes, bad puns and lines that make no sense whatsoever in context. And trust me when I say that this is only one example of his work.

Anyway, because of Foster’s reputation, people were concerned that Mawaru Penguindrum would be another one of his casualties. They weren’t disappointed. Not only was the casting off, but the dub…well, have a listen:

Courtesy of TheGateofTruth.

This one’s more difficult because, to be honest, I’ve heard far worse in older dubs. However, like Revolutionary Girl Utena, there’s more to it than that. The problem in both dubs is a lack of understanding of the material, that’s why they’re criticized. But where as Revolutionary Girl Utena had the excuse of being done back when dubbing was still relatively misunderstood, Mawaru Penguindrum doesn’t. It still lacks nuance, except this time the performers feel unenthusiastic despite their decency. It’s as if they were told to “give a bare bones performance” by Foster, which is enough to fool someone initially, but not enough to fool someone who’s paying attention. And for someone like myself, who-again-isn’t an expert on dubbing, it’s still laughably silly for what I’d assume is supposed to be a serious moment.

Essentially, it’s meh.

And this is why The Ikuhara Curse is so frustrating for me: on one hand, I have a real issue with subtitles, as I suffer from concentration issues despite a strong reading comprehension level. As someone who enjoys anime, I want good shows to come over here so I can see why they’re well-loved. On the other hand, I also want good translations of these shows. And when the end-result turns out to be awful (Sailor Moon,) poor (Revolutionary Girl Utena,) or flat-out mediocre (Mawaru Penguindrum,) well…what does that say about the anime in question?

Which leads to why I’m so excited that Yuri Bear Storm is licensed by FUNimation Entertainment. Say what you will about the previous shows, but FUNimation has a respectable track-record when it comes to dubbing. Not everything they’ve done is fantastic, but they’re no stranger to nuance and bizarre (see Spice & Wolf and Ouran High School Host Club, for example.) And yes, there’s a chance that it’ll have a less-than-satisfactory dub, I don’t deny that. But it’ll be a honest mistake this time, not a blatant disregard for intent or a lack of understanding. In other words, at least they’ll try.

Besides, I’m long-overdue for some Ikuhara nonsense anyway. Isn’t that enough to be excited?


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