The Phantom of Ghost Stories: Double standards in the war on “localization”

By: Jairus Taylor February 10, 20230 Comments
the cast of Ghost Stories looks upset about something

When it comes to anime dubs, few are as famous (or infamous) as the ADV dub to Ghost Stories. What started as some actors messing around in the booth eventually became the most well known gag dub to ever exist. Gag dubs, for those unaware, refer to anime dubs made with the specific attempt of parodying or otherwise poking at its source material, as opposed to directly adapting it or only taking a few liberties with how a series is translated. Having seen a couple of Ghost Stories episodes myself, I personally rolled my eyes at a lot of its edgy attempts at humor and thought just about all of it aged poorly. Still, regardless of how anyone feels about the Ghost Stories dub itself, its legacy is virtually inescapable, and it’s had a big impact on how we talk about localization and translation in anime, even to this day.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “Oh wow, this dub is pretty funny, it’s just like Ghost Stories!”. While this certainly isn’t a new trend by any means, as anime and anime dubs become more widely accessible, and streaming and social media have made it easier than ever to post clips of scenes, it’s gotten harder to come across a shared dub clip for an anime comedy (and sometimes even dubs of more serious shows) that doesn’t immediately draw this comparison. In some respects, it’s not entirely unwarranted. Anime comedies, and especially many of those produced by Funimation in their heyday such as Desert Punk, Shin-chan, or Hensuki, would often get punched up for the English dub, with crasser jokes, more foul language, and maybe a couple of modern media references if they could be snuck in somewhere. 

The Ghost Stories kids in a group

Obviously your mileage will vary as to how much these localization decisions actually work for you (and many of these dubs have certainly been hit or miss for me). But since the general goal for an anime comedy is to be well, funny, and punchlines don’t always carry the same effect when they’re translated directly, being fast and loose with translation choices is a lot more forgiving when it comes to comedies than shows with more dramatic elements so long as the overall context for the show remains the same. 

Of course, if you’ve been around the internet (and especially Anime Twitter) for more than five minutes, you would know that “forgiving” is the last word anyone would use to describe the discourse around translation these days. Some people are even outright hostile towards translators and have turned the term “localization” into a kind of bogeyman for the idea of translators inserting their own politics into a story, or actively trying to hack away at problematic source material in order to clean it up for western, presumed American, audiences. The most frequently cited examples of this are usually things like Prison School with its infamous “what are you, one of those Gamergate creepshows?” line, which was eventually removed and changed to be closer to the original Japanese dialogue for the home video release; or the “oh those pesky patriarchal demands were getting on my nerves so I changed clothes” line in season one of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, which wasn’t.

Tohru pumps her fist excitedly

While I’ve grown to dislike a lot of the conversation that has surrounded these controversies, as someone who both likes anime dubs, and can be picky when it comes to translation choices, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think some of these complaints were completely without merit. Translators like Sarah Moon have commented on the accuracy of the Dragon Maid dub script while also being critical of the harassment Jamie Marchi has received for penning the adapted dialogue. I also remember being pretty upset by the Gamergate line when that whole thing first came out, and thought the response prior to Funimation making an official statement about it was handled pretty poorly. 

At the same time, though, while some people like myself were upset about the line simply because it came out of nowhere, and had no real attachment to the scene in question (unless being inside an arcade counts, I guess), there were also people upset purely at the fact that it painted Gamergate in a negative light, and these were the ones who tended to be the most vocal about the entire situation. 

All of this did eventually result in Funimation changing the line, and while it certainly hasn’t stopped the dub from coming up as an example of the “localization” bogeyman, it has at least remained the biggest sticking point regarding any discussion about that dub. However, this change was far from the only instance of the dub script getting punched up as there were several pop culture references—some of which have become even more obscure than the Gamergate line—sprinkled throughout it. None of those lines were ever changed for the home video release, and yet the Gamergate one remains the prime example in discussions about where the dub “went wrong”. This is important, because it points to something that has largely gone ignored in the ever growing discourse surrounding anime and manga localization: namely that there are double standards as to which kinds of changes or jokes are deemed to be “okay”.

Swinging back around to the Ghost Stories dub, it is a work that, regardless of however you feel about it, should probably not have happened the way it did. The story from the people who worked on it was that Ghost Stories was an incredibly unpopular show in Japan, and so when ADV had picked it up, they were given the blessing to do whatever they wanted with the dub as long as the ghosts were still defeated the same way. This resulted in the dub becoming gradually different from its Japanese counterpart, eventually being deemed something of an official parody. The narrative concerning the show’s supposed lack of popularity in Japan has been proven false in recent years, but the dub still has plenty of fans to this day, and was even considered iconic enough for Discotek to invest in a new interview with dub director Steven Foster. 

While the overall defense of Ghost Stories’ legacy has been in its marketing as a gag dub, that defense only holds up against so much scrutiny considering both how the dub was made, and how poorly some of its jokes have aged. The script has its share of problematic “jokes” about autism or homophobia, including some hard slurs that weren’t given much thought in the ‘00s but would never get the same kind of reception today. Considering that Ghost Stories was originally an otherwise harmless kids anime about Japanese school horror stories, this would by all accounts be considered a complete butchery of the original show by modern standards, and even by the general standards of the anime DVD market at the time. 

Yet, not only is that generally not considered to be the case by a lot of anime fans, many have even claimed it improves on what would have otherwise been a boring show, and has given Ghost Stories itself a longer lasting impact on anime fandom than it would have had with a normal release. As much shouting as we see about folks wanting nothing but direct translations, there are also shows with loose translations where that looseness can be, and is, largely glossed over by fans so long as it’s delivered with a certain type of edge or snark.

Genkai and younger toguro

Take, for example, the dub to Yu Yu Hakusho. As one of Funimation’s first major outings into the uncut DVD market, it was more accurate than their original dub of Dragonball Z (which attempted to paint Goku as a more heroic figure than he actually is) but was still considerably punched up from its Japanese counterpart. Most of the characters (and especially Yusuke) were a lot snarkier, and there was a lot more swearing in the dialogue. There was also added subtext like the antagonist of the Dark Tournament arc, Younger Toguro, having a heavily implied sexual relationship with Yusuke’s mentor, Genkai, in their younger days. These factors were added to give a bit more edge to these characters, and to better fit the late night Adult Swim block it aired in. 

This is not to say I think the Yu Yu Hakusho dub is bad, mind you. From an acting standpoint it still holds up considerably well, and has some career highlight performances from Funimation alumni like Justin Cook and Chris Sabat as Yusuke and Kuwabara. But the dub’s script, while charming in its own way, is undoubtedly a product of its time. Yet in spite of this, the dub continues to be held up as a beloved classic. Most folks, myself included, would probably recommend it to any first time watchers without hesitation, despite some of the loss in accuracy, because the dub has a lot of its own charms brought about by the script, while still retaining much of the spirit that has allowed Togashi Yoshihiro’s work to resonate with people. 

Another one would be the Lupin the 3rd franchise, which, despite having pretty direct translations in its dub scripts nowadays, wasn’t always the case. When Part 2 was first brought over to the states, the script was modernized, with a few pop culture jokes and references from its era thrown in to help it stand out alongside Adult Swim’s more recent titles like Trigun and The Big O.  While all that may not have been totally necessary, the end result was giving the franchise enough of a foothold here to maintain a dedicated English-language fanbase, and we’re continuing to get new material with that same cast to this very day. That isn’t to say that this or the Yu Yu Hakusho dub didn’t have its share of detractors, as there are definitely plenty of fans who have their gripes with how these series were initially handled, but the positive response was generally larger, and both series have retained a solid degree of popularity in spite, and sometimes even because of, the reception towards the changes. 

Lupin and Jigen handcuffed

Of course, with these dubs being products of their time, and people being way more critical towards translation choices in contemporary discourse, it’d be easy enough to say people would never accept such egregious changes nowadays. But you’d be surprised. The dub to Mr. Osomatsu, already a pretty crass show on its own given that it stars a bunch of twenty-something shut-ins, had that crudeness cranked up for its long awaited dub. This was all received pretty positively, with some of the shared dub clips on Twitter even getting compared directly to Ghost Stories in terms of punch. An even bigger example is the Funimation dub to My First Girlfriend is a Gal in 2017. The show itself was a pretty by-the-numbers and fanservice-heavy romcom, and while something like that would obviously be pretty raunchy by itself, the dub leaned into that raunchiness while giving some of the jokes a little extra “edge”. It went further and further off script every week, with everything from the actors ad-libbing some jokes, to timely references about the 2016 Trump election campaign. 

Normally something like this would never fly, but because it was an otherwise trashy rom-com seen as disposable entertainment, fandom at large not only didn’t mind a lot of the changes, but were actively entertained by seeing how far the dub script would go. If this is all sounding pretty familiar to you, it’s because it’s not too far off from everything that happened with Ghost Stories. The only major difference is  Gal’s dub retained enough of the original context to not be an entirely different show from its Japanese counterpart. However there was a point for this dub that was eventually deemed “too far” and it happened to be a scene in Episode 7: the characters have to deal with the rude manager of a cosplay club who rants about male otaku and their fetishes in a derogatory manner, and when eventually called out on his behavior he angrily calls the kids a bunch of “SJW millennials”. 

the main characters of My First Girlfriend is a Gal

As soon as clips from that scene hit the internet, people were furious and started turning sour on the dub’s wacky antics. Ironically enough, the humor of the scene wasn’t too different from the rest of the edgy humor the dub had used up to that point. There’s another scene in that same episode where a character speaks to a room of people as though he were Trump and makes a ”Make America Great Again” reference. In fact, aside from the obvious plug-in of “SJW millennials”, the overall context of the scene actually matched the Japanese script pretty closely. The only thing changed was the use of English-language buzzwords often associated with progressive politics, and otaku or right-wing culture being portrayed in a negative light. 

Those last couple of points highlight, unfortunately, the prevailing double standard that plagues the discussion around localization. The majority of the time, when complaints about a dub line or translation choice go viral these days, it’s rarely because the translation has hurt some important aspect of the source material, but instead because of accusations that a translator or dub writer is trying to make a series “woke” or otherwise censor material to better appeal to progressives. 

There have been some instances where those fears were somewhat grounded in reality: in 2021, fans of the light novel series Jobless Reincarnation were shocked to see its protagonist Rudy coming off as more perverted in its anime adaption, only for it to later come out that Seven Seas had intentionally toned down some of his worst antics in their translation by cutting out several lines of text (which has since been corrected). There have also been many more instances where these accusations were table thrown only for it to be revealed that the anime or media in question was always intended as progressive, such as the recent reveal of Bridget from the Guilty Gear franchise coming out as a trans woman, or the visual novel, AI: The Somnium Files explicitly standing in support the LGBTQ+ community. 

Bridget in Guilty Gear Strive

The rise in hostility towards translators and dub writers out of the fear of “wokeness” is annoying for a lot of reasons. But the biggest is that so much of it detracts from discussions about questionable translation choices that have nothing to do with any of those fears, and those are usually the choices that actually end up being at odds with the source material. For as much buzz as the “patriarchy” line in Dragon Maid gets, it’s ultimately a throw-away line that doesn’t really affect Lucoa’s character or the direction of the story in any remotely meaningful way. Comparatively, there’s way less attention given an exchange in episode one where Kobyashi’s reaction to Tohru’s advances is changed from “but I’m a girl” to “I’m not into girls or dragons”, despite the fact that this line is a much more significant change to the story. It goes from Kobyashi being unsure of how to feel about Tohru’s advances to flat out rejecting them at first, and subsequently adds an extra layer of discomfort to their dynamic over the course of the show that wasn’t there previously. 

Even going back to Ghost Stories, while it is more than likely the case that the show would not be as well-remembered without its gag dub, it’s also questionable if that legacy was worth retaining so little of the original show. These kinds of discussions are, quite frankly, a lot more important to have than the vitriol over progressive politics that dominates the topic; but the latter drives so much of it now that even when earnest concerns about translation are brought up, translators are often (and rightly) unwilling to engage in talking about their choices due to fear of harassment. And it sucks, because a lot of this ends up wrongly painting the idea that translators have no respect for what they’re working on. The reality is that many of them are nerds just like the rest of us, and while their choices may not always be the best ones, they are at worst the product of misguided enthusiasm rather than actual malice, and many have nothing but love for the work they do. 

Tohru cuddling up to Kobayashi under an umbrella

Localization is a tricky subject, and we all have our own opinions as to what is and isn’t acceptable when translating the stuff that we like. As much as we all want to think everything around localization is cut-and-dry, there are plenty of double standards when it comes to that idea of acceptability. For every person that thinks the Ghost Stories dub is hilarious due to its edgy humor, there’s another that thinks the mere mention of the word patriarchy in Dragon Maid dub is proof that English dubs only exist to butcher their source material, and some who hold both ideas simultaneously. 

What’s important is being able to acknowledge that our standards aren’t always as strict as we imagine, and that there is a more nuanced conversation to be had about what changes or translation choices might have worked out, and which ones are actually to the detriment of the original story. As for Ghost Stories, I can’t really say I care for the entire situation that surrounded it, and have avoided the dub for that reason, but I certainly can’t pretend it didn’t have an impact and isn’t important to a lot of people. It’d just be nice if we all maybe acknowledged that a more accurate Ghost Stories dub might have also been pretty cool to have. We can’t change history, but as fans, we can try to have better, healthier, conversations about how the content we love gets localized. 

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