Dueling with Censorship: Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series’ Pastiche of Dubbing

November 18, 2009

In 2006, two years after the end of Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, a YouTube user known as LittleKuriboh (LK) uploaded a parodic version of the first episode called “Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series – Episode 1.” In it, he takes the first episode of the series, adds more ellipses to the narrative, and re-records the dialogue to bring out different reactions to the same scenarios. While Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series may on face seem to merely be a lampoon of the original series that seeks only to degrade it by highlighting its ridiculous plot devices, this recombinatory act also works to extend the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise. It does not, however, work to expand the series’ timeline, fill in the gaps in character motivation, refocalize the narrative, or employ any other similar technique to add narrative complexity. Instead, Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series uses pastiche to call attention Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters‘ lack of complexity and coherence, highlighting the schism between the original, un-dubbed version of the series and what 4Kids! Entertainment released in English-speaking countries. This not only inspired a new form of creative rather than textual criticism of dubbing practices, but also created a rallying point for fans of the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise to call for a rehabilitation of the English version of Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters.

Rather than beginning to produce work about Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters because he loved the show, LK first decided he wanted to get involved in a fandom. During an interview with The Abridged Podcast, LK explains that, “I wanted to get involved in a fandom. I hadn’t been involved in a fandom for a long time. . . . I thought, you know what, I’d like to get involved, meet some new people, and just have fun with a group of people who share my interests.” He came to Yu-Gi-Oh! because he had seen it a few times and decided it was “as good as any other show to get involved with.” Indeed, as Henry Jenkins puts it, “While common sense might suggest that fans become fans because of their fascination with particular texts or performers, the reverse is often true” (Textual Poachers 90). For LK in particular, watching the series does not even seem to be a particularly enjoyable experience. “When I decided to get involved with a fandom, I was like, ‘well I might as well collect the episodes'” (The Abridged Podcast). He seems so passive towards the episodes that consuming Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters seems to more closely resemble homework than fannish activity.

While the text he chose was somewhat arbitrary, the way LK decided to participate in fandom was largely determined by the increasing visibility of amateur video production – “Because of the whole YouTube thing that had just recently started I thought I’ll start doing some videos of my own” (Project Yu-Gi-Oh! interview). Of course, vidding has a history that long predates YouTube (going back to at least 1975 with Star Trek, according to Francesca Coppa[1]), and fans of anime shows had been creating fan videos for more than a dozen years in the form of fansubs – amateur translating and subtitling of shows done by fans.[2] Indeed, as Jean Burgess and Joshua Green put it, “YouTube represents not so much the collision as the co-evolution and uneasy co-existence of ‘old’ and ‘new’ media industries, forms, and practices” (14). Though some fandoms resisted releasing the material on YouTube, the generally increased visibility of these older practices provided by YouTube functioned as a catalyst to LK’s video creation because he could easily see and draw inspiration from what others had done as well as get feedback on his own creations. After making a few other Yu-Gi-Oh! fan videos, such as showing Meatwad from Aqua Teen Hunger Force as an avid Yu-Gi-Oh! enthusiast, LittleKuriboh decided he wanted to be involved in a fandub – an amateur translating and voice acting (rather than subtitling) of the series. Rather than make the fandub a straightforward interpretation of the Japanese series, however, he decided to “sort of give a funny twist on it and try and appeal to people who would not actually watch the show and might judge it. . . . I just thought it would be funny to shorten the thing, condense it” (The Abridged Podcast). Of course, the shortening is not his “funny twist” – the comedy derives from the altered dialogue that is filled with jokes that come at the show’s expense.

The result, which LK called an abridged series (the first episode is viewable here), bears a strong resemblance to pastiche. Richard Dyer explains that “a pastiche is formally close to (its perception of) what it pastiches but not identical to it; very like, but not indistinguishable from” (55). A parodic abridgment, then, falls within this category, given that an abridgment shortens by omitting portions, while still retaining the basic contents. Pastiche is particularly salient in the case of Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series because it deforms the original series through selection, accentuation, exaggeration, and concentration. The images are the same, but they have been poached in a raid of mass culture, re-appropriated for different purposes. Coupled with different dialogue, the perception of the images’ significance is radically altered such that they articulate an entirely different set of concerns (Textual poachers 23). For example, while in the show the moment when Yugi takes his grandpa’s deck to duel Kaiba is a touching moment of familial bonding, the abridgment reverses the situation. Rather than using the original dialogue:

GRANDPA: Yugi, here, take this.
YUGI: Huh? Grandpa…
GRANDPA: I built this deck. I put my soul in these cards. And I taught you everything I know, Yugi. Take them. Take my cards and teach him a lesson in respect.

LK reads the following dialogue:

YUGI: Don’t worry Gramps, I’ll win this duel with your deck!
GRANDPA: W-Wait a minute! I’ve been injured, so you’re going to steal my deck and go play cards with your archrival?
YUGI: (takes Grandpa’s deck) Pretty much.
GRANDPA: No wonder your parents are never around!

In the latter version of the exchange, the familial interactions are antagonistic and the dialogue stabs at the lack of explanation the original show provides about why Yugi lives with his grandfather. Further, this moment paints the show’s main myth as absurd by highlighting that Yugi chose to play a card game when someone needs to be taken to the hospital. Of course, this example only displays an exaggeration and accentuation of the original text, but through the numerous dialogue alterations that are constantly presented, Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series plays with the meaning of the original series through all the elements of pastiche. The process is symptomatic of the way fans are, according to Jenkins, “unimpressed by institutional authority and expertise” (Textual Poachers 18), such that they form their own interpretations and offer evaluations of the text – here, re-envisioning the familial ties and arguing that it is absurd to imagine that a card game could be so central to a culture.

The pastiche presented within Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series, however, is by no means a blank parody that merely mocks the original by adding new dialogue and highlighting a few absurdities. Though not as apparent in the first episode of the abridged series, as a whole, it took a directed aim at the company responsible for dubbing and distributing the original series, 4Kids Entertainment. In the first episode, these criticisms are mainly expressed by highlighting the particular cultural white washing that 4Kids employs. Koichi Iwabuchi argues this is by no means a phenomenon particular to Yu-Gi-Oh!, writing, “It is no accident that Japan has become a major exporter of culturally odorless products. Japanese media industries seem to think that the suppression of Japanese cultural odor is imperative if they are to make inroads into international markets” (94). This odor is “closely associated with racial and bodily images of a country of origin” (28), and rarely exists in Japanese anime, with various directors providing numerous justifications for their characters’ lack of culturally specific looks.[3] It is not the general removal of Japaneseness that LK mocks, but rather the incoherency that results from the way 4Kids erases it. This most often comes through with a mockery of Joey’s dubbed voice, which has a strong Brooklyn accent. In the first episode of the abridged series, LK highlights this with Joey’s first line, “Sorry Yug, doing this Brooklyn accent makes it difficult to concentrate on card games.” The geographic confusion is criticized more clearly in later episodes, such as episode 24, where a museum official says, “Welcome, Miss Ishtar. On behalf of the Domino Museum, I’d like to welcome you to America. Or Japan. I’m not quite sure where we are; it’s pretty vague.” It is not that the show lacks a distinctive Japanese character set, but that the characters presented by 4Kids are a mismatch of culturally universal characters and culturally specific ones such that seems to be no coherent space that the show can exist in.

The largest part of LK’s critique of 4Kids, however, comes through the presentation of edited moments. The best example of this is based off of a portion of episode 8 in the original series, where two goons try to kidnap Kaiba. In the scene, they point their fingers at him for a long time, threatening him about what will happen if he does not come quietly. In the abridged version, one of the goons says, “Don’t move a muscle or we’ll shoot you with our invisible guns,” referencing the editing done by 4Kids, as in the original version, both the goons are pointing pistols, not fingers, at Kaiba. The different versions are visible within the video below:

By referencing this alteration through the idea of invisible guns, the censorship performed by 4Kids is clearly highlighted, and the parody points out the break of narrative logic that accompanies the change – there is no dramatic tension caused by a pointer finger, and there certainly seems to be no reason Kaiba would go with them peacefully. The same technique is used at other censored moments, such as the alteration of a Marik’s character motivation from wanting to kill Yugi because he thinks Yugi murdered his father to generically wanting to take over the world. While these moments may be understandably edited to make the show more “kid friendly,” many other edits simply erase character motivation. Joey, for example, is turned into a general sidekick who just wants to help Yugi, rather than another duelist who has his own dreams of becoming a good enough duelist to earn the right to face Yugi. Either way, the argument stemming from LK’s critique is that the way these alterations took place removes any narrative tension and changes unique characters into generic caricatures, turning what was a quality show into something that seems to be comprised of moments of potential mockery.[4] He makes this criticism especially clear through Pegasus’ explanation of his card, Toon World, saying, “Toon World allows me to turn your monsters into cheap imitations – kind of like what 4Kids did to this show.”

By attacking the decisions of the distributor, LK implies an opposition that exists between the fans and the distributor. As Jenkins puts it, “The history of media fandom is at least in part the history of a series of organized efforts to influence programming decisions” (Textual Poachers 28). While his analysis relates to producers of a text and organized efforts, the idea is still the same: almost every fandom is involved in a struggle with those who hold copyright control about the way a text is presented. And this relationship, he notes, “is not always a happy or comfortable one and is often charged with mutual suspicion, if not open conflict (32). Such is certainly the case with Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series, where LK openly criticizes the way 4Kids has translated the text, going so far as to present 4Kids as the evil empire.

LittleKuriboh eventually even explicitly outlines his feelings about the way his fan made content has added value to the original franchise following his expulsion from YouTube:

At the same time, though, there are a few key differences between a fan/distributor and fan/producer relationship. The producer’s common defense that “fan efforts to protect favorite aspects of fictional texts infringe upon the producer’s creative freedom” (Jenkins 30), for example, does not apply. Instead, this claim is reversed: LK is claiming that 4Kids infringed on what the producer created. Further, unlike fans who are trying to protect certain aspects, LK is not arguing about how production should be carried out – rather, he is arguing that the material as it was originally published should have been kept intact. Indeed, unlike for producers who are still creating material or trying to prevent new material from becoming canonical, 4Kids already had the show – they had to make a proactive decision to change it from what the producer wanted. It seems, then, that 4Kids’ translation (both in the linguistic and adaptive sense) decisions were in an attempt to get the widest possible audience through strict adherence to the standard of “kid friendly content” that is implied by the company’s name. This does, however, seem to ultimately be part of LK’s critique of 4Kids’ translation – to make the show meet 4Kids’ standards, they simply removed the content they objected to without paying close attention to how it affected the plot’s coherency or the characters’ complexity.

Of course, this critique is only salient to those who are initiated in not only the English, but also the Japanese version of Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters. Because of the way LK constructed of Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series, however, he is able to draw in more audiences. Indeed, as previously mentioned, LK wanted to “try and appeal to people who would not actually watch the show” (The Abridged Podcast). This is where his jokes about the premise of the show are most effective. Even if you only know that Yu-Gi-Oh! is about card games, jokes about the absurdity of that premise are still understandable. Likewise, this exchange:

that mocks the way Yugi gets help during duels from Yami, the spirit of his puzzle, is accessible regardless of knowing why he has the puzzle or how it works. He also includes jokes that players of the card game who do not watch the series will understand, such as this exchange between Kaiba and Yugi that highlights the show’s disregard for coherent rules:

YAMI: Wait a minute, did you just summon a bunch of monsters in one turn?
KAIBA: Yeah, so?
YAMI: That’s against the rules, isn’t it?
KAIBA: Screw the rules, I have money!

Indeed, LK constructs multiple layers of jokes to create numerous interfaces for people to engage the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise enjoy his pastiche. People who have seen the show and think it is stupid will agree with the jokes and laugh. People who have seen the show and like it are given a new way of looking at the show and can laugh at the extension of the show’s logic. People who know the differences are there can laugh at the way those differences are presented. LK, however, goes beyond just presenting multiple layers of humor to increase his show’s appeal. As the abridged series progresses, he slowly bridges the knowledge gap between the different types of viewers by more and more explicitly mocking specific elements – particularly 4Kids’ role in the dubbing of the series. Thus, even those who did not previously know the dubbed version was radically altered are given the idea that perhaps the show was not originally so trite and prone to mockery. Indeed, hearing that 4Kids turned the show into a “cheap imitation” of the original may spur interest in how the show relates to the original. By making the layers of comedy begin to converge, LK is able to construct new interfaces not only into his series, but also into the original Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise as well.

Rather than working to reshape how people interact with the Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters by adding new narrative complexity through diegetic additions, LittleKuriboh tries to add to an understanding of that world through pointing out the holes that were created during the translation of the text into English. Indeed, acts of fandom seem to be derived, like many fans, “not simply fascination or adoration, but also frustration and antagonism” (Textual Poachers 23) with the way the franchise was released. His engagement stems from the juxtaposition of these reactions, causing him to want to play with the text, but also deride those who, in his eyes, butchered it. While it may seem like these arguments give too much credit to LK, the fact that his creation of Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series stemmed from his desire to do a fandub gives credit to the argument for his cognizance. After all, fandubs often come about as a response to fans being unhappy with the licensed dubbing – which means going back to the original text (or the fansubs) and deciding how and which lines should be spoken. That he was at least considering this at the point of his creation of the series seems to intimate that he was conscious of the censorship involved in 4Kids’ dubbing. It is important to note, however, that the success of Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series is not entirely of LK’s doing. The now-cult series was not even originally intended to be a series. “I think what sort of interested a lot of people was that I called it ‘Episode 1,’ and they thought that implied I was going to do a lot more, but I never really had any intention of doing more than one” (The Abridged Podcast). He called it “Episode 1” not because of its place in an ongoing project, but because it parodies the first episode of Yu-Gi-Oh!. The response to his idea was so overwhelmingly positive, however, that he created dozens more episodes.

Part of the abridged series’ acclaim derives from the way it approaches the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise. Rather than presenting the show as having a fixed meaning determined by some sacrosanct copyright holder, the latent potential each image has for conveying a radically different meaning is constantly exposed. Certainly, this concept of a malleable text was not new to anime fandom, as anime music videos, such as this one about Yugi’s relationship with the spirit of the Millennium puzzle, had already been in production for years. The difference, however, is that the abridged series does not work through the decontextualization of images – rather, sequences are largely kept intact and the overall narrative is unaltered. The focus, then, is on exposing the holes in the text instead of rehabilitating or creating a space within the text for the enjoyment of marginalized reading positions, often identifying how Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters fallaciously presents a space for these other voices. For example, the abridged series constantly brings up the problematic presentation of Mai Valentine – the only seemingly competitive female duelist on the show. She is presented as an exceedingly busty woman who never wins a duel, but is always in the finals anyway.

Rather than reinterpreting her subject position, the abridged series repeatedly foregrounds the absurdity of her character – both as a female generally and her status as the singular female duelist. That Serenity seems to look up to Mai, then, is highlighted as a problem in Yu-Gi-Oh!‘s representation of gender.


Further, the show creates a space for a creative critique of the distributor of a franchise. Aside from the abridged series’ lampooning of how Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters was censored, the critiques of the dubbing have only been factually presented through straightforward logic – usually in the form of textual arguments about why certain changes are problematic, master lists the differences, and video rants[5] that are mainly watched by those who already dislike the dubbing. Now, however, these criticisms are given a creative outlet so that the importance of entertainment is not neglected – because the videos are enjoyable, more people watch them and are educated about the way a particular distributor has flattened narrative and character complexity. At the same time, coating the critique in humor camouflages the painful sting of watching cherished elements of a producer’s creativity be erased. It also opens the narrative, not only the images used to convey it, as a space where creativity and play can disrupt the dominant logic of translation and bringing the Western perception of animation as a children’s medium under fire. Indeed, the anime fan community’s wide adoption of abridgment as a practice to criticize the distribution of a series shows how Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series has reshaped how fans interact with dubbed series’ plots and characters – particularly by highlighting the kid safe-ing invitational strategies used by 4Kids and other anime distributors to secure a wide audience. Of course, this practice is not universal – this particular experience of frustration with distributors is largely contained to non-Japanese speakers, as they do not have an additional mediator between them and the text that can radically shift (or in some people’s eyes, eliminate) meaning. There are currently no Japanese abridgers – LK’s videos have been fansubbed into Japanese, but they have experienced far less success than they have in English.

Of course, the importance and influence of a distributor varies across series, and since English abridging has become an established comedic practice of its own, many fans do not see abridging as a fandub with a twist – and thus do not engage with the pre-dubbed version of the text (and in some cases there isn’t one – as with Avatar: The Last Airbender Abridged). Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series, however, is a détournment that uses the technology presented by 4Kids is subversive ways, showing that the struggle for what meaning is not unidirectional, as the distributor’s own materials can be turned back against them through radical reinterpretation, even without de/recontextualization. What truly separates it from another parody that merely mocks unbelievable character and plot motivation is the specific act of recuperation. Holes are constantly poked in the narrative, but not to deride the franchise as a whole – rather, they specifically attack the re-editing and censoring of the franchise that 4Kids did to make the show kid friendly. By using entertainment as an intermediary discipline in cultural critique, LittleKuriboh constructed something that both brought new fans to the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise and educated existing ones, as well as providing them a rallying point around which a desire for restoration of the original Yu-Gi-Oh! text could be expressed. Not only is there a new fandubbing being created by the group Project Yu-Gi-Oh! and released through their YouTube account (which includes LK voicing Grandpa), but 4Kids has at least minimally changed its policies, posting unedited versions of the Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters on its website and on YouTube from March until August of 2009[6]. Ultimately, however, 4Kids! has shifted back and tried to squash these movements, both removing the pre-dubbed versions from their website and pushing Project Yu-Gi-Oh! And LittleKuriboh off of YouTube – Project Yu-Gi-Oh! now distributes through sendspace and The Abridged Series now has its own website. Either way, however, through the creation of a fandom surrounding abridgment, Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series introduced a new form of engaging a text that is largely specific to anime – the use of pastiche as a response to the way distributors altered the cherished elements of the producers creativity. The holes it creates reshape the understanding of dubbed series’ characters and plot as contingent upon the promotional strategies of dubbing companies rather than derivative mainly of a producer’s creativity. Though such an attack will not always be effective, the playful, malleable approach to dubbed texts that LittleKuriboh took to Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters displays the power of fan made content to influence fans, anti-fans, and the distributors of anime alike.

LittleKuriboh’s Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series can be viewed in its entirety here.


Bibliography

Alters, Diane. “The Other Side of Fandom: Anti-Fans, Non-Fans, and the Hurts of History.” Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. Ed. Jonathon Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington. New York: NYU Press, 2007. 344-356.

Burgess, Jean and Joshua Green. YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Malden: Polity, 2009.

Coppa, Francesca. Interview with Jesse Walker. Reason Magazine, August/September 2008. Accessed online at http://reason.com/archives/2008/07/18/remixing-television

Dyer, Richard. Pastiche. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Hatcher, Jordan S. “Of Otaku and Fansubs: A Critical Look at Anime Online in Light of Current Issues in Copyright Law.” Script-ed, Vol. 2, No. 4, 2005. Accessed online at http://www.law.ed.ac.uk/ahrc/SCRIPT-ed/vol2-4/hatcher.asp#Quality

Iwabuchi, Koichi. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Johnson, Derek. “Fan-tagonism: Factions, Institutions, and Constitutive Hegemonies of Fandom.” Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. Ed. Jonathon Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington. New York: NYU Press, 2007. 285-300.

LittleKuriboh. Interview with Project Yu-Gi-Oh! June 20, 2009. Accessed online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WedhdYC3JI

LittleKuriboh. Interview with The Abridged Podcast. May 3, 2009. Accessed online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qoy7uNiLls

Napier, Susan. Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle – Updated Edition. New York: Palgrave, 2005.


Footnotes

[1] While visibility did not come until much later, the practices of vidding began in the 1970s. According to Coppa, “I was going to academic conferences about remix culture and hearing people say, ‘Since the dawn of YouTube…’ Or the Machinima guys: Very early on, they were saying, ‘Hey, we have this history. We’ve been doing this since 1996.’ I think it’s great that the Machinima guys have been making their stuff since 1996, but I thought, ‘Hey, we’ve been doing this since 1975. And nobody even knows we exist!’ (Coppa). return to text

[2] Fansubs have a long history in anime fan circles. According to Jenkins, “The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the emergence of ‘fansubbing,’ the amateur translation and subtitling of Japanese anime. Time synchronized VHS and S-VHS systems supported dubbing of the tapes so that they retained accurate alignment of text and image” (Convergence Culture 162). For a while, these fansubs were the only way people in the United States could watch anime since there were no US distributors, and so, according to Jordan Hatcher, ” Anime was mostly known only to a select crowd of people with access to and knowledge of fansub groups.” Ultimately, these practices are what led to US distribution, as they proved that there is both an interest and a market for Japanese animation within the US (Jenkins 160, Hatcher, Bertschy). return to text

[3]Oshii Mamoru, for example, thinks that “Japanese animators and cartoonists consciously choose not to draw ‘realistic’ Japanese characters if they wish to draw attractive characters” (Iwabuchi 28). Some critics think this “deliberate de-Japanizing of the characters is in keeping with their view of anime as offering an alternative world to its Japanese audience” (Napier 25), and Miyazaki Hayao thinks that it may be because “the Japanese hate their own faces” (25), and try to avoid their own Japaneseness. return to text

[4] Certainly many of the jokes come at the expense of the show as a whole, but those are largely cultural critiques – like the emphasis on the children’s card game – the also mock pop culture’s continuous obsession with seemingly childish collectibles. Further, they also serve as an interface for people who had not previously watched the show (which LK says he wants to be the case) – but more on that point later. return to text

[5] In an interesting convergence of these forms, this video uses text to critique 4Kids in a video format, and then links to a website with a master list of differences.return to text

[6] LittleKuriboh saw this move more as an attempt to appease the anime fans than an actual ideological shift.

Indeed, he presents it as part of a larger attempt to continue the same dubbing practices, but now with more support because they did a bit of fan service. Of course, this ultimately has little impact on the importance of the abridged series (since it is still what drew attention to the fans’ discontent and has spawned new reading practices), but is important to keep in mind when thinking about what it means for a company to change its policies. return to text