English dubs for anime series usually get a bad rep. Oftentimes, they are criticized for being overdramatic or untrue to the character. While some of these criticisms are warranted, the majority are not. It isn’t necessarily the voice actors’ fault, but rather the instructions that they are given for what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to portray the character they are dubbing.
However, what if a voice actor was not given any rules? What if they were told to essentially create an entirely different story than the one originally told?
That is the infamous question that the English dub for the 2000 anime Ghost Stories asks. The original series is a standard Japanese kid-friendly horror show; two siblings and their friends, plus a mysterious talking cat, team up to hunt ghosts around their neighborhood and school. If that sounds familiar at all to you, you are not alone. The original anime was considered a flop on Fuji TV, where it ran from October 2000 to March 2001. It brought in low ratings and even lower reviews, criticizing the show for being, well, pretty much every other pseudo-horror anime at the time.
The story from this point over is well known to anime fans. The original creators of Ghost Stories, the animation studio Pierrot and the distribution company Aniplex, sold the rights to the English dub to the now-defunct A.D. Vision. Also known as “ADV Films” by anime fans, this was the studio that was responsible for dubbing and distributing well-known animes such as Neon Genesis Evangelion and Elfen Lied. Aniplex, along with original Ghost Stories director Noriyuki Abe, had just four simple requests for A.D. Vision:
- Don’t change any names of the characters, including the featured ghosts
- Don’t change the cause of death for the ghosts
- Don’t change the basic episode meaning
- Do whatever it takes to make the show successful
These were extremely important to follow as many of the ghosts shown in the series follow the basic structures of traditional Japanese spirits, such as the Yurei or the Onryo. Changing the meaning or cause of death for these spirits for English audiences would be considered disrespectful. A.D. Vision adhered to all of these rules and released their dub of Ghost Stories in 2005. What followed is arguably one of the most well-known English dubs ever created.
The English dub for Ghost Stories varied extremely from the original. What was originally straightforward, although poorly-developed ghost adventure series turned into a self-parodying onslaught of early 2000s humor and references. Almost all of the characters, especially the main character Satsuki, became foul-mouthed and inappropriate, despite them originally being in the sixth grade. On the other end, the character of Momoko turned into an Evangelical Christian for the dub, constantly berating her friends for not wanting to become Born Agains. The ghosts and how they represent the culture surrounding Japanese spirits remained the same but were just as crude as the main group of middle school-aged children.
As previously stated, the jokes and largely-improvised dialogue of the show ended up being extremely dated, as they aim more for offensive and shock than anything else. The r-word is thrown around on an episodic basis, particularly aimed at Satsuki’s little brother Keiichiro. There are also a fair number of jokes aimed at Asian and Black people, oftentimes utilizing racist stereotypes as the punchline. What makes this particularly damning was the fact that all of the roles in the dub were portrayed by white people. Offense was the only way A.D. Vision and its dubbers found a way to sell the mediocre anime about ghost hunting kids, and to a certain extent, it worked.
It took a while for the dub to find its cult following, however, as it was originally panned as the worst English dub of all time. Over time, it has developed the exact opposite reputation; in a sea of seemingly similarly acted English voice dubs, Ghost Stories stood out for all the right and wrong reasons.
The question is, could a dub such as Ghost Stories exist again today? It is difficult to say. While the concept of changing an anime’s story through dubbing is still a practice that happens today (albeit in less official forms), a significant portion of the answer relies on what exactly that dub is like. Shocking humor does not have to rely on racist or ableist stereotypes, as many comedies have proven over the fifteen years that the iconic dub was released. Western shows such as BoJack Horseman and even other animes such as Beastars are able to make humor out of dark and disturbing concepts.
However, the dub has a loyal fanbase that maintains that its poorly-aged and offensive jokes are the best part of the show. They are usually found in YouTube comments of funny moment compilations talking about how the show would be “canceled” if it were made today, even if it was purposefully made to be offensive. That does not cancel out the fact that a large portion of jokes in the dub was more than offensive; they used disenfranchised people as punchlines and nothing more.
In theory, Ghost Stories could still exist today, wherein a failed anime could get a second life as a parody of itself. However, it cannot fall into the same dated and offensive trap that its predecessor fell in.
The author thanks Rebecca Wei Hsieh @generalasian for edits to this piece