You might not know this, but before my family moved back to the United States I spent eight years (from first to eighth grade) in the Philippines. This affected my life in countless ways: allowing me to meet all kinds of people from across the world in the capital city’s international community, exposing me at a young age (if from behind a glass screen) to the effects of horrifying poverty, and giving me a chance to travel to places many folks in the United States might never have the responsibility to. While I’ve lost touch with many of my friends from that time in my life, there’s still a number of people I’m still in contact with, ranging from my godmother to some of my best friends to the odd acquaintance who appears out of the blue. On another level, there’s pop culture – Filipino storybooks and folk legends, ten dollar VCDs packed with in-theater camera footage, cheap Game Boy Color games from the electronics store/computer cafe that rented out DVDs and what might have been videodiscs. Finally, on a note that’s very minor in the grand scheme of things but quite important to this blog: it was where I encountered Pokemon, and my ongoing flirtation with Japanese anime begun.
Living in the Philippines meant that my experience with this stuff was a bit different than it was for those growing up in the United States. Watching Pokemon meant staying up until eight o’clock at night to tune into the 4Kids dub on GMA, right after Dragon Ball. Then there was stuff like Digimon Tamers and Yu Gi Oh, which like many kids of that generation I was super into. But what’s interesting is that while Cartoon Network in the Philippines aired both of those series, and their American dubs featured in the commercials, the dubs we got in the shows themselves were completely different. They kept their original openings, for one, meaning that I was programming the chords for “Biggest Dreamer” into my cellphone rather than DIGIMON ARE THE CHAMPIONS (though I was fond of that one as well! I was a kid, OK.) The other thing was that while the dub quality on channels in the United States honestly must have been better than the ones we received in the Philippines, ours were a lot more faithful. This didn’t mean much for Digimon Tamers, which is honestly a traumatizing show for kids in the English dub as much as the sub. But for Yu Gi Oh, it meant that instead of the 4Kids dub, we received something far more akin to the Japanese, with the original soundtrack and much of the script intact.
I didn’t think about this for long: Yu Gi Oh is Yu Gi Oh, and regardless of dub it’s a silly shounen series about a kid possessed by an English pharaoh who enters a life-or-death card game tournament to win his grandfather’s soul back from an evil multi-millionaire. But early this year, the first few seasons of Yu Gi Oh appeared on Netflix, and the small but dedicated corner of social media I like to call Anitwitter decided arbitrarily to rewatch the whole series. As someone who only ever saw Yu Gi Oh in bits and pieces, but had seen all of Yu Gi Oh: The Abridged Series, I jumped in as soon as I could, and while I didn’t sit in for all of it I did catch the end of the first big arc with Pegasus. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, 4Kids being infamous for tampering with their source material to better suit their target audience. But at first I was pleasantly surprised: the show had actual jokes! The upside to 4Kids’s aggressive approach in editing their shows for foreign audiences is being able to write lines that made sense in English, rather than being beholden to the original Japanese. If it was One Piece, I would have protested, but this was Yu Gi Oh. So I kept watching, joking along with everyone else and yelling at intervals “YOU DON’T STAND A GHOST…OF A CHANCE!”
Eventually, though, I realized something: watching the 4Kids version of Yu Gi Oh wasn’t lining up with my memories of watching it on TV in the Philippines. 4Kids’s work was more polished, for sure. But I began to notice that through changing up the music and sound direction of the show, they had effectively flattened out the original series. Every scene in their reversioning was calibrated to sound as energetic and exciting as possible. But the show’s original soundtrack had a greater sense of range, leading up to grand moments but also doing justice to others that were quieter and more reserved. I don’t want to say that Yu Gi Oh is at all a subtle series, because it isn’t. But as 4Kids’s constant tonal assault began to give me a headache, I couldn’t help but look back fondly on that other, crappier dub that through no virtue of its own managed to keep the tenor of the original.
The moment that drove this home for me was a scene near the end of that first arc, where Kaiba goes up against Yugi for what seems like the last time. Kaiba is about to lose, but knowing that by doing so he’ll forfeit the soul of his younger brother, he walks onto the edge of a nearby cliff and says that if Yugi defeats him, he’ll fall to his death. It’s a melodramatic moment, but one that makes sense in the context of this ridiculous world: on an island where card games are a matter of life and death, the honor-bound rival will forfeit his life if Yugi wins the card game! But the 4Kids version plays out differently: knowing he’s about to lose the match, Kaiba walks to the edge of a cliff and says that if Yugi uses his card, the force of it will knock Kaiba off the ledge and injure him, somehow. It’s funny how this changes the tone of this scene completely: in the original, Kaiba throws away his life knowing that it wouldn’t be worth anything without his brother, while in the 4Kids version Kaiba cheats because he’s an asshole. It’s Abridged Series Kaiba. I sputtered out my feelings, but as my other friends watching along said, “wasn’t it always this way?”
What is nostalgia worth, in the end? Yu Gi Oh isn’t a great series by any stretch, and while I quibble with the changes 4Kids made it doesn’t make much difference in the long run. Who’s to say that my own experience with the series as a kid was better, or worse, than those of anyone else watching it in the United States? Are my recollections of the original even accurate? Maybe the real Yu Gi Oh isn’t the one I watched as a kid, or dismissed as an adolescent, but the one I found along the way. In America.