Pokémon in America
Gotta change it all?
by Holly Hartman
Half the children in Japan follow every episode of the top-rated Pokémon, as week after week ten-year-old Satoshi faces evildoers Musashi and Kojiro. Thousands of miles away, American children watch Ash fight the same battles against Jessie and James.
Only Pikachu, the fleet-footed, yellow Pokémon friend to Satoshi/Ash, is called by the same name.
But it's not just the names that are changed. The sights, sounds, jokes—and sometimes even the storylines—of Pokémon are different in Japan and the United States.
Says Norman Grossfeld, the president of 4 Kids Productions, which produces the Pokémon television series in America, "We looked at Pokémon and said, 'Let's make this an American show for American kids."
Lemonade with That, Please
Producers at 4 Kids work on every frame of the show, painting out Japanese writing, foods, and other elements of Japanese culture. While in the Japanese comics and trading cards Pikachu can be seen using chopsticks to eat sushi and miso soup, in the American versions he might hold a glass of lemonade instead. Likewise, Japanese street signs are painted over with symbols or, sometimes, English names.
Not a word remains the same—and every word must fit. After the dialogue is translated, it is edited so that the words match the exact movements of the characters' mouths. This usually involves more than just rearranging a sentence. According to Grossfeld, "Sometimes it takes, you know, 15 flaps of a mouth to say something in Japanese like, 'Yes I'll have that.' We have to make it three sentences long."
In addition, says Grossfeld, "They like using puns in Japanese scripts, which have no translation here. So if the characters are laughing on screen, we have to come up with a whole new story and punch line to explain why."
Turn Up the Volume
The American Pokémon cartoon can seem noisier and faster-paced than the Japanese original. A major reason why is that the Japanese cartoon uses music only occasionally. In keeping with American tastes, however, Pokémon here features lively music throughout the entire episode. And as of this fall, each American episode ends in an MTV-like, minute-long music video that uses scenes from the show.
Characters also get a jolt of loudmothed American humor. James, who is sober and sinister in the Japanese original, can be comically flashy in the American version. His pet Pokémon, Meowth, is considered something of an Eastern philosopher in Japan; in America, Meowth speaks clownishly, with a tough-guy New York accent.
Reshaping each Pokémon cartoon for American audiences takes up to three months and costs nearly $100,000. Is it worth it? Millions of American children say yes. Pokémon is now the number one children's program in America, and in most areas is broadcast every weekday as well as twice each Saturday. Meanwhile, Pokémon products have inspired a trading frenzy, with rare Japanese originals in high demand.
All this is good fun for collectors determined to "catch 'em all," especially now that countries throughout Latin America and Europe are producing their own unique Pokémon merchandise. As for what's next in Pokémania—the second Pokémon movie, which opened last summer in Japan, is being re-edited and rewritten for American release sometime in the year 2000.