Translation, localization, and dubbing are arguably some of the toughest jobs in the anime industry. Anime has a long history of puns and double entendre that only work in the original Japanese, so translators need to either rewrite the dialogue or add explanatory notes for the viewer’s benefit. Other times, an anime might have extra text like chalkboard writing or street signs, which begs the question of how much could (or should) be translated. Dubbing also poses its own set of problems, since the translated script and voice actors need to fit new dialogue into the existing mouth movements and try to match the timing. Of course, no matter what a company decides on, it won’t please everybody, and some series, like Komi Can’t Communicate from last fall, seemed almost tailor-made for controversy due to its abundance of on-screen text. However the translation and localization process goes, though, it’s generally assumed that the adaptation should strive to be as faithful to the original as possible.
The folks over at ADV Films who did the 2005 English dub of Ghost Stories clearly did not get that memo.
In an era when shows like South Park and Family Guy were pushing the boundaries of political incorrectness in animation, one team of dubbers decided to take a relatively harmless anime about ghost-hunting preteens and turn it into a raunchy comedy brimming with pop-culture references and pitch-black humor. It may be too distasteful for some viewers, and some of the humor is definitely outdated, but the fact that people are still watching it, talking about it, and even posting reaction videos to it nearly 20 years later is a testament to its longevity. The story of how a popular children’s book series turned into one of the most infamous anime adaptations of all time, however, is almost as bizarre as the actual ghost stories the series was based on.
Ghost Stories originated as an anthology of children’s novels by Toru Tsunemitsu that ran throughout the 1990s. Tsunemitsu drew inspiration for the books while working as a middle school teacher, where he would regularly hear his students gossiping about urban legends and rumors. The initial 1990 publication, School Ghost Stories, was successful enough to spawn nine follow-up volumes, a live-action television adaptation, several films, and finally, an anime series. Loosely based on the books and films, the anime version follows Satsuki and her friends as they deal with various ghosts haunting their middle school. The anime ran for twenty episodes and two specials from the Fall of 2000 to the Spring of 2001. What happened after the anime finished airing, though, has become an urban legend of its own.
Today, the popular consensus is that the Ghost Stories anime flopped so badly in Japan that the studio, Pierrot, was desperate to release it overseas to recoup their losses, but as it turns out, this might not have been the case at all. The series actually had a successful initial run, even outperforming shows like Pokemon and Doraemon at times, and it acquired a devoted fanbase that still looks back on it favorably. It also received dubbed adaptations in several other countries, and Animax produced its own English dub for distribution in Singapore. Soon afterward, though, Animax turned Ghost Stories over to ADV Films in 2005 for a North American English release, and this moment seems to be the origin of a lot of the confusion. For some reason, the staff and voice actors at ADV Films came to believe that the original script was so bad it wasn’t worth saving, and that a rewrite was desperately needed in order to make the show saleable to audiences.
It’s difficult to know if ADV’s decision resulted from some misunderstanding between Animax and ADV, or if the ADV localizers simply disliked the original series. Another possibility is that Steven Foster, the dialogue director for ADV at the time, was simply going about his usual business. When localizing an anime, Foster had a reputation for making significant changes to storylines and dialogue when he didn’t like the original source material. He apparently did this so often that fans even came up with the term “fosterize” just to have a specific word to describe it. Foster, for his part, has stated in a recent interview that the attorney for ADV who negotiated the licensing deal was the one who originally told him the Japanese companies “weren’t really happy with [Ghost Stories],” and that Foster was allowed to do “anything [he] could do to make money.” It also might not have helped that Animax seems to have placed almost no specific restrictions on how much ADV Films could alter the content of the original show. Instead, they gave ADV only a few vague stipulations to follow when producing their adaptation: don’t change the characters’ names, don’t change the way the ghosts are defeated, and don’t change the basic plot of each episode.
An attorney and a dialogue director’s misunderstanding over the show’s failure. Only a handful of loose guidelines for ADV to adhere to when translating and localizing it. Steven Foster’s own “fosterizing” tendencies. This might have been all that was necessary for ADV Films to conclude that Ghost Stories was inherently flawed and that they had free rein to do whatever they thought was necessary to “improve” it.
Whatever the case may be, in the ensuing years, the people who worked on the ADV dub spread some version of this jumbled history around. Greg Ayres, who voiced Leo, recounted in 2007 that the original anime was “a turd of a show,” and that “[the Japanese distributors] told ADV, ‘look, this didn’t do well on TV, you may have to work with this show a little bit.’” Similarly, Monica Rial, who voiced Momoko, stated at Anime USA 2011 that Ghost Stories “did not do very well in Japan,” and that Animax told them, “We don’t care what you do, we just need to recoup some of the money we lost on this show. Have fun!” Over the last decade or so, some variation of this messy narrative has become the standard, with no shortage of blog posts, reviews, and YouTube commentators recounting it. And although some critics have recently debunked the myth of Ghost Stories’ initial failure, even they can’t definitively explain why so many people at ADV Films concluded the show was a complete bust before they even began working on it.
Like any good urban legend, we may never learn the whole truth of why ADV decided to overhaul Ghost Stories’ original script so thoroughly, but in some ways, it doesn’t even matter. Once Foster and the voice actors got it in their heads that they could “have fun,” they proceeded to create one of the most bizarre, unconventional, and hilarious official anime dubs in the history of the industry. Foster himself, along with translator Lucan Duran, received credit for the new English script, but the voice actors did so much ad-libbing that they were given writing credits as well. According to Monica Rial, the first person to record on any given day would set the tone for everyone else to play off of, and eventually, it became a game of one-upmanship to see who could be the funniest person in the booth. No one seemed too concerned about crossing the line, either. As Greg Ayres put it, “We tried to have a joke for everybody.”
The fact that Vic Mignogna insisted on being credited as “Obi Frostips” for his bit role in a single episode says a lot about the script ADV Films ultimately came up with. For starters, the backstories and personalities of several characters are completely changed. Satsuki’s friend Momoko, for instance, is transformed into a born-again Christian who tries to convert everybody, while her teacher Mr. Sakata becomes a sex-obsessed pervert with a reputation for spying on the girls’ locker room. Meanwhile, the dialogue is consistently and unabashedly offensive, with frequent jokes about abortion, domestic abuse, mental disability, bestiality, and other sensitive topics. Not all of it has aged well, and some of the more dated pop-culture references will likely go over younger viewers’ heads, but there are also some clever fourth-wall jokes that poke fun at the anime tropes, animation mistakes, and stereotypical plots of the original show. With such a grab-bag of different styles and tones, the humor of Ghost Stories is bound to be hit-or-miss for some people, but on the flip side, it does mean that many different audiences can get some laughs from it, especially if you’re into offensive comedy.
From the moment it was released, ADV’s unconventional dub of Ghost Stories has been one of the most polarizing adaptations the anime industry has ever seen—it was booed at its Otakon 2005 premiere, only to rebound just one year later and beat out Fullmetal Alchemist to win Anime Insider’s 2006 “Dub of the Year” award. At the heart of many criticisms of the dub is the issue of whether or not a divergent or parody adaptation of an existing work somehow disrespects the original. But to claim that the ADV dub is problematic because it fails to faithfully adapt the source material is perhaps, in this case, the wrong approach. Because it adds so much original content and reinvents the characters and dialogue so frequently, ADV’s Ghost Stories can be considered an almost entirely new show, rather than a simple localization or alternate-language version of the same series. In many ways, it more closely resembles parody genres like spoofs, overdubs, and “abridged” series, with some even crediting it as a forerunner of the 2010s anime abridging craze. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that ADV’s take on Ghost Stories was a singularly unique and special event. Unless a Japanese company somehow allows a dubbing studio to produce an officially-licensed abridged series, we may never see anything like it ever again.