Robots, Real Estate, & Silvio Berlusconi
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As I made very clear in the last episode, it was once a massive undertaking just physically getting anime from Japan to the US. Just imagine if I told you in 2019 that you had to go anywhere but your own couch just to watch anime. You would call the police.
Once anime was here physically, it still involved an insane time commitment from fans just to make it intelligible to American viewers. Whether it was painstaking hours encoding text onto video, or being tricked into live translating for your friends; in short, it was impossible, and yet people did it, so we have them to thank, at least partially, for the huge presence of anime in the modern zeitgeist.
But there’s a lot more to localizing than just taking Japanese words and turning them into English words. In practice, localization means making whatever changes are necessary to make a show marketable to the local audience. Using the language of that audience is a good start, but it doesn’t encapsulate the full scope of the practice from a marketing standpoint.
Of course, over the years, people have severely misunderstood the extent to which changes actually need to be made, and so there are good examples of localization and then there are times when the producers decided Americans can’t grasp the concept of a rice ball and Pokemon ends up full of unnecessary jelly donuts.
This is Anime in America, brought to you by Crunchyroll and hosted by me, Yedoye Travis.
If you're still not sure what I'm talking about, there are plenty of things in the American lexicon that you would have never guessed were from Japan. In fact, the 60s gave us a lot of anime that wasn’t recognizably Japanese, and this was because both Japanese creators and American distributors thought that maybe Japanese IP wouldn’t be the easiest sell immediately after World War II. So they just made it not Japanese. Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy began a lasting trend in anime of heavily anglicized characters that minimally reflected the culture they came from, and were therefore believed to be more marketable to western audiences.
[Music from Astro Boy plays]
By the 80s though, as we inched further away from wartime tensions, anime became more acceptable in its unedited state, attracting American distributors who wanted to capitalize on the space opera craze following the release of Star Wars. In fact, by this time, the cultural exchange between Japan and the US was already starting to blossom, with an agreement between Marvel and Toei that brought a successful tokusatsu adaptation of an American series to Japan in 1978. That series was Spiderman.
[Japanese Spider-Man opening plays]
And for reference, tokusatsu is a Japanese word that literally means “special effects,” so tokusatsu in its simplest form is just that--a live action show where some of the stuff is not real. For specific examples, think Ultraman, Kamen Rider, the Super Sentai series, which I’ll get to in a second, or something we’re all familiar with--the classic foam rubber Godzilla that came long before the tiny headed Bryan Cranston version.
[Godzilla roar from GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA]
Marvel and Toei’s deal was made before Dragonball Z became Toei’s crowning achievement, and long before Marvel joined the Disney family and fell into constant conflict with Sony over the very same property. The deal gave each party rights to use the other’s characters in any way they saw fit, and in fact, Toei originally planned to make Spiderman a secondary character to mythological Japanese prince Yamato Takeru. They eventually backtracked and left Spiderman in his primary role, but then they did all this other weird shit with it. They threw out Peter Parker entirely, and so Spiderman’s alter ego became Takuya Yamashiro, a motorcycle racer who gets injected willingly with blood from the spider alien Garia, giving him spider powers and allowing him to carry on Garia’s fight against the evil Professor Monster.
[Japanese Spider-Man opening continues]
I’m sorry, what? They also gave him an arguably unnecessary giant robot named Leopardon, a concept Toei would later incorporate into their Super Sentai series, which you may not know by name, but is actually one of the most popular American series of all time, with literally billions of dollars in toy sales in its first 8 years.
[Opening theme of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers begins to play]
And if you’re thinking “Hey what if I’m too dumb to Google that?” Well that is what podcasts are for. Even though I guess you had to Google… this podcast to find it.
Not knowing Super Sentai doesn’t make you dumb, it just makes you American, and THAT makes you dumb.
[Power Rangers theme continues]
But only for systemic reasons that can be broken down in one of many other podcasts. But In this one, I’ll just accept your manufactured ignorance and move on.
[Power Rangers theme continues to “Go go, Power Rangers!”]
You might know Super Sentai by its American name, Power Rangers, who you might know by the aforementioned giant robots--known as Zords--or by the first iteration’s problematic color coding of its main characters: blue for boy, pink for girl, yellow for Asian girl, black for black boy, and red for lead boy. Later colors would include white for Native American played by white guy, and green for all the money they made in spite of this.
Power Rangers is an American localization of Super Sentai originally adapted by Saban Entertainment in 1993 using entirely new footage and storylines interwoven with battle scenes from the original series, and I don’t know if it’s better or worse that the American cast was decided after the costumes were made, but I do know that it’s not surprising.
The Power Rangers are undoubtedly the most popular Saban property, having sold over $6 billion in toys for Bandai in its first decade on the air, and Saban have continued to adapt Super Sentai series beginning with Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger in 1993, all the way up to Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters in 2019.
The rights have changed hands a couple times, with a brief stint at Disney, before returning to Saban in 2010, and ultimately to Hasbro in 2018, in case you thought the series was created to do anything other than sell toys. Power Rangers has since been distributed internationally and chaotically redistributed in Japan using the original voice cast, and I can’t begin to explain to you how that works legally, but as an actor, all I can say is take the two checks and run before they figure it out.
I bring all this up as an example of what can happen when international properties are used to their full potential. It gets confusing at times, when you get into the weeds regarding licenses and producers or the fact that Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was banned in Malaysia for supposedly promoting mighty morphine to kids--real fact, look it up--but ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, all parties involved, at least on the corporate level, made money and built up pretty rock solid brand recognition.
In contrast, let’s talk about Harmony Gold.
Harmony Gold is an American television production company and real estate developer lol whose founder, Frank Agrama, narrowly escaped prison just a few years ago, and whose Wikipedia page contains an alarming number of references to famously corrupt Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. And I don’t mean in passing. I mean in 1976 Frank Agrama sold broadcasting rights from Paramount pictures to Berlusconi’s Mediaset company, which at the time was just starting, but years later was found in a study by the American Economic Association to have made young Italians more vulnerable to populist rhetoric and therefore more likely to vote for Berlusconi who, for reference, would later be convicted of soliciting sex with minors, for which he would later be acquitted because why wouldn’t you be able to do that? And I’m not saying Frank Agrama is responsible for, or in any way directly involved in any of the +20 legal battles Berlusconi has been through, I’m just that he definitely was and in fact his home was raided in 2006 in connection with an Italian investigation claiming that he had inflated prices of the rights he originally sold to Mediaset so that, through means I do not understand, Mediaset could pay huge dividends to its top executives. And Frank only avoided jail time due to a technicality based on his age.
Of course, all this info is better suited for a way more in depth political conspiracy, and maybe famous pedophile podcast? But the fact that Harmony Gold is so deeply rooted in the dealings of a massive propaganda empire run by an egomaniac really sets the stage for why everyone seems to hate them so much.
So what is Harmony Gold as it pertains to this story? Well, as I said, it began in 1983, four years after Frank took a trip to France, where he met and agreed to partner in distributing international film rights with Paddy Chan Mei-Yiu and Katherine Hsu May-Chun, two businesswomen from Hong Kong, the former of whom is the owner of the Wiltshire Group of Companies. And I’d like to think the two of them held some significance before the events in this episode, but if they did, they’re SEO game is trash, cause all searches yield results after the year 1979 when Chan founded the Hong Kong-based Harmony Gold and Frank founded Agrama Film Enterprises in LA, only establishing Harmony Gold USA a few years later.
Harmony Gold USA’s first project was a miniseries depicting the life of Shaka Zulu--chief of the Zulu people from 1816 to 1828--which a 1986 piece in the LA Times said reduced Shaka and the Zulu people to violent barbarians, noting that the story was mostly told through the perspective of an Irish doctor and not Shaka Zulu himself and basically challenged its audience to ask what would have come of South Africa if it weren’t for the intervention of white settlers.
So if the series can be summed up in a word, I guess that word would be “controversial,” only because Frank himself staunchly denied that the film was racist at the time, despite claims from South African literature professor Mazisi Kunene that it was “like Hitler doing the history of the Jews.”
And long story short, these are the people that made Robotech.
As is the case with Power Rangers and most other series brought to the US, the main hurdle in localizing for an American audience is the content itself, whether that means it violates some perceived standard of acceptability, or more simply that Americans misinterpret the intended audience and end up repackaging a show with very adult themes to be marketed to kids, which may explain why I’ve seen Endless Waltz about a dozen times and couldn’t tell you a single detail of the story.
[Mobile Suit Gundam Wing - Endless Waltz theme plays]
In the case of Robotech, however, the biggest hurdle was American syndication laws. When Carl Macek was hired to adapt anime for Harmony Gold in the mid-80s, he immediately settled on Super Dimension Fortress Macross, as I mentioned in the previous episode--and had they followed their original plan, it would have been the first legal anime home video release in the US. But they abandoned that plan and decided to air it on TV, and American rules required that a syndicated show be able to run at a minimum of five episodes a week for 13 weeks, because as we all know artists are at their most creative when they have strict production minimums, like an 8 episode anime podcast, to give a non-specific example.
So, in similar fashion to Japanese Spiderman and Power Rangers, Carl Macek took the rights he had and did whatever the fuck he wanted. Macross had aired weekly in Japan for only 36 episodes, so Carl took two unrelated giant robot series--Genesis Climber MOSPEADA and Southern Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, the longest title I’ve ever heard--and he just tossed them in with Macross like an undergrad student using 15-point periods in a 12-point essay. And he made a hit. Robotech was hugely popular at the time and plenty of people will tell you it was their first window into the world of anime as a whole. But beyond that, Harmony Gold didn’t really have a lot of success.
There were spinoffs, including the aforementioned Robotech: The Movie, which was shown in 1987 at the Animation Celebration Festival, where Jerry Beck worked with a man named Terry Thoren, who refused Jerry’s requests to pick it up for further distribution, yet another person who viewed it as a “Saturday morning cartoon,” and first of all, I have to stress that you can watch cartoons on any other day. Yu-Gi-Oh! played on Sundays, I don’t know what this Saturday morning shit is. I don’t know where it comes from. But I digress.
In probably one of the most significant events in early anime history, Jerry Beck and Carl Macek met during the screening of Robotech when they both snuck off to watch the crowd’s reaction, and realizing how excited the audience was, they immediately decided to team up and establish Streamline Pictures, where they were committed to producing anime dubs that were true to their source material, preserving all the original music and sound effects, and producing more faithful translations, and I can’t stress enough how insane it is that that was revolutionary, but it was at the time and they, along with contemporaries like RightStuf, set a precedent that anime was most valuable when it got to just be anime. I can’t say with 100% certainty that Jerry’s boss would have been more receptive to anime if he had seen Macross in its original form, but I am also dumb, so take everything I say with a big grain of salt.
Regardless, looking back at Harmony Gold’s reputation in comparison to Carl Macek the man, all signs suggest he left at about the right time. Carl only lasted long enough to produce 85 episodes of the original Robotech, along with the way way way lesser known Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years, also adapted from unrelated series Captain Harlock and Queen Millennia, both by Leiji Matsumoto, both of which were comprised of 42 episodes, which I probably would have confirmed in advance if I had already gone through the trouble of combining three whole series into one, but that’s just me, a person whose experience informs his actions. Of course, given the success of Robotech, I’m sure Carl was very optimistic about his ability to crank out another successful chopped and screwed anime, so I can’t really blame him for overlooking that, but Harlock ultimately didn’t perform nearly as well as its predecessor.
Carl also attempted a Robotech sequel, Robotech II: The Sentinels, of which only three episodes were produced before it was canceled. And that’s kinda where Harmony Gold as a legitimate institution went out the window. Carl left to start Streamline, and you can so clearly picture the alternate timelines branching out from that point in history. Streamline was the antithesis to Harmony Gold in just about every way. Its first projects were theater screenings of Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Twilight of the Cockroaches, and it’s unclear whether they were officially a company at that time, but that’s kinda where Streamline’s illegitimacy ends. They opened the first Streamline Pictures office in 1989 and took off from there, while Harmony Gold was offloading employees to none other than Saban Entertainment, which may explain that company’s almost identical production strategies in Power Rangers.
I think taking a quick look at Harmony Gold’s website can give you a lot of perspective on the direction they’ve gone in since Carl left. And I encourage you to pull it up and follow along as I break this down, cause it’s hilarious. First of all, it looks like it was designed by Frank Agrama himself. From the soft 90s fonts to the basic flash animation, if you asked someone who had never heard of Harmony Gold to describe this website, I’m confident they would peg this as the work of an African immigrant trying to convince his parents he’s doing well in Hollywood. From left to right, the home menu lists “Theater,” a good enough start, considering they do own and operate the Harmony Gold Preview House in Hollywood. It then moves on to “Entertainment,” a category under which the word “theater” might fall under some circumstances, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one, considering it is a specific space after all.
Dead center, directly under their logo where you’d never expect it, is “Robotech” which, again falls under “entertainment,” the most entertaining thing about it being that if you click on it, it just redirects you to a better website, Robotech.com, where you can find all the merchandise and modern web design that frankly just wouldn’t make sense on Harmony Gold’s main page. Just to the right of that is, quite ironically, a hard left turn to “Real Estate,” which redirects to HarmonyGoldProperties.com, and I’ll admit perspective is key here because the phrase “Harmony Gold kinda fell off and started doing real estate” sounds way worse than “Yo my landlord produced the Shaka Zulu mini-series, that’s crazy!” But that’s neither here nor there. Finally, one more space to the right, you’ll see “About Us,” and your impulse might be to say “No I think I’ve seen enough,” but there’s so much useful information in there like the fact that Tobey Macguire is attached as a producer on the live action Robotech, which I’m only adding in hopes that you’ll respect the deep commitment required to bookend this long setup with Spiderman-related content.
[Japanese Spider-Man theme returns]
So all that might seem very unfair to Harmony Gold and Robotech, especially considering they served such a key role in introducing so many American fans to anime. Why should you care what their website looks like if they’re responsible for one of the greatest anime adaptations of all time? Well it’s not really about what they did at the time that fans are uptight about. It’s all about how they’ve conducted themselves since. The key difference between Streamline Pictures and Harmony Gold really comes down to their emphasis on money.
Jerry Beck told us repeatedly that he and Carl’s work was something they did because they wanted to see anime in American movie theaters. They did that and they were defunct by 2002 which, if you look at a rough timeline of how anime got to where it is today, is the perfect amount of time to help set the industry in motion and then just let inertia take over. Streamline produced dubs to get them out and then relinquished the rights to those properties, most notably handing the rights to Studio Ghibli distribution over to Disney in 1996.
Harmony Gold on the other hand have notoriously kept a vise grip on the rights to Robotech and its underlying IP and clearly have no plans of letting go any time soon. If you Google “Harmony Gold,” the search results are not kind. A lot of them come from Reddit, which should give you all the information you need, but the SparkNotes version is that Harmony Gold has used their rights to Macross and adjacent titles to box out any lookalikes, copy cats, or most notably, the original Macross itself, from setting up shop comfortably in the US, and knowing their relationship with Berlusconi’s Mediaset in Italy, it’s not really surprising that their actions would mirror those of a European propaganda machine, the only difference being that Robotech was popular, but certainly not the only thing you could watch in the 80s. So they really only managed to corner the market on what they *sort of* owned.
For context: Harmony Gold were given rights to SDF Macross, Southern Dimension Cavalry Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada from Tatsunoko Production in 1984 and, as we now know, Carl Macek was charged with editing and scripting these series into the 85 episode arc of Robotech. Simple enough so far, but of course it gets worse. Robotech was first released in 1985 and it’s since been declared that Harmony Gold maintains the rights to the Robotech brand in perpetuity, to do with whatever they so choose, and yet they’ve also held onto the rights for all its constituent properties for the past 34 years, renewing them once in 1998 and again in 2002, which pushed the expiration date to March 2021, and in all my research, I haven’t seen a single viable reason for why they need to last that long. In short, they ain’t doing shit with them, and yet, at Anime Expo 2019, they announced once again, that their rights would be extended indefinitely.
As I said before, Harmony Gold started production on Robotech II: The Sentinels, which was canceled, ending Carl Macek’s tenure, and they did later produce Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles in 2006, which according to their own website, is incredible. But other than that, what do they really need those rights for? At first glance, it looks like they’re whole MO is just to litigate competitors out of existence, which thankfully they haven’t always had the power to do. But if you take a closer look, that doesn’t have any affect on their approach. It really seems like they’re just holding onto their one successful property for the sake of brand recognition and money. I mean if you Google the words “Harmony Gold lawsuit,” the number of results are very telling.
Really, outside of almost certainly tossing out my rental application when I lived in LA, it seems like Harmony Gold does nothing but litigate. And to be honest, I can’t say that I really understand all the details of their legal troubles, of which there are so so many, but let’s see if I can sum it up without staring at my notes for an hour.
Basically, I want to say around 2003, it was determined by a Japanese court that Tatsunoko Production may have never had the power to hand the rights to Macross over to Harmony Gold in the first place, because they apparently didn’t have the approval of their co-producers Studio Nue and Big West in Japan, and technically the rights to 41 of the original character designs still belong to Big West. But because we are America and our word is law, and because we renew our anger about Pearl Harbor only when it is convenient, a different judge said “fuck everything Japan stands for” and I guess that ruling was ignored in the US and a judge determined that Harmony Gold has the rights to use Macross for some period of time just short of forever. A 2016 case between HG and Tatsunoko, in which the latter claimed Harmony Gold was sublicensing Macross without paying royalties, was ruled in favor of Harmony Gold but also dialed back the whole perpetuity thing and upheld the 2021 expiration date on their Macross license, and that date held until July of this year, when Harmony Gold’s deal with Tatsunoko was extended for another, as of yet undisclosed amount of time, that is presumed to be another 35 fucking years.
To sum up all the implications of this very confusing, three-headed dog of a case, basically Harmony Gold’s rights to Macross have a very shaky foundation, but they objectively own Robotech at least and can do with that whatever they want, as long as any sequels they produce use original designs outside of the original 41 that were dubiously given to them without Big West’s permission. Also Harmony Gold was somehow given all distribution rights for original Macross footage outside of Japan, but they still need permission from Tatsunoko to actually exercise those rights, which Tatsunoko seem unwilling to do for a company that sued them as recently as three years ago. I wonder what that’s all about. Also, because the grounds by which Big West actually owns those characters is so confusing internationally, Tatsunoko will probably just keep renewing Harmony Gold’s license just to say “fuck you” to Big West, while still never letting Macross see the light of day aside from Blu-Rays shipped directly from Japan, which conveniently have English subtitles because they know exactly what they’re doing.
This whole mess, paired with the fact that fighting an American ruling from overseas is prohibitively expensive and not in your favor, means that Studio Nue and Big West are heavily discouraged from pursuing their rights to a show they don’t really believe has an audience in the US anyway, so even if they could win, the likelihood of them trying is very slim. But because Harmony Gold has nothing to coast on aside from their production from 1985, they’ve been reduced to filing suits against anyone who even looks at an original Robotech design, which so far includes Hasbro, who incorporated an also shakily acquired Macross design into their Transformers line because they had no Robotech licenses and Macross didn’t exist here at the time, and also Piranha Games, a Canadian video game designer who believed they had legally acquired the designs from Big West for their Battletech game series. Unfortunately, Harmony Gold disagreed and another confusing lawsuit began.
The weirdest thing about all this is that, as important as Robotech is, a lot has happened in the anime world since then, and Harmony Gold don’t seem interested in branching out into any of those other ventures. They’ve been acquiring IP throughout the years but haven’t produced anything of note since around 2006, although a live action Robotech has been licensed to Warner Brothers, but even that feels weird since Pacific Rim already happened, but I guess another lawsuit can settle that. I don’t know.
Watching the steps Harmony Gold have made since canceling The Sentinels really adds a lot of perspective to just how big a bullet Carl Macek dodged by leaving, and granted he had since gone back and was working with them again when he passed away, but the potential damage to his reputation had come and gone by that time. Of course, he is still a controversial figure considering his creation is still at the root of this whole conflict. But he is also responsible for introducing a whole generation of viewers to anime for the first time, and his work at Streamline Pictures, where he helped bring so much untouched anime into the mainstream, more than makes up for keeping one, albeit very important, series out of the public eye.
The legacy of Akira and its Studio Ghibli dubs, in my opinion, makes Streamline a much stronger contender for valued contributors to anime history, and the fact that they only made money by putting out a quality product makes it that much better, not to mention the fact that they were so content to pass on licenses when their time was up. In fact, according to most fans, knowing when to pack it up is really the one thing Harmony Gold could have done to save their reputation. That said, Streamline has thrown a lot of fuel on one very divisive fire over the years, whether intentionally or not.
That fire, of course, is the sub vs. dub debate, which has driven a wedge in anime fandom for years. There are the people who believe there is never a reason to watch dubbed anime and there are the people who work from home, writing anime podcasts, and don’t have time to learn Japanese just to feel superior to casual fans.
For anyone unfamiliar, there’s been a debate raging for as long as anime fandom has existed over whether real fans should watch anime with subtitles or with English voice actors. I would personally like to plant my flag in the ground and say that if you don’t speak Japanese, it doesn’t matter. The argument I hear most often is that the Japanese voice acting is just better, and to that I say: how the fuck do you know? If you don’t speak the language, there’s no way you can discern good Japanese voice acting from bad English. If you can, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you speak Japanese. So good luck with your new job at the UN, I guess. Congratulations.
Also, just consider a point Roland Kelts made to me: that the Japanese artists themselves, in many cases, prefer fans to watch the show in their own language so they're not focused on reading while the art they worked so hard on is just passing by. Also, consider a point made by me: that subtitling eliminates the need for voice acting and editing jobs and, and as we learned in the previous episode, subtitles can be done with a very quick turnaround and a small team. So what I'm saying, is that dubs create jobs and stimulate the economy in the countries where they're produced, so regardless of how you feel, they are a necessary evil.
Also, back to a legitimate point by Jerry Beck: people who don't already watch anime aren't really interested in reading subtitles. To return to the argument on what goes into localizing anime, the whole point of the process is to sell it to a new audience, and part of that process is presenting it to them in their own language, which is exactly why Streamline Pictures only produced dubbed anime--to attract new fans to something that doesn’t feel threatening or antagonistic, which anime fandom often does. So sure, you can individually decide that you prefer to watch anime with subtitles. Maybe you have a lot of free time, I don’t know. But maybe take into consideration that when you have an elitist attitude about who’s a “real” anime fan, you’re not only being a weirdo edgelord, but you’re also keeping anime away from fans who are just as deserving as you are which, I would argue, makes you the Harmony Gold of people.
Harmony Gold itself has maintained its loose grip on the anime industry by exploiting people’s interest in a single franchise, knowing that a lack of access to the original Macross and related merchandise will inevitably drive people to their Frankenstein version of the original product. Meanwhile, Big West and Studio Nue have effectively given up fighting for it because the legal fees would be prohibitively expensive to reclaim a franchise that has technically never had an audience outside of Japan anyway. And the fact that companies like this survive because of legal confusion, while the Streamlines of the world come and go, is a travesty and ultimately only hurts the anime industry. And my point is that if you force subtitles on new fans, you are as bad as that.
This has been another episode of Anime in America. Come back next week, when we’ll be diving into the first anime conventions to hit the United States.
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This episode is written and hosted by me, Yedoye Travis, and you can find me on Instagram at ProfessorDoye or Twitter @YedoyeOT. This episode is edited by Chris Lightbody and produced by me, Braith Miller, Peter Fobian, and Jesse Gouldsbury.