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The Best Worst Dub: A "Samurai Pizza Cats" (1990) Retrospective

Nigel, AKA Bubblegum Senpai, was voted most likely to die due to an accident involving a cuddle pillow. Haruhi Suzumiya for Life.

Does anime always have to have a point?

Does anime always have to have a point?

"Samurai Pizza Cats" Memory Lane

This goes a ways back and has a great deal of nostalgia for me. Hence why instead of doing a critical review of this series, I've opted to do a retrospective. I don't think I could look at this series honestly and without bias. It was my very first anime, at a time when anime was still very much underground in the Western market. Sure, there was Speed Racer and Astro Boy, but those were hardly on many stations. You might be able to watch Mobile Suit Gundam at midnight on some channels, but at the age of seven, my parents certainly weren't going to let me stay up until midnight on a weekday to watch anything.

The year was 1993. The first chapter of the Sailor Moon manga had only been published the previous year, let alone adapted into an anime. Dragon Ball Z was still five years away from its first episode reaching American television. But every day after school, I'd grab my homework and a TV Table, and turn on the television to a channel called YTV - a channel still around, by the way, though programming these days are very different from when I was a youth - and watch cartoons. Among them was a cartoon that took place in a weird, cyberpunk version of ancient Japan. It was full of puns and jokes I definitely didn't get, and I absolutely loved this show. Samurai Pizza Cats became my very first anime.

"But wait Nigel!" I hear some of you say. Well, not really, but let's go with that. "I just looked it up and Samurai Pizza Cats didn't begin until 1996!" Ah, my audience. I'll go onto this tangent to humor you just a bit. You see, YTV was a Canadian Station that was very good at being early adopters of shows that would become popular elsewhere. YTV picked up Sailor Moon first, beating the US market by a few months, and also helped in the process of dubbing the series. Another YTV original series, You Can't Do That on Television (starring a teenage Alanis Morisette) was picked up by Nickelodeon. YTV also produced the popular CGI series ReBoot. And yes, we also got Samurai Pizza Cats almost three years ahead of American Networks. A fact I didn't begin to appreciate until recently.

I swear, the only reason there wasn't a Dragon Ball reference here, was because Dragon Ball had yet to reach casual audiences in America.

I swear, the only reason there wasn't a Dragon Ball reference here, was because Dragon Ball had yet to reach casual audiences in America.

Lost in Translation, Literally

Returning to the discussion about the Samurai Pizza Cats, it was a very slapstick show full of one-line jokes, wordplay and fourth wall breaks. As someone who has made Merry Melodies and The Bugs Bunny and Tweetie Show part of my Saturday morning ritual, I absolutely loved it. Of course, I didn't know that the original version of the show was very different. And thus begins the tale of "the best worst dub."

You see, Saban Entertainment had a specialty. Licensing Japanese properties and changing everything about them for the Western audience. Most notably among these was Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, an adaptation of Super Sentai. Saban notably would take samples of various episodes, rearrange them and add American actors for most scenes that didn't involve combat or extravagant costumes. When Saban licensed Kyatto Ninden Teyandee, they did something similar.

The — likely apocryphal — story goes that when Saban received the videos for dubbing, they either didn't come with scripts and information packages — files describing the plot and characters — or they were so poorly translated that they were beyond use. So Saban opted to do what was successful for other properties they licensed: change everything. The team watched the episodes to get a feel for the action and made the script up based on what they saw, and thus Samurai Pizza Cats was born. Trying to capitalize on the popularity of other shows airing on American networks, they rewrote the series as a comedy full of pop culture references and jabs at the competition.

"An entire city block is flattened in the blink of an eye, including a retirement home for aging ninja turtles!"

"An entire city block is flattened in the blink of an eye, including a retirement home for aging ninja turtles!"

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What It's About

It's about puns, pop-culture references, and breaking the fourth wall.

Okay, there is actually a story - even in the Saban version. In the town of Little Tokyo, a town populated by cybernetic animal androids, Prime Minister Big Cheese plots to overthrow Emperor Fred. The Palace Guard Commander Al Dente (yes, there are a lot of pasta puns) catches wind of the plot but doesn't have enough evidence to arrest him, so he relies on the help of the Samurai Pizza Cats, three felines who run a pizza parlor in Little Tokyo, but also happen to be skilled Samurai. Each episode follows a "Villain of the Week" formula as the Pizza Cats stop a different plot to take over Little Tokyo each episode.

This is surprisingly accurate to the original version, which also featured puns heavily and fourth wall breaks. It also used a format that was already popular at the time, especially in other Saban licenses. Sentai series, such as Super Sentai and Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and its many spinoff series, used this villain-of-the-week formula to great success. The premise of this formula is the big bad sends a different object each week - usually a different henchman, but it could as easily be a different mecha, monster, lackey, potion - to achieve their objective. 90s magical girl anime such as Sailor Moon also used this formula later to great success, but here we see an early example.

In most cases, our heroes — Speedy Cerveces, Polly Esther, and Guido Anchovy — are tasked with defeating some kind of giant mecha robot, whether it be an oversized dragon bent on property damage, or a robot using the singing voice of hero Polly Esther to hypnotize the population (in a group called the "Pointless Sisters," since we're talking about dated pop culture references). Sometimes they call on friends — in this case, from sister pizza franchises — for help when things get tough.

In other words, the usual Saban fare. Of course, our heroes would come out on top via some form of a deus ex machina signature move performed at the end of every episode - and then back to our regularly scheduled puns and dated references.

Competing for Lucille's affections. Off screen: Polly watching and getting madder.

Competing for Lucille's affections. Off screen: Polly watching and getting madder.

Series Reflection

This sticking to the formula doesn't make the story or the show bad in any way. Remember, the target audience was children who couldn't tell the difference and the parents forced to watch it with them, and the show wouldn't have a cult following lasting to even today if it wasn't good. In fact, the show is rather enjoyable, to the point where its cult following includes many "no dubs, just subs" purists who still look back and fondly remember the localization.

You see, a story can be good and told poorly, and a story can seem poor or repetitive and told well. When watching Samurai Pizza Cats, the audience knows what to expect, and it's the very reason why we would tune in to the series every week. Fans wanted puns, references, relationship jokes we were too young to understand but that our parents would laugh at, and we wanted the conflict resolved in 24 minutes or less. That certainly doesn't make the series bad in any way. The show drops you off in a setting on the first episode and treats the audience as if they've known these characters along and doesn't see a need to build them any further. The audience knows that Speedy and Guido will fight over Lucille the Lamb's romantic affections, that Polly Esther will come across as tomboyish and still get jealous over how all the guys are thirsty for other girls in the show, and really, for a cartoon in the early 1990s, it's what we wanted.

Sure, the references were already dated back when the series was airing (even more so for non-Canadian audiences who had to wait another two years for the show) and a lot of the jokes kids wouldn't get but were still delivered tastefully. Ultimately, the show's following has survived this long because the show was designed to appeal to its audience's sense of nostalgia. A lot of jokes wouldn't pass these days and that's okay. But for a nostalgic old man like me, I still re-watch the series fondly and laugh. And now when I watch it, I actually get the jokes. And to me, I think that's totally...

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Nigel Kirk

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