4Kids TV gets such a bad rep. Let’s fix that.
For the uninitiated, 4Kids is a now-defunct company best known for dubbing anime—and, in the process, hypersanitizing it. Would they have agreed to dub One Piece if they’d known how many guns they were gonna have to censor by turning them into weird bottle-contraptions? Did they know Sanji smokes? (Interesting story there, actually…I heard they only took on One Piece because Toei made them do it, and because Magical DoReMi was part of the same package deal.)
And then there’s the rampant Americanization. While this wasn’t just for U.S. markets (their dubs were also sold elsewhere, weren’t they?), the States were their HQ. My American childhood is also the saga of the rise and fall of the Kids WB Saturday morning block, which hosted a lot of 4Kids dubs—until 4Kids, like a true backstabber, shanked them and took the block running. (And then folded.)
4Kids aired this advert on Independence Day that is truly emblematic of their efforts, and it is astounding. I say that with all the love in my heart.
Their dubs had lots of Japanese names changed to English, lots of Japanese text and signs whited out or written over, as if American children just could not possibly cope with the existence of, heaven forbid, another language.
I’m not gonna make a list of these moments, the internet is lousy with them. But I am gonna show you ANOTHER emblematic moment when Brock from Pokémon holds up a rice ball and says like any proud and ignoramus American, “These donuts are great! Jelly-filled are my favorite! Nothing beats a jelly-filled donut!”
Now, THIS is absurd. You know it, I know it, but what we don’t ask ourselves so often is how the voice actors have got to know it. How the script writers have got to know it. And what I hear in this scene is frustration. Do you think Brock’s line delivery would be so over-the-top if there wasn’t a general understanding in the recording booth that this was a little silly? Okay, I can’t prove that, and Eric Stuart, Brock’s voice actor, doesn’t seem to have publicly stated that he feels, or felt, one way or the other (I looked). But I can picture it.
My point is, people are quick to say “lol 4Kids more like they are literally four stupid kids running this stupid company” but don’t acknowledge that there may be other sides to this decision. Or when they do, they say “they did it because they thought their audience was stupid” and leave it at that.
But today, we’re going beyond that. We’re going to give 4Kids some praise I think is long overdue, and the way we’re gonna do that is by examining, and eventually dissecting, their theme songs. I’m not saying that 4Kids were perfect angels, but I am saying that
Pokémon Theme Songs
were pretty killer.
Some people consider the first Pokémon theme song their guilty pleasure. These people are weak. Let’s erase “guilty pleasure” from our vocabulary. No guilt about it. We can like corny things. We can have real, unabashed appreciation for them. And we can do all that while still poking fun.
You better not deny that their first-season opening was not only iconic, but a genuinely memorable, cinematic, artistically inspired, and HUGE song. It starts with GALACTIC imagery, for crying out loud. It comes out of the darkness and into the light. And the chorus just swells until that final, audience-pumping “POH-KAY-MAH-AAAHN.” It tells the viewers that Pokemon is no ordinary show. It’s an event. The theme song itself might even be the event.
Apparently there’s a playground rumor that Michael Jackson sang this song. He didn’t. But that just goes to show the epic quality of this opening in so many 90s children’s minds. (Michael Jackson was still considered epic by most people back then.)
4Kids went on to make several more Pokémon theme songs, and none of them, in my or most of the planet’s opinion, are as good. It’s such a tough act to follow. But every 4Kids Pokémon opening is catchy in its own right—and even when they’re not so hot, they don’t last long enough for me to get angry at them.
And the production was always top-notch! To the point that they would release albums of it! I don’t like their first Johto opening—I was there when it came out, and even then it put me to sleep—but listen to the instrumentals on that shit. The drumrolls. That crispy clarity. Like, these are legit songs!
And they have hooks! I saw every one of these openings pass through my TV, and even when the melody slipped in one ear and out the other, at least one lyric would always stick with me.
I didn’t appreciate any of this until I heard some of the later Pokemon theme songs – songs produced after 4Kids ceded control of the anime to The Pokemon Company. What are these dry fish flakes? Most of the stuff from the currently-current era is middle-of-the-road, gentle rock—and hey, 4Kids tunes may sometimes be generic, they may sit comfortably in the bargain bin of very-00s sleek rock, but they’re still blood-pumping.
That’s when I realized that 4Kids did put effort into the theme songs for their stupid, awful, disgusting-to-the-whole-internet dubs. In fact, I think they put way too much effort into them.
You can make a theme song that’s too stupid even for children. I think we all know this, deep in our bones. My five-year-old self would not be having this Fighting Foodons mess.
But you want your theme song to be memorable, and lots of the most memorable hooks are, well, stupid (which I guess is why people hate chart-topping music so passionately). So you have to straddle a line. You have to compromise by allowing at least some stupidity. The proper amount of stupidity.
Sonic X hits it out of the park.
“Don’t think” is right. This is the screeching, incessant source of one of Sonic’s stupidest and most enduring catchphrases: “Gotta go fast.” Sonic’s DNA would not be the same without it, is enriched by it. Don’t tell me it didn’t make the world better.
Plus, this song is packed to the gills. We don’t just get “gotta go fast,” we get stuttering “go g-go”s, “faster faster faster,” and a steady guitar riff that would be droning if not for the breaks in the tune. It’s fucking elaborate.
Now for something a bit different: a 4Kids original production. But actually something extremely similar: a rockin’ revvin’ 4Kids opening.
I want to walk you through the lyrics of this one. Feel free to play the song as you read:
Teenage mutant ninja turtles.
Turtles, count it off: one, two, three, four.
Turtles: mutant chain reaction.
Turtles: living underground.
Turtles: ninjitsu action.
Turtles: it’s a “shell” of a town.
Turtles, count it off.
One: live by the code of the martial arts.
Two: never fight unless someone else starts.
Three: always stick together no matter what.
Four: if all else fails, then it’s time to kick butt.
I love bein’ a. I love bein’ a. I love bein’ a turtle.
Teenage mutant ninja turtles.
Turtles, count it off: one, two, three, four.
Turtles: there’s no one better.
Turtles: watch out for Shredder.
Turtles: they’re like no others.
Turtles: ’cause teenage mutants.
One, two, three, four.
One, two, three, four teenage mutant ninja turtles.
Why did I do this? First, because I thought it’d be funny. Second, because I wanted to show how dense this minute-long opening is. Dense with information. How crammed it is with segments within segments. Third, because I want to dissect the info these lyrics present us with.
Imagine, if you will, being in a 4Kids boardroom. Boss walks up to you, says, “We’ve got a new project on our hands, and you’re gonna make the opening.” You say sure, you’re on it, you can whip up a cool rock ditty. But Boss wants something far greater.
Boss says, “This fighting-turtle shit is fucking nonsense. Kids aren’t gonna understand it. The theme song can’t just be catchy, it needs lyrics that explain the show to the audience.” You start to complain. Surely kids didn’t have that complaint last decade. Besides, can’t the show explain itself? But Boss tosses a stack of paper on your desk, and on the top is a set of guidelines:
Your opening will:
- Introduce the main characters.
- Explain anything weird about our main characters. (Don’t want the kids at home to ask, “Mommy, why are they turtles?”)
- NOT promote violence even though the show is extremely violent. (Bonus if it promotes teamwork.)
Your boss’s guidelines seem like child’s play at first, but the more you try to work with them, the more you realize they’re not child’s play. They’re kid’s play.
4Kids is not fucking around with its audience retention. 4Kids is afraid of TV watchers saying, “An action show with an ongoing storyline? I can’t just jump into that!” And they mean the no-violence thing, too, in a desperate, performative attempt to look good in front of American parents. They are super afraid of what parents will think if they see guns, blood, or even shady heroes.
It’s fair to question 4Kids’ goals and intent vis-à-vis the integrity of the shows and the brains of its audiences. But since that justified argument is so common, I want to play devil’s advocate and try seeing 4Kids in the most favorable light I possibly can. For all those families that thought Power Rangers and Dragon Ball Z were too violent (and my family was one!), 4Kids made anime okay for kids. That has some effect on the normalization and popularization of anime—I will assume a net-positive one.
This theme song is extremely ridiculous. It’s packed with so much catchy garbage. I would not listen to this on my MP3 player. But I can’t imagine a better opening that, at the same time, explains the show to come.
And I can’t imagine a theme song like this existing without those kinds of guidelines. It really is a marvel. But it’s not unique. Not quite.
“We need a theme song for our new pirate show.”
“Well, what do we know about pirates? Yo-ho, yo-ho…”
“Yeah, but how do we make it relatable?”
“…You know who else says ‘yo?’”
Thus the invention of the immortal “ya yo ya yo.” Thus the extension of a metaphorical connection between rappers and pirates. It’s not that weird—Jack Sparrow’s character in Pirates of the Caribbean was based on rock stardom, after all. But it is still, uh…yeah.
Let me provide you with a list of everything this theme song teaches us about One Piece and its world (after the intro about Gol D. Roger, of course):
- Ya yo ya yo
- Our three main characters are named Luffy, Zolo, and Nami.
- There is, without a doubt, a treasure in the Grand Line.
- The pirate who gets the treasure is the King of the Pirates.
- Luffy’s full name is Monkey D. Luffy.
- Luffy is, or perhaps wants to be, the King of the Pirates.
- He’s made of rubber.
- That happened because, yo ho ho, he took a bite of Gum-Gum. (We can assume it’s not literal gum because when this line is said, fruit appears on the screen.)
- Zolo’s like a samurai.
- Nami’s not shy.
- She’s also a woman.
- There’s this guy named Usopp who launches things.
- Sanji cooks.
- Chopper doctors.
- In order to get One Piece, you have to set sail for One Piece.
- One Piece is the name of the treasure in the Grand Line.
Not counting 1 and 2, that’s fifteen distinct facts. And unlike, say, Butt-Ugly Martians, all of these facts are relevant to the show and its cast. You can’t get information denser in a black hole. The density goes hand-in-hand with the downright labyrinthine song structure. This song goes winding through hills and valleys, into deep tunnels and chasms, and when you come out the other end, you ain’t the same as when you came in.
This theme song is so close to being too stupid for its own good. I was dimly aware of this when I was younger, but I still loved it. I especially liked being annoying around others with a never-ending “just give it—give it up! give it up! give it up! give it up! give it up! give it up! give it up! give it—NO!”
I’m gonna lump together a bunch of theme songs that I certainly knew existed, but wasn’t particularly attached to. Yes, sadly, this means all the GIRLY SHOWS go here.
Magical DoReMi is cute and competent, but the one I couldn’t keep out of my head (no matter how desperately I tried) was Winx Club. Just the chorus. What can I say…they are the Winx they are the Winx. And they’ve got a club! Just don’t touch the hair!!!!!
Special shout-out to the theme song of Tokyo Mew Mew’s dub Mew Mew Power. Have you ever heard anything so heroically-yet-melodramatically 00s in your life? This one has the classic line “it’s hard to save the world—when you’re falling in love” …although I heard that the dub actually got cancelled BEFORE the heroine falls in love, but forget it.
In the Boys’ Corner, Ultimate Muscle’s theme song is a complete non-entity in my memory. I mean, yeah, I remembered the chorus, and I get the feeling that the adults making this theme song had five times more fun with it than any child would, but…when you’ve heard “M.U.S.C.L.E. Muscle” and “Da-Da-Da Dynamite” from the original 80s series, there’s no going back.
Not even going to mention Shaman King. Oops, I just did.
EDIT: How could I forget Kirby: Right Back At Ya!? This theme song is trying so hard to be memorable, and I swear I watched it! Not that much, because it wasn’t that good…(and I found the sight of a CG Kirby in a 2D world disturbing even then…) but I really liked the Kirby games, so, what can ya do.
He’s more than you think. He’s got maximum pink.
Now for another big one.
Back in the days when I watched Channel Awesome’s stable of reviewers, I saw a memorable Top 10 Anime Theme Songs video (and no, I don’t remember who did it) declaring, jokingly, that Yu-Gi-Oh’s first 4Kids theme song was number one.
And if you’re a sensible individual, you should be thinking, “But it is. That’s not a joke.”
I don’t exactly know how to analyze this song. It has very few words. It seems to be…EDM? Eclectic house? World music? Heck if I know? But I can suggest that as with the Pokémon theme songs, 4Kids was following trends in popular, kid-friendly, kid-popular music. So while Pokémon’s templates seem to be, I dunno, “Beat It” and the Backstreet Boys, the template for this song is the immortal Mortal Kombat theme.
Except instead of shouting “MOOORTAL KOOOMBAAAT!” this theme song repeats “Yu-Gi-Oh” a few times and features a man screaming, “It’s time…to D-D—D—D…D-D-D-D-D-D-DUEL!” and then someone plays a fiddle.
Corny. Corny! Badass…badass! Why they trusted kids to understand this song more than TMNT, which after all is based on a long-running franchise that even some kids’ parents could have given them a crash course on, is beyond me.
But that’s not all, folks. No, 4Kids has more masterpiece theme songs where that came from. I’m certainly not talking about their theme song for Yu-Gi-Oh GX.
I’m talking about Yu-Gi-Oh 5D’s, people.
These 5D’s theme songs are where I feel 4Kids theme songs put their best foot forward once again. Readers who are familiar with the show might wonder what I mean by “theme songs.” Well, they had a contest to decide the 5D’s opening. People could vote for their favorite online. While there was only one winner, there were many entries, and some are actually…solid!
Or…maybe only one of them is? Well, let’s use this playlist I put together to find out. Together.
(Or if you’re not interested—which you should be, because these songs are hilarious, amazing, or both—click here to skip to my final 4Kids thoughts.)
“Hyperdrive” – this song won, and in my mind, it’s another pinnacle of 4Kids themesongery. If Pokémon was a strong start, 5D’s is a swan song. In many ways, giving a techno-dystopia series a song that sounds like a guy with an acoustic guitar and a beer on the porch is an odd move. But at its heart, it’s about how going fast makes you feel alive (spiritual connection to Sonic X there if you squint). And yes, Yusei Fudo certainly does go fast, and is alive.
“Better Be Better Than Best” – now, this one’s the best combination of spirited and hilarious, which I’m nonetheless glad never got on TV. If nothing else, this would make a fun theme song for the pretentious rival character Jack Atlas..bbbuuut…
“Let’s Ride, Let’s Go” – wait, did you say “let’s ride?” Holy shit, I forgot about Spider Riders! And that’s a show where the ONLY thing I can remember is its blood-pumping theme song! But I digress. This one is such a classic 4Kids song, in the sense that it’s overloaded with info. It’s got the same villainous cut-in that the Shredder got in TMNT! Unfortunately, I think that if this one got chosen, we’d all have to go on strike.
Also: love imagining the first few lines as part of “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne.
“Need for Speed” – to me, this one’s like the unfortunate younger sibling of our actual winner. It’s about how this guy’s got, y’know, a need for speed, which is, of course, very relevant. But it can’t hold a candle, no matter how many times he repeats “need for speed, need for speed.” Reminds me of Mew Mew Power a little.
“Rev It Up” – …um, this one’s got good ideas, mixed in with some distracting ones (THE DRAGON VOICE). I also don’t like the singer here, sorry. Something in me wants to hear the chorus sung by Dionne Warwick.
“Secret of Five” (sorry about this audio quality on the only video I could find, NOT sorry AT ALL about the Unregistered HyperCam 2 watermark in the corner) – I like this one. It makes me laugh. That janky flow. That intro chanting “5D, 5D!” for a split second like we let the American football team in. “SE-cret of FIVE/dra-GONS” just isn’t gonna work, in any universe. But yeah, I almost wish this one ended up on TV.
“We Are the Ones” (sorry that the only video I could find cuts off at the very end, but rest assured I WAS able to find a Chipmunks 5D’s version that does NOT cut off) – I don’t mind this. This is a cute techno-metal thing, and the instrumental first section reminds me of the good ol’ Yu-Gi-Oh theme song days.
“We Ride to Survive” – alright, this would’ve been a great winner. The too-corny lyrics in the chorus throw me off just as much as they’re throwing off the rest of you, but heck, it does its job of pumping us up for a cool anime supremely well.
All the same, the winner is, in my opinion, the rightful and the best.
The first and second Japanese openings are mighty, mighty tunes, and I love them, and I would definitely rank them higher than “Hyperdrive.” But “Hyperdrive” is absolutely going on my MP3 player. This is such a solid rock tune, raising my spirits after Linkin Park’s “Breaking the Habit” and preparing them for the rollercoaster dive of Fall Out Boy’s “Dance Dance.”
4Kids are definitely not the only dubbing studio putting out intriguing or “intriguing” theme songs. (In fact, here are two of my favorite themes from OTHER companies: the first German Naruto opening and the first American Bakugan Battle Brawlers opening.) But 4Kids will always have that special place in my heart.
Though I’ve been out of the loop for a long while, I’m sure that anime, especially the shows geared toward kids, is still getting drastically different dub theme songs left and right. And while the Japanese originals tend to be, y’know, better in every way (even for kids—I remember how blown away I was when Toonami showed THIS for Naruto season 2, raw and uncut), I wouldn’t necessarily call that a shame. Hey, those kids probably have internet access. They can look up the original anytime they want, and when they grow old, they can look back on themes from the likes of 4Kids and laugh.
4Kids. May it be remembered in the best possible light: as a maker of strange intros and great memories.
For more reminisces on wacky kid stuff, check out my review of the manga Ultimo. Or my Harry Potter review series (reading it for the first time in my twenties!). And if that’s not to your taste, check out my thoughts on Scooby-Doo!