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Anime Theme Songs vs. American Cartoon Theme Songs

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Anime theme songs are tailored to the show. They envelop a sense of the show’s thematic intent. Because of the treatment of theme songs, they are still seen as creative endeavors, the icing on the cake rather than an extra menu that informs the viewer of what they ordered. Take the theme songs for Death Note. The original displayed the characters on screen, while stilling in a rock anthem beneath them. They denote that they show was intense, but had an edge. As the show progressed, the theme song changed to a very intense death metal sound. It changed as the mood of the show changed, further illustrating Lights sinking into insanity. The theme song matched the progression of the show, something that is seen in many Animes. This isn’t always the case, but what sets it apart from American animated programming is that Anime has the option to do so.

Anime takes it a step further. There is an entire culture extended into the theme songs for Anime programming. J-pop, short of Japanese pop music, shares space with a lot of programming. Many Anime shows will select a song by a J-pop group for their opening or ending theme. Many times, J-pop groups will create a song for the Anime in question. [reference here] This tells us that having one of your songs as the theme song for an Anime is not a detriment. It could be considered an honor. If not that then good publicity. This differs from American culture in how Japan views animation in comparison to America. There a stigma associated with it that automatically categorizes it as something for kids or something bizarre and wacky. That perhaps more than anything might be the reason behind the simple and easily dismissible theme songs created for American cartoons.

What separates the Theme songs of American cartoons from most Animes is repetition. American cartoons are crafted in such a way that the viewer will always know what show they are watching. This isn’t so much a trend as it is standard. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the best examples, a show whose title is repeated three times from the get go. Sure there are other lyrics within the songs, but those all serve to inform the viewer who the turtles are and what they do. It’s as if networks want to make sure the viewer will have the name of their show in their mind. It’s genius advertising. Despite the mouthful of a title, there were very few children in the early nineties who wasn’t able to regurgitate the full of the show and who could mention at least one of the turtles by name.

This show does not stand on its own. Ducktails, Sponge Bob Squarepants, Pink and the Brain, and several others share the same repetitious form of song construction. Once the pattern is established it’s easy to see it in all of the theme songs many people love. So what was the gamble for? To sell toys. Action figures were the biggest draw in the mid nineties. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had their own line of successful action figures that featured all of the characters from the show. It’s diabolical really. Invite a child to a fantastic place on a daily basis and then explain to that child they can bring their favorite characters into their bedrooms. Then they can have their own adventures with the turtles as much as they want. When the show brings out a new character, the child immediately wants the associated action figure. In more recent years the sell has been Videogames. Why have there been so many horrendous superhero games? Because they sell. America has done the same with Anime.

One of the most frequent complaints from the Otaku community is about the American versions of Anime theme songs. When a show is licensed in America, often by Viz or the recently booming Funimation, it passed by a marketing team. That team takes it upon themselves to find ways to make it more appealing and acceptable to American audiences. Sometimes they go too far, and the show get’s neutered to such an absurd degree it becomes the central talking point for those who are against the licensing of Japanese programming. This was the case with One Piece. 4Kids licensed One Piece and several other shows including Yu-Gi-Oh, and Shaman King. They wanted to make sure that One Piece was kid friendly, meaning they didn’t want to have anything that could be deemed offensive in the show at all. As a result we got changes like all guns turned into weapons that closely resembled super soakers. Sanji no longer smoked. He instead sucked on a lollipop. All of the blood was removed. It makes the people who were already fans of the show wonder if 4Kids knew what show they were attaining.

The greatest offense, however, is when the theme songs are changed. This is not a universal truth, but more often than not when an Anime is going to air on American television, they will create a new theme song for the show. When they do that, any vestiges of the original songs are removed. The new songs end up following the same repetitious style of song creation that plague most American cartoons. This is the case with Dragonball Z and  Digimon. The flow of the songs actually flow around stating the names of the show. The Pokemon theme goes so far as to incorporate the tagline into the song: “Gotta Catch ‘em all.” This adds to the collector mentality of the children watching the programming. Once it becomes engrained in them, the child is then able to direct their parents money towards the Pokemon Videogames, Manga, and cards. They have to catch them all. It’s in the song.

Coinciding with that, when an Anime comes to America, the unique animate intro is often replaced with clips from the show. It’s like they are creative miniature movie trailers by letting the viewer know what they are about the see. The American opening theme song for Dragonball Z goes so far to have clips from the Dragonball Z Movie: World’s Strongest. Supposedly the clips were more exciting to the American marketing team.

It’s practices like these that keep Anime out of the mainstream in America. By removing creative layers of the programming, Anime is being forced into the familiar box of American cartoons. This is not an across the board practice. Cartoon Network has aired Anime on its Adult Swim time slot for years. They used to have an entire section of their programming entitled Toonami where they showed dubbed versions of popular Anime like Gundam Wing and Outlaw Star. But even then, Anime still only ever had niche appeal. For it to become recognized by non-Anime fans, who I call no-takus, Anime needs to be treated with the same respect that any serialized drama receives on AMC or Fox. Otherwise it’s just advertising to sell more toys.

♪ Cryston ♫

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