Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Digimon; the holy trinity of childhood anime. At least it is for those of us who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s. Every kid knew about these shows and most were passionate fans of at least one. God help the wallet of any parent whose kid liked all three. However, look beyond these titans of the era and you’ll find a wealth of smaller series that hoped to rival them. Anime that are often forgotten, even by those few who watched them at the time.
Mon Colle Knights, Beyblade, B-Daman, Mushrambo, Super Pig, Medabots, Flint the Time Detective, Montana Jones, Mew Mew Power, Let’s Go Quintuplets, and finally Bobobo. Those are just some of the anime that hopeful localization companies rushed out to buy in an attempt to get in on the anime hype. None of them knew what the next big sensation could be, but maybe it could be theirs if they just kept licensing more series. With so much effort and money going into anime, how come so many of these series were just forgotten by the kids who grew up on them?
Quality is certainly not the issue. Some lenience is of course required when judging anime made for kids, but most of the series mentioned above are quite good or even fantastic. I didn’t even need nostalgia to appreciate their quality. However, when saying that, it’s important to stipulate that I am talking about the quality of the original, Japanese versions.
People love to bring up 4Kids’ weird censoring of One Piece and Pokémon—gotta love those jelly donuts after all—but that is child’s play compared to the butchering that these smaller series were subjected to. You can watch any of the big three shows, or Sailor Moon for the ladyfolk, and have a grand old time reliving your nostalgia. Then pop some ibuprofen and try to keep up with an English dub of Mon Colle Knights or Mew Mew Power.
Not content with gambling on a golden ticket, localization companies took it upon themselves to fix these weird Japanese cartoons before putting them on TV. Storylines got rewritten to the point where entire episodes get shuffled around or Frankenstein’ed together, often with no regard to how it should all come together again.
For example: the English dub of Mon Colle Knights was so desperate to get the first big battle out there, that it shoves it into episode 4. The problem is, that’s way before half the characters involved in the battle have even had their introductions yet. This is later “fixed” by these characters just flat-out forgetting who the heroes are and introducing themselves a second time.
Mew Mew Power threw out almost half of its story, including the actual villain of the plot and the multi-episode showdown against him. It also discards the moral ambiguity of the story’s alien race to instead make them objectively evil. An even worse fate befell Cardcaptor Sakura, which had 31 episodes removed and was retooled into a series more appealing to boys. Cardcaptors, as it came to be called, has an increased focus on male side-kick Syaoran and attempts to turn the romantic magical girl series into an action show.
The quality of turn-of-the-millennium voice acting is also worth mentioning. While Japan had a solid grip on talent, Western attempts to dub this content suffered from a lack of experience and a shortage of quality actors. While usually one or two decent actors could be found for major roles, side-kicks and extras frequently got stuck with horrible performances.
And that’s just the English variants. For other countries the English dub would be gutted over the course of multiple translations working off each other, making increasingly little sense with each iteration. One of the most hilarious results of this process is still the Flemmish localization of the Dragon Ball Z manga, which turned Akira Toriyama’s shounen classic into something more akin to a comedy.
However, the struggles these smaller anime endured can’t solely blamed on bad licensing companies. The big hits of the time had their own problems to overcome in order achieve their eventual popularity. Even if they didn’t have as many issues as their competitors, there has to be more to this story.
While it’s hard to put myself back into the mindset of my 8-year-old self, I fear that a final nail in the coffin for many smaller anime was the audience’s own lack of genre savviness. Even Digimon was frequently argued to be a rip-off of Pokémon, so what hope did many of these other anime have of being viewed in a fair light?
Many of these anime played around with similar tropes and were likely bought up by licensing companies for that exact reasons. Kids befriending monsters, girls turning into magical heroes, collecting cards, and goofy comedic-relief villains. While it’s obvious now that these were trends or innate traits of an overarching genre, we simply didn’t know that at the time. When a show was about kids exploring a fantasy land to collect monsters, that made it just a lesser version Digimon or Pokémon. If it had cards in it, that was a Yu-Gi-Oh! rip-off. Girls transforming into superheroes? That’s totally just Sailor Moon and, also, you’re gay for watching that.