Here's how young Arab boys and girls grew up watching Japanese shows dubbed in classical Arabic on channels like SpaceToon.
In 2017, 300 young Saudi Arabians travelled to Japan to learn the art of making anime and manga, a distinctly Japanese art form. This was the first active cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Japan, with the express purpose of jointly producing the pre-Islamic film, “The Journey”.
Initially slated for release in Cannes Film Festival 2020, its release date has been pushed forward due to Covid-19. The film is a cultural landmark in its own right, taking two and a half years to make, and featuring a heady blend of Japanese and Arab culture.
The Journey tells the epic story of one of Arabia’s pre-Islamic heroes with a secretive past, who goes from making pottery to swash-buckiling heroism. The latest cultural effort is not a first. Instead, it builds on top of a long legacy of adapting anime to the Arab world stretching as far back as the 1970s.
The Middle East is no stranger to anime. For decades, Arab-speaking children have enjoyed dozens of dubbed cartoons since the early 1980s.
In 1976, a newly formed Gulf Cooperation Council institution was dedicated to creating media and television content for member countries.
Dubbed the GCC Joint Production Institution, it was quickly joined by countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. A year after being formed, they released their first offering: a dubbed version of Sesame Street, retitled ‘Open Sesame”, in a cultural nod to the stories of Ali Baba and the forty thieves.
The show was an immediate success. It was a time when Arab broadcast television was still struggling with limited content. Aside from the news and serial dramas, there was no capacity to make educational shows for children.
Inspired by their success and the critical acclaim they received, the institution dubbed at least twelve animes that quickly became cornerstones of young cultural consumption not only in the Gulf, but throughout the MIddle East.
Since its founding, however, the joint-production institution was clear on the fact that its mission wasn’t only to create content for Arab viewers. Instead, their mission documents detail other priorities.
First came reviving Arabic and Islamic history and heritage, and emphasizing Islamic ideals. Second, reviving Gulf heritage. Building the capacities of radio and television is third on the list of their self-stated objectives.
For better or worse, this led to the rise of a unique form of anime that eschewed censorship, and instead reworked entire storylines for a more ‘moral’ narrative.
One of their most iconic shows is ‘Adnan wa Lina’, originally adapted from Future boy Conan, a sci-fi anime series originally produced in 1978. The anime was directed by iconic Hayao Miyazaki, and shares the same distinctive watercolour style seen in his more famous recent films such as Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky and Howl's Moving Castle. Future boy Conan features a post-apocalyptic earth, where humanity faces extinction after Russia and the United States went to war.
The story follows the journey of a young boy, Adnan (Conan) who is a descendant of humans that tried to escape to earth. The boy expresses himself in perfect classical Arabic, as he seeks to protect a girl, Lina (Lana) from remnants of earth’s governments as they try to capture the young woman because she’s one of the last females on earth, and to capture the solar technology that powered Conan's (Adnan) ancestral spaceship.
The original anime describes their relationship as a ‘pure love’, as Adnan returns to her rescue time and time again, but in the Arabic dubbed version, this is changed to an enduring platonic relationship.
Other notable examples include Dragon Ball Z, originally airing in the 1990’s and still popular today. The Arabic dubbed version took particular care to present the 7 wish-granting Dragon Balls as a force of nature, and not divine. Lewd and particularly age-inappropriate scenes were summarily removed. To watch the Arabic dubbed version of Dragon Ball is to experience a uniquely wholesome show, whose relationships were quickly adapted to Arabic culture at the time.
Even the opening credit songs were written from scratch to deliver a specific cultural message to its young demographics.
The songs were performed by top-tier artists and are nearly as popular as the series themselves.
For instance, the Arabic-dubbed Dragon Ball opening credits sing:
"You saw the truth beyond the visible
You engraved letters into stone
You illuminated the path
You found certitude
You raised high, heads and spirits
You dusted off the face of longing
You awakened vision and conscience."
For a show that was originally made for children 11 years and older, the lyrics are far more substantive than other shows in the same genre.
As the institution picked up momentum in its work, it began to reassemble entire storylines for some series, with Arab viewers none the wiser.
“Detective Conan”, a Japanese detective series follows a young mastermind trapped inside a child’s body due to criminally-administered poison, who’s forced to change his name to Conan and live with his girlfriend and her bumbling detective father, as he solves cases on their behalf.
In the Arabic version, his girlfriend is turned into a fiance, with multiple crime scenes cut out entirely. As a matter of course, the Arabic version of 'Detective Conan' makes judicious use of cropped and sometimes truncated scenes to avoid showing excessive violence to viewers.
In ‘Remi’, an emotional epic that follows the young protagonist of French author Hector Malot’s novel Sans Famille (Without Family), the young orphan who is sold into slavery is changed from male to female, and given a gripping emotional opening credit song that ranks among the best pieces of Arabic serial adaptation music.
Another anime, ‘Romeo’s Blue Skies’, tells the tale of Italy’s young chimney sweepers and a young protagonist who entered indentured labour to pay for his father’s medication. The Arabic version is renamed, ‘the Age of Friendship’, glorifying the enduring friendship and selflessness between members of the chimney sweeper gang, and once again removes violent or frightening scenes. In moments where characters are visibly drinking from tankards of ale, the producers have them describe it as apple juice instead.
Other instances, like the world famous Hunter X Hunter series was dubbed for only two seasons, and ended the story after less than a hundred episodes, although the show has since continued well past 140 episodes today.
In it, they use selective cropping and editing to hide cleavages, remove innuendo, and are keen to erase any depiction of the character’s powers as related to Zen Buddhism or Taoism, as depicted in the original show. Instead, the cultivation of their powers is presented as a science and martial art. Where the original hunters are depicted as mercenaries, the Arabic dubbed version presents them as heroes, explorers, and scientists.
The lyrics to the song are also deeply meaningful.
"His eyes shimmered, with persistence he stood
In the quietness of the night
Who is he, this tenacious adventurer facing the flood?
He drives comfort away
He always seeks justice
With the image of his father in his dreams
Wakes up in his sensitive heart and love for everyone
No matter how dear the price is when it comes to hardships
He will remain the hero,
With patience and sincerity."
For generations, young Arab boys and girls grew up watching these shows on channels like SpaceToon. As satellite dishes became more popular, these shows quickly spread to every corner in the Middle East. The shows noted above are only a handful among dozens that included the ground-breaking football anime Captain Tsubasa (Captain Majid) responsible for making love of football mainstream in the Middle East. Others include Hamtaro, Thunder Jet (Defeater of Thunder'), Pokemon, the iconic tearjerker 'Baby and me' (Me and my Brother), and Digimon to name just a few.
Thunder Jet tells the story of an honourable warrior fighting to unite the cosmos in an imperial galaxy that features bizarre warlords, naval battleships navigating space, guns and samurai swords. In the Arabic version, the dark consequences of the protagonists rise to power are removed, leaving only a loyal, dependable young man who enjoys the moral high ground, always does the right thing without consequence and honours his word without fail.
'Me and my brother' was a revolutionary show in its cultural influence, described by those who watched it as one of the most formative shows they watched. The show originally shows the doubts and struggles of a young fifth-grader who has to fill in for his deceased mother and take care of his baby brother. The Arabic version completely removes the doubt he experiences, and one disturbing scene where he tried abandoning his brother, only to change his mind and run back to where he left him. Instead, it tells a story of a righteous son who consistently honours his mother's dying wish to take care of his little brother. The lyrics to the opening song evoke affection for mothers, and reminds viewers in the words of the protagonists mother: "Don't forget your brother. Nurture him with your hands."
It wasn’t uncommon for homes to have multiple satellite dishes on their roof, as they captured a range of Syrian, GCC, and Egyptian media. Even countries that weren’t originally part of the joint-production institution bought the rights to the shows, and would play them for domestic audiences after school.
“This was social engineering at its best,” says Khaled Hareth, a PhD candidate of media and communications studies in University Technology Mara, Malaysia.
“Because the shows aired right after school, children raced home to watch those 30 minutes of television, instead of getting into trouble outside. The messages were very collectivist. Be kind. Be honest. Be good. Help the weak. That’s what they were telling them,” he adds.
“It’s really interesting how Arabs reinterpreted and adapted Japanese values of group loyalty, honour, and dedication, giving them an Arabian flavour,” says Hareth.
Others describe it as a coup in language preservation. As the Middle East opened up to the rest of the world, classical Arabic was threatened. Few were still learning the rich, nuanced language of old in schools, because it simply wasn’t demanded in day to day life.
But Arabic dubbed anime, almost entirely delivered in classical Arabic revived its use.
“The equivalent is an English cartoon speaking in Shakespearean,” laughs Hareth.
At its heart was a pan-Arab message. The initiative hired over 50 actors from Kuwait, Syria and Iraq to voice over the cartoons. Sparing no efforts, even the opening songs were reinvented in Arabic masterpieces that gave many Arab singers their break, including Syrian entertainer Awsala Nasri, who was only a teenager at the time.
Other famous singers that were hired include Sammy Clark, endowed with a legendary crooning voice that sang the songs to Grendizer, spiritual forefather to the modern transformers franchise, and Treasure Island.
Throughout the dubbing, attention was paid to values of love, honor and family as well as classical language. In the modern day however, this didn’t last. Egypt began dubbing anime and cartoons in Egyptian vernacular slang, a far cry from the organic education children used to receive from watching these older shows.
For Saudi Arabia’s most recent film, The Journey, the old ways are still best.
“Apparently, producing their latest film is such a unique experience, because they found all these cultural similarities behind Arab and Japanese culture and celebrated them.”
Shimzu Shinji, creator of One Piece and executive producer at Toei Animation described feeling happy to see the film’s protagonists “fighting to protect the people they respect and love, as this is similar to the feelings of Japanese people who respect and appreciate cooperation with others.”
The oldest Saudi Arabian to join the venture was 36, with the youngest at 23, which promises a vibrant revival of anime as a medium for television in the Middle East.
The ties binding Japan and the Middle East are significant, and not often overly mentioned. Students throughout the Middle East are taught that Japan is an international power that overcame its limitations and challenges to become one of the strongest and most advanced countries in the world.
But in 2011, Japan entered mainstream Arab culture throughout the Middle East.
A critically-acclaimed show called Khawater (Reflections) produced for Ramadan followed a charming Saudi cultural critic in 15 minute episodes as he traveled for a whole season through Japan, becoming a household topic.
“Look at this. Look at how they stand in line. They’re so ordered. Do you know why? Because they respect each other, they respect the law, and no one is above anyone else here,” says Ahmed Al Shugairi in an episode on trains in Japan.
The introduction song for season 9 of the series was a cultural hit, featuring Maher Zain, with powerful lyrics that resonate with a common cultural desire to reclaim cultural and scientific primacy.
One widely shared quote from the show goes, “We didn’t come to Japan to glorify them or imitate them, we came to learn what could be beneficial from us,” he says, before shows viewers Japanese social etiquette, punctual train times, libraries for the the visually impaired, and even simple things, like people reading books on public transportation.
“Look, either we live on a separate planet, or Japan is its own planet. But we, (the Arabs and Japanese peoples), can’t be on the same planet,” concludes Al Shugairi. The sentiment is a pervasive one. In nearly every discussion on development in the Middle East, Japan is an inevitable reference.
At its heart is an unspoken affinity between the two people that may have begun with Arabic dubbing, but ultimately rests in a deeply rooted sentiment that the two peoples are alike. Japan’s religious beliefs were sufficiently vague to Arabs, that it wasn’t seen as clashing with Islamic beliefs.
More importantly, the Middle East and Japan were once home to regional empires. While Japan overcame its challenges, becoming a far-flung utopia for most Middle Easterners, they still remain a role-model of sorts.
In his scathing book, Arabs through the eyes of Japan, Nobuaki Notohara, echoes this sentiment.
“Due to the absence of justice, there is no public responsibility. This is why Arab residents destroy parks, streets, public drinking fountains, and public transportation, thinking that they are destroying government property, not their own,” writes Notohara.
For better or for worse, it seems the Middle East’s love story with Japanese culture is here to stay.