Between June and August, I spent a teeny bit of my free time re-watching one of my favorite anime shows as a youngster: Ronin Warriors! I remember when I learned about it in the late 80s and early 90s during trips to Thailand, when it was under its original title: Yoroiden Samurai Troopers. Shows like this, along with other shonen favorites like Saint Seiya and Dragonball Z, were all the rage in Asia, and U.S. broadcasters seemed totally unaware of this. But when it came out on Chicago’s UPN network in the mid to late 90s, my brother and I were ecstatic. No more renting from Japanese home videos with no subs folks, we were now dubbed and hittin’ the big time.
And you know what? After all these years of remembering it like it was gold on pancakes, my feelings about the show have shifted. Dramatically. Ronin Warriors is still good, but… Well…..
Let me explain.
Like a lot of TV anime in the 80s, Samurai Troopers is about a group of young guys fighting evil-doers. That’s a given. However, its samurai theme in urban Tokyo was pretty unique at the time, and many fans will cite things like it’s awesome character designs, sense of horror and dread, along with it’s amazing music, as elements of the show that were key to its devoted following. These are all things that continue to make me a fan of the show, and I’m almost 40!
My main issue with Ronin Warriors (instead of Samurai Troopers) stems from how the original Japanese story is retold for a North American audience. A large bulk of Japanese names found throughout the original show were renamed to generic pan-Asian terms, the most egregious example being the show’s main baddie Lord Arago, whose name becomes Emperor Talpa for Ronin Warriors (which is probably taken from the Tibetan ‘Tulpa’, a term for a spiritual manifestation). Other examples include the Chinese sounding transformation call, Dao Ji (whatever the fuck that means), and even a ton of incorrect translations for some of the virtues that each Ronin carries (Rowen may be ‘Life’, but it actually reads ‘Wisdom’). For those that were uninformed in the 90s, Asian culture might be some throwaway gimmick that you could use to sell toys, but let me tell you something: that ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ shit won’t work now.
Moreover, the RW dub finds a way to paper over the holes you can easily find in the English-language plot. The biggest example that I recall stems from the portal / vortex that leads our heroes into the Evil Dynasty. Much of the show’s first half concerns our heroes trying to find a way into the Dynasty to defeat the bad guys and save the city. Whenever they’re overwhelmed by the Dynasty Warlords or some other villain, the Ronins get help from their mentor, a monk with a magical staff called the Ancient One. As the show wears on, our heroes find themselves unable to enter the Dynasty through their heavily guarded gateways. This (and a whole slew of other events that I won’t get into now) forces the Ancient One to intervene one last time against Talpa. After a grueling duel of magic against the ghastly emperor, the Ancient One sacrifices his life and remaining energy to open a massive portal that bypasses the Dynasty’s defenses to allow our heroes to enter Talpa’s empire. All good, right?
Well, the second half of the show requires our heroes to go back into the Dynasty once more. And yes, there’s a massive portal in the middle of the street, just like in the first half of the show, but guess what? There’s no explanation as to why this portal showed up. Really. None. Nada. Zip. The Ancient One is already dead. There was no sacrifice made. Hell, I bet the original Japanese plot must’ve explained its reappearance somehow, but the dub found some way to just paper over it with “Let’s kick Kayura’s butt” or something. If you don’t believe me, go on over to Amazon Prime and watch the damn show again. Seriously.
Now, let me be clear and say that I adore the Ocean Group and their collective of amazing voice actors. They helped make anime so much more accessible in North America thanks to all the hard work they put in for localization. Remember the Viz Video dubs of such OVA greats like the Fatal Fury franchise, Ogre Slayer or even Ranma 1/2? Yeah, that’s ALL thanks to them. I would not be the anime fan that I am now if it weren’t for their efforts.
However, a lot of the nuances related to Japanese history are lost in their work with Ronin Warriors. We don’t get a clear sense of the ‘timeline’ that occurred with regards to Japanese history, and furthermore, we don’t even know that the Ronins themselves were portrayed as descendants from renowned samurai (you’ll only get this hint from the original Japanese plot). Instead, we’re given generic pan-Asian names, poorly translated kanji and a brief whiff that maybe, just maybe, this all takes place in Japan. Despite my love of the dub (it’s natural, well-spoken and free of awkwardness), we really don’t know anything other than, “The Dynasty is here, and we’re gonna kick its butt!”
Though, to be fair, that’s not to say that you won’t have a good time watching Ronin Warriors, because if you’re new to it, you totally will. Especially when it comes to the voice acting. So yeah, I’m totally nitpicking throughout this piece, but there’s also some rad vibes coming from our heroes. Ryo’s voice is more or less a California surfer, while Rowen’s (my favorite) is a total New Yorker. And what about Cye’s English accent, ‘eh mate? It’s all rad, and to kid in the 90s, that’s all that matters, right?
Ronin Warriors is the kind of small phenomenon that we American anime fans look back on fondly because, like DiC’s dub of Sailor Moon, Funimation’s version of Dragon Ball Z and Toonami’s riff on Gundam Wing, it was an affirmation that North American TV was finally giving us the televised anime goods that the rest of the world got without a hitch. From the mid 90s to the early 2000s, all of us were beginning to think that anime wasn’t just gonna be some fledgling subculture, but a real interest that lots of North Americans would grow to love.
And you know what? It has. It really has.
Anime is as popular as its ever been here. Anime Conventions pop-up all over the continent, where it isn’t a stretch to see fantasy, anime and sci-fi booths all under the same roof. Hell, even cosplay is becoming more mainstream now, and Studio Ghibli is well-loved among American otaku and mainstream film critics alike. There’s even Ghibli theater screenings folks! Theater-fucking-screenings! That was unheard of in my youth.
But with all that comes a lot of other baggage too. Namely, the misrepresentation and erasure of Asian culture. No amount of Pokemon donuts can hide that fact that Takeshi / Brock really loves onigiri, or that Serena / Usagi from Sailor Moon goes to school in Japan. Even my beloved Power Rangers franchise can be guilty of this (Power Rangers Samurai, hello?). These last few months had me re-live those awesome times when my brother and I would come back home from school to see a new episode of the Ronin Warriors. Sadly however, I’m not that teenager from the 90s anymore. I’m an aging, Asian-american anime fan whose life has seen too much whitewashing, erasure and bullshit when it comes to Asian representation on TV. I ain’t content with being the best friend on TV, the extra in your ‘Chinatown’ episode, or the back-up dancer to your Asian-themed music video with NO Asian lead artist (and fuck you asian folks who do the reverse). No more white girls with chopsticks in their hair, no more shit-dubbed kung-fu flicks with fucked-up accents, and, lastly, no more samurai-themed 80s anime that fucking localize 智 for ‘Life’.
I came into this to reminisce about one of my favorite anime TV shows, but I came out realizing that, for all the good that it gave me in my youth, Ronin Warriors left out a ton of shit that would’ve made it even more plausible for someone like myself.
Then again, I wouldn’t be writing any of this if it hadn’t been for Amazon Prime listing the show as ‘Samurai Troopers,’ instead of ‘Ronin Warriors.’