Friday, March 29, 2013

Dragon Warrior: A 90s TV Dub That's (Mostly) Uncut?!

Akira Toriyama is probably the most well known mangaka in the world, with only the "God of Manga" Osamu Tezuka besting him. Ask just about anyone what the first Toriyama anime North America ever got & they'll all say Dragon Ball Z... But they would be wrong. Back in 1989, Harmony Gold tried bringing the original Dragon Ball anime to North America with altered names (like "Goku" becoming "Zero"), but after being test marketed it never actually aired. Still, the first Toriyama anime to ever come over to North America is an incomplete dub done by the well-versed Saban Entertainment, Toriyama-related only by original character designs... I think you know where I'm going with this.

The Dragon Quest series of RPGs is one of the biggest video game franchises in Japan, so popular that an actual law was enacted in Japan that requires all DQ games to launch on Sunday so that businesses don't suffer from a lack of productivity. In North America, the series was renamed Dragon Warrior due to trademark issues & enjoyed some slight popularity, no doubt helped by the fact that early subscriptions to Nintendo Power came with a free copy of the original game. From 1989-1991, a TV anime based loosely on DQ III called Dragon Quest: Yuusha Abel Densetsu/Legend of the Hero Abel aired in Japan, lasting 43 episodes. In 1990, while the show was still airing in Japan, Saban brought the anime over to North American broadcasting, simply calling it Dragon Warrior. Due to unfortunate circumstances Saban's dub only lasted 13 episodes, which is sad because it's actually a very well done English dub, even doing things that are considered highly taboo today.

Long ago there was a kingdom called Estark, which was filled with evil & only cared for themselves, resulting in harsh destruction throughout the land by way of a powerful dragon before it was sealed away. Time passed & peace came about, but a demon named Baramos, a descendant of Estark himself, begins to hunt for the red stone that can unseal the dragon. Coincidentally enough, a girl named Tiala is celebrating her fifteenth birthday, and her gift by Yogi, the elder of the village, was the red stone, because she is (unknowingly) the descendant of the people who sealed the dragon once before. Unfortunately, Baramos finds Tiala and kidnaps her in front of her friend Abel, who finds out that he is the legendary hero who carries the blue stone that can seal the dragon. With sword & stone in hand & allies alongside him, Abel goes on a journey to save Tiala, defeat Baramos, & stop the dragon from being resurrected.

Dragon Warrior makes me attempt at hiding that it is based on a video game, in Japan the episodes were initially called "Levels", but at the same time RPGs tend to adapt into anime better simply because both mediums can be story-focused, and that allows this show to feature a story that it always moving. The first episode is a slower-paced one that does a nice job at introducing the major characters & setting the story into motion, but after that each episode always has something going on, whether it's Abel & his friend Moco fighting their first monster, or the two meeting up with a wizard named Yanack, & coming upon a small village that hides the map that shows them were to go next. It's essentially like seeing an RPG story play out, but without having to worry about random battles & level grinding, and it allows the story & characters to take center stage. The Dragon Quest influence is also a heavy focus, with many identifiable monsters, music, & even gameplay elements; when monsters are killed they become valuable jewels, for example.

That's not to say that there is no downtime in the show, though. After the first seven episodes, which end with the heroes getting into a short confrontation with Baramos (while Yanack fights Moore, Baramos' evil wizard), the story takes a short downtime to let the characters realize what they need in order to accomplish their mission. Tiala even escapes captivity for a couple of episodes, before letting herself get captured once again to protect a village; spoiler: the village gets attacked anyway. Episodes 11 & 12 actually change the status quo a fair bit by having Abel go on a solo adventure to the snowy land of Nether to capture the Blizzard Sword, which might be strong enough to defeat Baramos, before returning to the usual adventure. Again, while the story may be old hat to some people, especially those who have played many RPGs, it's the execution that saves it from being boring.

Adding to the story, though, are the characters themselves, and that's partially because they may look stock but their actions aren't always so. Abel may be impetuous, but he's also no dummy. While he's still capable of falling into a trap, he also knows strategy & how to make the best out of a situation; he may look like Goku, but he's still his own man. Moco may be the big brute of the group, who isn't always the most willing to get into danger, but at the same time he won't argue too much when push comes to shove. Daisy, the female swordsman, loves killing monsters for nothing more than the jewels they drop, and that does get her into trouble on at least one occasion, but at the same time she is the group's best fighter, never hesitating in battle and is even willing to train Abel. Yanack is interesting in that, as a magician, he never actually walks (he floats everywhere he goes), and he's an admitted drunkard who is always up for some alcohol. Tiala, in turn, isn't a simple damsel in distress, but instead actually keeps looking for a way out for those first six episodes, and her kind heart not only saves the life of Dodonga, the kobold in charge of watching her, but actually results in the other monster on board Baramos' ship liking her and being polite to her. The villains are more traditional RPG villains, but they have their moments, especially Baramos, with multiple tubes being connected with him due to the fact that he powers his ship.

As mentioned in the beginning, Akira Toriyama has been the character designer of the Dragon Quest series from the beginning, and that transitions into this anime as well, being credited as the "Original Character Designer". Adapting his designs into the anime is Hiroshi Kanazawa, who does such an excellent job that one could honestly think that this was a Toei production, even though Studio Comet was the studio behind this show. It looks so much like Dragon Ball that it hurts (Abel's slime is even called Chichi), not that it's a bad thing. Interestingly enough, though, these thirteen episodes (as well as all episodes up to 32) were directed by the legendary Rintaro. While Rintaro's directing quality can vary, and he has never directed another TV series since this show (he only produced Reign: The Conqueror), he brings out his better qualities here. While still having to be restrained by the budget of a weekly TV series, this anime does feature some very nice scenes with smooth animation and great angles. It won't be considered one of Rintaro's finest works, and I'm willing to guess that he left the show due to the stresses of doing a weekly show, but it still comes off as a very nice production.

Enough about the show in general, though, as this review is specifically about the Dragon Warrior dub, so let's get into that. When one thinks of a Saban production there are some things to consider, but this dub actually manages to surprise by not following all of Saban's usual dub stylings. True, the music does seem to be altered (Haim Saban & Shuky Levy are credited for it), with some of the songs even sounding so familiar that I am positive that they were re-used a decade later for Digimon, but Saban & Levy didn't remove everything. Keeping with the legacy of the series, they still kept the moments where Koichi Sugiyama's original DQ score is used, however, also crediting him for it, and it really helps deliver that Dragon Quest feel. While the music is your usual Saban alteration (the opening theme is pretty catchy, though), the script actually goes against their usual tradition by keeping intact elements that would not be considered "kid-friendly". For example, Yanack being a drunkard is kept intact, as well as any & all references to alcohol, drinking, "booze", and being drunk; find any of that in a kid's show nowadays. Also, concepts like death aren't glossed over by using words like "destroyed" or the like. The dub actually has no qualms with saying words like "death" or "kill", also something you'd have a hard time seeing in kid's shows now. In fact, this dub seems to make it a focus to be as intact to the original show as possible when it comes to the script, though references to things like gambling, sexuality are apparently removed, as well as any signs of blood.

Unfortunately, this dub only lasted thirteen episodes, and the likely reason for that was because Saban sold this show straight to syndication, which meant that the time slots it aired in were up to the broadcasters. Because of this, the show seemed to be relegated to early morning slots like 6 AM on a weekday instead of more popular slots like Saturday mornings, no doubt because of the dub's willingness to not "dumb it down" so as to not anger picky parents. It's sad to see a dub that nowadays would be considered slightly better than most kid's show anime dubs get the shaft back in 1990, because had this aired in a more profitable time slot I'm sure this would have been fairly popular, and could have resulted in Dragon Ball Z getting better time slots back during its Ocean/pre-Toonami days. The dub even admits that it ends early by having the narrator say that the heroes have "earned a rest" and that "who knows what the future may bring". There is a rumored reason why the dub was canceled, too, which states that Akira Toriyama found out that he wasn't credited in the dub as the original character designer and became furious, forcing Saban to halt the dub. While it is true that Toriyama isn't listed in the credits for the dub, the thought that Toriyama himself got the dub canceled is pretty silly, though entertaining to consider.

The actors themselves pull out really good performances for the time, though there definitely is a cheese factor to it every now and then. Abel is voiced by Michael Donovan (Ryoga in Ranma 1/2, Cye Mouri in Ronin Warriors), who definitely brings to the character a great sense of justice & confidence, as well as a little bit of stubbornness in his mission to save Tiala, who is voiced by Shelley Lefler in a solid performance. Moco is voiced by Sam Vincent (Krillin in Ocean's DBZ, Tieria in Gundam 00), who does a nice & slightly whiny portrayal of the big but cautious best friend to Abel. Daisy is voiced by Marcy Goldberg (Rally in Silent Mobius), who does a great job as the tough female warrior. Yanack is voiced by Richard Newman (Rhinox in Beast Wars: Transformers, M. Bison in Street Fighter [US]), who is completely believable as both the knowledgeable wizard as well as an admitted drunkard. Rounding out the dub is the likes of Gary Chalk (Baramos), Jim Byrnes (Moore), & Dale Wilson (Dodonga), among others, who all put out very good performances. Sure, it's a little cheesy at times, Abel in particular is prone to odd shouting at times, but that generally comes with the time this dub was made. As it is, this is a really good dub from the early 90s.

This is an unofficial image, but the artwork is accurate

The first thirteen episodes of Dragon Quest: Yuusha Abel Densetsu are a fun ride that may be a little traditional in execution, but deliver all of the grandeur that a good RPG-style adventure should have, with the Dragon Quest elements & Rintaro's direction only helping it out. Likewise, the Dragon Warrior dub is a really solid production, going against some of Saban's later productions by keeping elements like death, killing, & alcohol intact, while also maintaining a focus on being as close to the original show as possible, with minimal cuts. Unfortunately, this likely lead to the dub being put at the mercy of syndication broadcasters, who put it in time slots that kept most potential viewers unaware of the show, leading to its early cancellation. Dragon Warrior never saw a home video release, so the only way to watch this is by finding rips from a TV airing. The one I saw compiled the episodes into two 2+ hour videos, cutting the opening & ending out so that they're only seen at the very beginning & end of each video. More than likely this dub is at home with the Japanese licensors, alongside the original Japanese version, and if, by some small chance, the anime ever gets licensed I wouldn't mind seeing the dub given an actual video release, as it was ahead of its time in some ways and would probably be looked at with some positivity today.

Anime © 1989 Square-Enix・NAS
English Dub © 1990 Saban International Services, Inc.


  1. Great review, i really enjoy to read about old animes and mangas.
    I will like to translate your reviews to spanish.... Is there any chance i could get your permission?

    1. I have no problems with that, as long as credit is given where credit is due. Thanks for helping make obscure titles given more time to shine.

    2. Great! I'll let you know when i have ready the first translation.

  2. Abel is more Yamcha. In addition to the hair, they have the exact same voice actor in Japanese.

  3. I had read the show was not renewed due to it being to violent. I also read that's why it got a terrible time slot (it was for me at 7am sat mornings). Whatever the case I wish someone would release it on DVD or iTunes as it was one of my favorites.

  4. It's redundant to say "loosely" and "based" as they mean the samething. Also this anime is directly based on DQ3 unlike the other animes that one could say are loosely based if you will. The fact is every cartoon based on a game is just that - based on, not exactly the same.

  5. Great review! I loved this show as a kid, and I think you covered it very thoroughly and intelligently.

    1. Thank you. I never even knew this was on TV back in the day, though even then I didn't even know of "Dragon Warrior" until years later. Still, I was surprised by how good of an early-90s TV dub it was. I wouldn't mind seeing the rest of the show one day, either.

  6. That we didn't get more than 13 episodes in English is a real shame, the English dub imo was superior to the Japanese one. The Vancouver crew of VA in the early 90s was amazing. If they could have done the entire series with minimum censorship it would be considered a cult classic today. Not to mention the orchestral music for this show was fantastic.
    On a side note, it was Duff MacDonald who did the voice of Abel, not Michael Donovan.