Jim Malone is 33 years old and lives on the Lower East Side. He insists that his parents didn't name him after one of the Untouchables. The rock 'n' roll band he writes, sings and plays guitar for, Standpipe, can be seen around town occasionally at places like Arlene Grocery and the Bitter End. They just finished recording their second album, and Malone himself has a solo acoustic album set to come out sometime in early 2000. He runs his own small recording studio, which he calls Little Big Horn Productions. He's also responsible for keeping your kids occupied every afternoon?and for driving you nuts the rest of the time. This holiday season, there's even a good chance that he helped make your life a living hell.
Malone, you see, is one of the men behind that damned Pokemon show (though he wouldn't call it "that damned Pokemon show" himself).
Several years ago, he took a job at TAJ, a music production house here in town. "Business was a little slow," he says, "and along came this stuff. It was steady work."
By "this stuff" he means anime?Japanese animated cartoons. They'd been around forever?I remember Battle of the Planets from when I was growing up?but only in the last few years have they really hit it big in the States. Anime nowadays, as most of you probably know, can run the gamut from children's series to hyperviolent fantasy series to hardcore pornography. Over the years, Malone found himself working on the sound for a variety of different shows that needed to be made accessible to American audiences. After a few cartoons he'd rather not talk about, he worked on Slayers, on Revolutionary Girl Utena and on a handful of others.
The Japanese producers of each series would forward the episodes to TAJ, where it would be up to Malone and several others to create an English soundtrack.
"We would get a literal translation of the Japanese," Malone explains of his pre-Pokemon projects, "and then I would adapt the script. There's still somebody for Pokemon who adapts the script, it's just not me anymore. That process is literally sitting there with a VCR and trying to match up the [animated characters'] lip-flap change to whatever degree you have to. Then I would audition people and direct the voice talent at whatever studio we were in. In Pokemon, I'm now engineering and directing at the same time."
I asked him if the original Japanese scripts had to be changed much to be more palatable to a young American audience.
"Yeah," he said. "Like anything, there's a couple of schools of thought in anime. There are the devout fans who really would never like a dub anyway. They're very critical of anything that gets changed. What we do is, we try to Americanize it. Especially because Pokemon is on the WB every day except Sunday and has a few people to get past. But you try?you can only do so much, because there's a story line you're following. I think a lot of time the jokes, the humor, have to be adjusted to a certain degree. Your biggest concern?or at least my biggest concern?is to make it look as easy on the eyes as possible. I'm not a big fan of a sloppy lip flap, which you see a lot of."
TAJ began working on the American version of Pokemon back in the spring of '98. And at first it just seemed like another job, another series to work on, like Slayers.
As Malone explains it, "We started the first season really very unsure of what would happen with it. In fact I don't think any of us?anybody?thought it would turn out nearly as well as it did."
The only thing that seemed different about Pokemon, in fact, was that, unlike the other things he's worked on, Pokemon was a children's show.
"I felt?I think a lot of us felt?that it might be a little hard for kids to follow?which is hugely underestimating them, because they've picked up on all 151. That was the biggest thing... We certainly didn't expect anything like this."
I must admit, myself, that I've never seen the show. I've seen the commercials, and certainly haven't been able to avoid all the hoo-hah surrounding it, but I've never actually sat down and watched it. What I have done, however, is talk to a few parents who, to a greater or lesser degree, remain absolutely befuddled?both by the whole phenomena, and by trying to figure out just what the hell is going on in the show. I asked Malone if he was able to follow the plot.
"Between you and me?" he laughed. "You know, I think it really is harder for adults to swallow it hook, line and sinker. We don't want to accept an entirely new reality?and that's what this is."
What about the seizures that befell all those Japanese kids? Has the American version given anyone a seizure?
"No," he told me. "That was a video frequency that they cut out. It's actually an FCC no-no, I believe. I don't think we'd be allowed to put anything like that on the air. I'm sure there are other lawsuits going on now, though." He laughed again, and I wasn't sure how seriously to take him.
These days, apart from the band, Pokemon is pretty much all he works on. In fact, it's pretty much all anyone at TAJ works on anymore. In the meantime, he and the rest of Standpipe are trying to get the next record out and the next show lined up.
"If Pokemon can help that," he says, "then I'm willing to let it."