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Lost in translation: The Ginyu "Force"

When fighting against Freeza and his minions on Planet Namek, Gohan, Kuririn, and Vegeta (and eventually, Goku) encounter Freeza's elite soldiers. Thus far, all the villains tied to Freeza - from Raditz to Zarbon - have been played as remarkably straight and serious characters. The silly nature of early Dragon Ball, with its General Blue, Ninja Murasaki, and Rabbit Gang, seem to have fallen into the past; That is, until the Ginyu Tokusentai arrive.

The Ginyu Tokusentai cause a dramatic shift in the tone of the Freeza Saga arc, simply because they're so, well, silly! But exactly why they're silly has been lost in translation in the various dubs around the world, because it is so intrinsically Japanese.

In personal experience, I find people do not usually call the Ginyu Tokusentai by their proper name, in English-speaking conversation. Most commonly, the group is referred to by the FUNimation coined Ginyu Force, which both loses the pun and is inaccurate, or else Ginyu Special Squad, which simply loses the pun. Why is that?

There's an idea that calling the Ginyu Tokusentai by Ginyu Tokusentai is somehow merging into so-called weeaboo culture; i.e. using random Japanese words in your English-speaking conversations, among other things (importing Pocky despite living in Montana, only watching Japanese produced television or listening to Japanese produced music because it's somehow "better", and alienating your friends because you're too busy engulfed in the latest J-RPG to go outside.)... but "Tokusentai" isn't a Japanese word. As Ginyu isn't, in this context, either.

Calling them the Ginyu Special Squad would be the same as calling the members Commander Milk, Curds, Cheese, Butter, and Cream. Or calling Gohan by the name Food boy. Or calling Bulma, Bloomers. etc etc etc - it's a direct translation of something that isn't meant to be translated.

Tokusentai comes from two Japanese specific terms; Tokusatsu and Super Sentai. And what are those, you may be wondering?


From Wikipedia, on Tokusatsu...

Tokusatsu (特撮) is a Japanese term that applies to any live-action film or television drama that usually features superheroes and makes considerable use of special effects (tokusatsu literally translates as "special filming" in Japanese).

Tokusatsu entertainment often deals with science fiction, fantasy or horror, but movies and television shows in other genres can sometimes count as tokusatsu as well. The most popular types of tokusatsu include kaiju monster movies like the Godzilla and Gamera film series; superhero TV serials such as the Kamen Rider and Metal Hero series; and mecha dramas like Giant Robo. Some tokusatsu television programs combine several of these subgenres, for example the Ultraman and Super Sentai series. Tokusatsu is one of the most popular forms of Japanese entertainment, but most tokusatsu movies and television programs are not widely known outside Asia.

From Wikipedia, on Super Sentai...

The Super Sentai Series (スーパー戦隊シリーズ Sūpā Sentai Shirīzu) is the name given to the long-running Japanese superhero team genre of shows produced by Toei Co., Ltd., Toei Agency and Bandai, and aired by TV Asahi ("Super" refers to their use of mecha, and "sentai" is the Japanese word for "task force" or, literally, "fighting squadron" and was also a term used for Japanese squadrons in World War II). The shows are of the tokusatsu genre, featuring live action characters and colorful special effects, and are aimed mainly at children. The Super Sentai Series is one of the most prominent tokusatsu productions in Japan, alongside the Ultra Series and the Kamen Rider Series, which it currently airs alongside in the Super Hero Time programming block. In the west, the Super Sentai Series are best known as the source material for the American Power Rangers franchise.

Akira Toriyama was known to combine words to make new ones, or else alter words in other ways to create names for his works. The Ginyu Tokusentai may literally translate into The Milk Special Squadron (or the Special Milk Squadron?), but that does a poor job of representing to an American audience what they are; You lose your context when you haven't grown up with Tokusatsu and Super Sentai. Because the Ginyu Tokusentai are funny because they're a parody of the toku genre, and the sentai series.

But Americans have grown up with Tokusatsu and Super Sentai for over two decades now. And when Super Sentai was at its peak popularity in America, the very same syndication company that produced it was producing Dragon Ball Z in English. I'm speaking of course about Saban's Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.

(Oh yeah, bro. I just went there.)

Some of you might be rolling your eyes; "We get it, they're like the Power Rangers. We know." But do you?

In the FUNimation production of Dragon Ball Z, the Ginyu Tokusentai are renamed the Ginyu Force. Most of the character's names are altered to make their puns even less noticeable, and all their characterization is changed. Instead of five over-excitable, pose throwing, special effect wielding, explanation point demanding anti-super heroes, we're given a team of fairly typical minions; a lunk head, a snake guy, a fat dude, an Australian, and a Texan - and they occasionally throw to poses. There is nothing about them, other than what was already animated, that retains the Toku/Sentai spirit.

It makes me wonder - why not call them the Ginyu Rangers? It is, after all, what they are; But instead of five teenagers with attitudes, they're five space aliens with attitudes. There's so much room for comedy, too. In the 90s, everyone was on board for Power Ranger parodies - and for Kami's sake, half the people who worked on Dragon Ball Z in the 90s and early 2000s also worked on Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers! It seems mathematically improbable for them not to do it!

Of course, we all know they didn't.

And here we all are, 16 years later, and the Ginyu Tokusentai are another victim of being lost in translation.

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