Magical DoReMi: How an Anime Successful in Japan Flopped in North America
Protagonist Doremi Harukaze, with her fairy Dodo. (Toei Animation, 1999)
I remember being 10 years old watching YouTube videos one uneventful Saturday afternoon, even though I really shouldn’t have been at that age. I was already sort of into anime, so I was watching AMVs (anime music videos) when I stumbled upon a brief clip of what might have been one of the most adorable anime characters my young eyes had ever seen. A wide-eyed, purple-haired anime girl stared at me through the screen as I checked the description to find any semblance of a title. To my luck, I did: it was called Magical DoReMi, and the English dubbed episodes were available for free on YouTube at the time, so I went ahead and watched the first few episodes. I was enthralled; this show was unlike anything I had ever seen before!
Magical DoReMi, known in Japan as Ojamajo Doremi (lit. “Troublesome Witch Doremi”), is a magical girl anime created by Toei Animation that originally aired from 1999 to 2004, spanning four seasons as well as a 13-episode side story, bringing the episode total to a whopping 214 episodes! The anime stars elementary-schooler Doremi Harukaze, who stumbles upon a mysterious shop one day while walking home, and accidentally turns the lady running the shop, Majo Rika, into a green, frog-like blob by blowing her cover as a witch. Because of this, Doremi must become a witch apprentice in order to gain the power to turn Majo Rika back to normal.
Doremi is eventually joined by her two friends, Hazuki and Aiko, as they work together to help the people in their community and form bonds while hiding their magic from their parents and classmates. More witch apprentices also join the team in later seasons. As well as lighthearted comedy and heartwarming stories, Magical DoReMi is also known for touching on serious issues such as racism, terminal illness, and body shaming, which at the time was not commonly seen in children’s anime. The series was a success in Japan, where nearly two decades after its ending, it still has merchandise, skits, and even an upcoming movie aimed at the now-adult audience that grew up with the show.
In 2005, 4Kids Entertainment got the license to localize and air Magical DoReMi Saturday mornings on Fox during their titular block. 4Kids, well known for their English dubs of Pokémon and One Piece, was infamous for heavily editing any anime they got their hands on in the 1990s and 2000s. Now, most children’s anime at the time were edited in some way when they were dubbed into English, but 4Kids took it to an extreme. Not only were the names of all the characters changed, but they also changed all the music, removed any references to Japanese culture in bizarre and often tone-deaf ways, and sometimes even pulled episodes if they were too difficult to edit.
4Kids’ treatment of Magical DoReMi was no different. Doremi, Hazuki, and Aiko’s names were changed to Dorie, Reanne, and Mirabelle respectively, effectively turning the title into a pun. The setting was changed from Japan to vaguely American, along with any and all cultural references. All of the music from the original Japanese airing (which, admittedly, slapped) was replaced with 4Kids’ in-house music. Some episodes had their plots completely changed, while others were cut altogether. 4Kids only dubbed the first season, and it is unknown whether or not they obtained the licenses for the other seasons. In fact, it’s also unknown if they planned on even dubbing them at all; in the dub, a recurring motif not present in the original is that there are only three team members despite more joining after season 1, indicating that they did not plan ahead.
For this particular series, 4Kids’ edits proved problematic for the structure of the show. Magical DoReMi in its original form is very—well, Japanese. That is to say, Japanese culture is present in almost all aspects of the show, from the traditions the characters partake in, to the identity of many characters, and even to the way the town is laid out. Some of these aspects were able to be edited out with a simple change in the script or paintover in the animation, such as Aiko/Mirabelle’s hometown being changed from Osaka to a fictional backwoodsy town. Others, however, were much more difficult (if not impossible) to change, causing episodes to be cut entirely from the dub. This would have especially made the later seasons difficult to dub, as they have episodes with even stronger cultural influences than those seen in the first season, such as episodes where the characters visit other cities in Japan, and the introduction of a major character from New York City who has difficulty adjusting to Japanese culture and language.
Another problem with the way 4Kids handled Magical DoReMi is the way it was presented and aired to the audience. For most of its existence, 4Kids marketed action cartoons to young boys, with its female audience being an afterthought. In the mid-2000s, however, 4Kids sought to widen its audience and market cartoons aimed at girls as Saturday morning children’s television was being overtaken by 24-hour channels aimed at children, and they needed to retake some of that market share. They started by licensing the Italian cartoon Winx Club, and then after its success they continued by licensing two anime series, Magical DoReMi and Tokyo Mew Mew (localized to Mew Mew Power).
Winx Club and Mew Mew Power were quite successful and had high ratings; Magical DoReMi, however, was less so. Magical DoReMi had an early time slot, so much of its target audience may not have even been awake to catch new episodes. Furthermore, 4Kids had a habit of switching around its time slot on the schedule every few weeks, making it hard for viewers to know what time it would air. Despite their aim to market to girls with their new shows, they were still afterthoughts to the male-oriented action shows. Along with cultural references, 4Kids also edited out content that could be deemed “too mature”, as Japan and the U.S. have different standards of what is considered “kid-friendly”. However, their heavy edits could be seen as patronizing, as if 4Kids did not respect their audience’s or the show’s intelligence. Magical DoReMi was pulled from the schedule in 2006 after only airing half of the season; the rest of the season was placed on their website a few years later.
From the late 1990s up through the 2000s, 4Kids was the international distributor of most of the anime they licensed, which was how they made a good portion of their profits. Many of their edits, while excessive, were made with the intent of making the show not necessarily “American” per se, but “international” so dubbing studios in other countries could localize the shows to their cultures as they saw fit. However, this was not the case for Magical DoReMi. 4Kids licensed the first season of Magical DoReMi in 2005, long after it aired in Japan, and long after most other countries had already dubbed the show. To add insult to injury, Toei Animation already had already made their own localizations for international distributors to go off of, so 4Kids couldn’t even set the standard for countries yet to dub the show. Unlike English-speaking markets, Magical DoReMi was a success in other foreign markets, such as Italy, France, and Mexico, where seasons past the first one got to air. Compared to 4Kids’ other properties, Magical DoReMi could be considered a failure.
After I binge watched the first season in about two weeks, ten-year-old me was itching to see more. With some Googling, I discovered the other seasons, which were in Japanese with English subtitles. Although it took me a bit to get used to the characters’ Japanese names, I loved what I was seeing—perhaps even more than the 4Kids dub! This was my first time watching anime in Japanese with subtitles, as well as my first real introduction to Japanese culture. While nobody I knew in real life had ever heard of the show, I was able to find communities of fans online to talk to and share my admittedly bad fan art and fan characters with. I owe it to Magical DoReMi for sparking my interest in Japanese culture, as it has had some influence on who I am today. As many qualms as I have with the way 4Kids handled Magical DoReMi, I’ll admit that I am grateful that it introduced me to this amazing show, as I don’t believe I would have been able to watch it otherwise.