Early in Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Z, Goku seeks training from 界王 (Kaiō, border king)/King Kai, a strange being who lives in あの世 (anoyo, the world beyond), localized by Funimation as “Other World”. King Kai holds the secret to the 界王拳 (Kaiōken, Kaiō fist/style) as well as the 元気玉 (Genkidama, Vigor Ball/Spirit Bomb), powerful techniques that become as integral to Goku’s arsenal as his trademark Kamehameha.
However, before receiving his training, Goku must contend with a quirk of King Kai’s personality: his sense of humor. King Kai won’t train anyone who can’t make him laugh, and he considers himself a master of comedy despite telling some pretty corny jokes.
King Kai is the master of telling 親父ギャグ (oyaji gyagu, dad gags/dad jokes). In English, dad jokes tend to be reactive and lightly at the expense of the dad’s kids (e.g. “I’m so hungry!” “Hi, Mr. Hungry, may I call you So?”), or unprompted bad puns (“Why did the golfer need two pairs of pants? He had a hole in one!”). In Japanese, they tend to follow the latter pattern, but are more concise and based on repetition.
Luckily for us, this scene has plenty of oyaji gyagu to use as examples! Let’s go joke-by-joke, starting with King Kai’s introduction. Since the anime left it unchanged, here’s the joke’s debut, in the Dragon Ball manga.
King Kai scratches at his back while making a ポリポリ (poripori, scritch scritch) sound, and proceeds to say kaiyo, kaio, and finally kaiō, before introducing himself as Kaiō. Some translations (like iKaos’ fansubs) have worked from the assumption that the ka sound comes from 蚊 (ka, mosquito), but I think there’s a more likely explanation.
King Kai’s jokes rely heavily on dialectical speech, so he may actually be drawing from a regional variant of 痒い (itchy). Ordinarily pronounced kayui, it morphs into kaii in many regions of Japan. Add the emphatic sentence-ender yo to really drive home how itchy he is, and the transformation into Kaiō is simple enough to follow.
Let’s take a look at a few noteworthy localizations of this gag, and how they worked around or took advantage of the unique situations they were in.
NOTE: You can click on any image to expand it if you need a closer look.
Bluntly, the Funimation dub (made in 2005 for the uncut remasters) is the worst localization of the bunch in my opinion. As Matthew put it when I ran the article by him, “It rhymes with pie!” isn’t even a joke! Unfortunately, it’s probably the one DBZ fans are the most familiar with. I think Funimation did a better job with King Kai’s next シャレ (share, pun/joke), though:
Here, King Kai mimes answering a phone, and, seemingly with no response from the caller, concludes だれも電話に……でんわ！ (Dare mo denwa ni den wa!, Nobody answered the phone!). Here, we get a taste of that repetition I mentioned earlier. The joke is that denai part of 電話に出ない (denwa ni denai, not answer the phone) becomes den wa when made casual and emphatic, and repeats the denwa reading used for “phone”.
Since King Kai acts out answering the phone, localizers were once again forced to address it when handling the joke. Funimation introduces it as a joke about an uncle who, when he sits around the house, he sits around the house. King Kai goes on to pantomime answering the phone while repeating “you don’t say!”, expecting Goku to ask who’s on the line. When he doesn’t, King Kai chastises him, saying he’s supposed to ask so King Kai can respond “They didn’t say”.
That’s a pretty good localization of that scene, in my opinion. It conveys the overall tone pretty well, though I wish the emphasis on “he sits around the house” was a little better. Maybe it’s meant to underscore just how bad King Kai’s sense of humor is? In any event, let’s see how it stacks up against the competition:
Of course, King Kai’s not the only one telling jokes in this scene. If Goku wants to learn all those cool techniques I mentioned earlier, he’s gotta come up with a joke that makes King Kai laugh. In the Funimation dub, we saw Goku used a variation on “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (A: Not to get to the other side, but because it was too far to fly). It’s a plausible, if poorly-worded, punchline for the first anti-joke most English-speakers learn.
Once again, let’s compare this to the manga version:
フトンがふっとんだ！ (Futon ga futtonda) is a dad joke so infamous, it has its own Wikipedia page. It may as well be synonymous with the concept of oyaji gyagu themselves. What does this gutbuster mean in English? “The futon was blown away.”
Perhaps this joke got its staying power from describing something that could happen to just about anyone in Japan. A gust of wind stealing a futon is far from unheard of. In one particularly infamous 2014 case, a rogue futon blew on the tracks of the Shinkansen—Japan’s high-speed bullet train system—causing a rare delay for two of its trains. Many headlines and comments referenced futon ga futtonda on that day!
So, how did the localizers bring over this line that seems to have become a Japanese cultural phenomenon? Check out the table below:
|Viz Manga||I-I-I don’t even know what comedians read!! Comic books?!!!|
|Mofogoku scanlation||My futon… flew away!*|
|Ocean/Funi Dub||Why did… the chicken cross the road? It was too far to fly!|
|Kai Dub||The… clock said… “My hands are tied!”|
|Harukanaru Densetsu||Um… Uh… Knock-Knock, Who’s there? Boo! Boo who? Aw, don’t cry!|
|Attack of the Saiyans||Why did the turkey cross the road? To prove he wasn’t chicken!!|
|Kakarot||Uh, have a nice trip! See you next fall!|
In the end, most of the adaptations opted for well-tread jokes, even though the Japanese version was original. I think they lose the idea that Goku is coming up with a new oyaji gyagu on the spot. The line is so memorable in Japanese that I have to count this as a pretty strong mark against the localizations.
On the other hand, after some discussion, Matthew and I did agree that it’s an interesting use of “Why did the chicken cross the road?” It’s one of the first jokes kids learn in English, before they can really appreciate the concept of an anti-joke. Using a variant of it on King Kai feels like it could plausibly surprise him enough to make him laugh.
In the manga, the futon gag alone is enough to make King Kai burst out laughing, but the anime adds two more jokes: 猫が寝転んだ (Neko ga nekoronda) and 鉛筆が見えんぴつ (Enpitsu ga mienpitsu). Many of you likely know that neko is the Japanese word for “cat”, already. Meanwhile, nekoronda is the past-tense conjugation of 寝転ぶ (nekorobu, to throw oneself down). Once again, the repetition of neko is at the heart of the gag here, and the fact it describes an everyday occurrence.
Funimation/Ocean have this gag be the punchline to the chicken joke, while Kai localized it as “A harp is a naked piano!” which honestly seems like a joke Goku wouldn’t even understand.
Our final gag is enpitsu ga mienpitsu. This one takes enpitsu, the Japanese word for “pencil”, and combines it with mienai, meaning “not visible” or “unseen”. All put together, it becomes something like “The pencil is an unseencil.” Given that this is a joke Goku has thought up on the spot, and it violates the convention of the previous jokes by using a portmanteau instead of a cleaner pun, it seems intended to be a particularly awful joke, so it’s no surprise it’s the one to push King Kai over the edge.
While Kai finishes off with “I sold my car for gas money!”, the Funimation and Ocean dubs both use “What’s the difference between a jeweler and a jailer? One sells watches, one watches sells!” Those jokes also feel like they’re a little too clever for Goku, especially when compared to mienpitsu.
One thing I think both anime localizations really dropped the ball on is that Goku’s jokes get progressively worse. Futon ga futtonda, on a structural level, works as a pun, even if it is a bad one. Futon and futton are almost identical in pronunciation. Neko ga nekoronda is in a similar boat, but the extra ro makes it more of a stretch. By enpitsu ga mienpitsu, it’s almost like the premise has been completely abandoned, with the second pitsu being completely meaningless except as a way to finish the repetition.
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Humor is always a challenge to translate, but I can’t help but think there might have been better ways to handle this particular instance. While I think the localizations could retain the Japanese’s originality better, they at least communicate that King Kai’s sense of humor is terrible. Let me know what you think in the comments below, or on our Twitter or subreddit.
Also, if you want more anime localization trivia, check out this article on why calling Detective Conan’s animation “dynamic” was actually an insult. Or, for more hard-to-translate humor, how about how a manzai routine in Xenogears became a reference to Star Trek.