Goin' down to
South Park

Christian Storms, creative producer/ transwriter of the upcoming Japanese version of the hit animated series South Park, sits down with Aeve Baldwin and bares all.

South Park photos courtesy of Kuzui Enterprises
Comedy Central.


Christian gets cozy with his South Park friends
photo by Michell Coster

What's funnier: Bart Simpson saying "Ay Carumba" and playing minor practical jokes on his sister, or an eight-year-old kid cursing out his friends and mumbling about female genitalia? The makers of South Park, a cartoon that made its American debut three years ago and is due to make an impression on Japanese television, are banking on the latter.

It all started in 1995, when filmmakers Trey Parker and Matt Stone were hired by a Fox executive and given $2000 to make a video for him to send as a Christmas card. $750 later, they had a 5-minute video called "The Spirit of Christmas," an imaginary fight between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ. Word of the video spread, and soon the cable channel Comedy Central offered them a weekly series.

South Park is the story of four third grade boys: Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny (who dies every episode) growing up in the small mountain town of South Park, Colorado. A loose interpretation of the term "cartoon," it looks more like construction paper cutouts than animation, and carried a mature television rating in the US for its "adult" language, animated violence, and very suggestive material (episode titles such as "Merry Christmas, Charlie Manson," "Not Without My Anus," or "Cartman's Mom is Still a Dirty Slut" are just the tip of the iceberg). Every race, religion or culture is made fun of or stereotyped. One viewing, and you'll either love it or want it taken off the air. Christian Storms thinks these rude boys are worth your time.

South Park

Cartman feels a little discomfort

Okay, South Park interview, take one. Here we go!

Tell us about South Park. Will it be appearing on cable or regular TV?

It's airing on Wowow, starting in October. It'll be on Sunday nights after the feature movie around 10pm; the same time as The Simpsons. They'll run South Park for six months, then go back to The Simpsons for six months, and then back to South Park.

Do the episodes start at the beginning?
Yes. In everything we do for the show we want to maintain basic integrity - the shooting-from-the-hip feel, splenetic and manic details like alien abductions, anal probes, flaming farts. The Christmas episode, "Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo" is about a dancing turd, an imaginary figure for Kyle, the lone Jew in a whitebread mountain town who can't celebrate Christmas because "his people" killed Jesus, you know. We'll do that in time for Christmas. Otherwise, it's all in the normal order.

You're doing the original shows and then dubbing them. How do you translate the cultural stuff?
I wonder that myself. It's kind of like explaining enjokosai to your mom! As far as possible we want to keep the same format and setting. It's a dialogue and character-driven show in which the "integrity," if you will, must be preserved. We expect the viewer to either get it - or not get it. We don't want to lower the level, to play to the lowest common denominator. Obviously some of the cultural references will have to be adjusted. For example in the first episode they make fun of David Caruso who used to be on NYPD Blue and then failed as a film actor. Kyle's little brother Ike gets captured by aliens; when Stan wants him to jump out of the alien ship he says, "Do your impression of David Caruso's career!" But nobody would get that here, so we have to use people like Tom Selleck, or others that a Japanese audience will recognize. Not "getting it" isn't necessarily bad. I think those who don't get it feel pissed off - why don't I understand? It motivates you to go out and learn. Alternative, pop, sub-culture - call it what you want - it fries your brain in a positive manner.

Who will do the voices? Can you name names?
We're kind of debating. South Park is about being cheap, cheap in the sense that Matt Stone and Trey Parker were these two geeky guys who got this thing going without any names, and they make fun of established people. It got to be so popular that you get stars like George Clooney volunteering his time to do a gay dog's voice, and all he says is "woof." The easiest way would be to get the hottest Japanese band to do the theme song, get Kinki Kids, but I don't think that appeals to people who are tired of watching TV anyway. We want to preserve the integrity of the show, that same sort of punk rock style, anything goes, and to hell with anyone who's established. As far as names, nobody that anyone knows. The main thing is to get people who get the humor and Mach 1 speed and rhythm of the voices, and people who can sing.

We are using name talent, people we think are righteous, for sub characters. Lilly Frankie, an underground writer and illustrator, for Jesus; Tomoro Taguchi, star of Japanese cult films like Tetsuo and Sabu's Dangan Runner to play Garrison and Mr. Hat. And we'll be ideating for the I-thought-she-was-dead celebrity appearances like Sally Struthers.

feature3.jpg (14301 ???)

Barbra "Mega" Streisand tortures the kids

Who's the target audience?
Adults. Definitely adults because you know kids are just too dumb... right?! The show may have some warnings like "for adults only" but by saying in the warning that this show is intended only for adults, kids will watch it, so that's good. Did you ever watch the Peewee Herman Show? Despite Peewee's later "things" he originally created the show because he realized how hopeless the future of American children was; he wanted to really mess with their brains. The guys who created South Park wanted to offer more to kids, who are pretty damn smart. You don't want to play down to them.

Kind of like The Simpsons, which works on both levels.
South Park is about the difference between kids and adults. Kids just toss out words; they don't understand the prejudices involved. So when Cartman, who is the white, fat, racist guy, makes friends with the Jewish kid, Kyle, he repeats things that his mother says to him. She's got this real Christian upbringing (despite her centerfold past), and she makes comments such as "All the Jews, they killed Jesus so they won't go to Heaven," and he'll just say that right to his friend. So the show is a lot about that - kids are smart, adults really don't know what kids are doing and have fantasies about the innocence of children.

Jews won't really translate here. What will you substitute?
No, we're not interested in doing that, and in fact Japanese broadcast codes are really strict. In a nation with no supposed minorities you can't say much. When we first translated the script we tried to do it as close to the original as possible, and Wowow was a little concerned because we used words that you can't use here. It's really amazing - there's a big list, about four pages, of words that you can't use on Japanese television but it's case by case - there really aren't any rules per se. Kind of like renewing your visa.

Like what?
Things like flower shops: You can't say hanaya, you must say hanaya-san according to Japanese codes, because otherwise you'd be discriminating against a certain occupation. You can't refer to a prostitute as a shofu which is a common word, you have to use something else, so it's pretty strict. Especially the racist words, most of which relate to the burakumin [outcast class]. What we want to do is instead of making fun of minorities or other nationalities, just make fun of Japanese people. Even Japanese think that their celebrating Christmas is weird, so we want to play on those jokes.

How do you translate or convey the, er, "rich" language?
There are a couple of ways we've discussed. One thing is to beep things out, which is fun because you can put beeps in there on purpose and people will know "Oh oh, that's banned; they really said something bad." The other way is to create a new lexicon amongst Japanese because, damn it, Japan needs more swear words! I think most viewers are smart enough to know what piggu fakkaa means. Just like words such as toire [toilet] or saafin [surfing] come into Japanese, other words can come into the language as well. We want to go as far as the broadcast code allows us, and whatever the broadcast code doesn't allow us to do, we'll publish the scripts in Japanese on the Internet so people can actually see what we meant to be saying. We'd love to make fun of the prince because frankly he's hysterical. Always walking around like he's stoned, looking at flowers. I wonder if they speak keigo [super-polite Japanese] in bed.

feature4.jpg (12827 ???)

Mm mm Mmm! Mmmm mmm Mmmmmm!

Are there any episodes you won't show?
No. We'll show them all. What's really funny is that the first episode is probably the worst one: Cartman gets an anal probe. Originally they thought, "Gee, what word can't we say on TV?" And worked from there. On American TV you can't say "have sex," it has to be like "making whoopie" or some politically correct Babbitt-speak, so dildo was a test. We want to do the same thing. What's weird about Japan is that yes, there's more restriction concerning racial topics, but as for sexual things, it's pretty cool, which is typical because America just can't get laid.

Do you think audiences will get the humor?
I think some people will; I hope they will! We want to "transwrite."

For example, in one episode Stan is the quarterback and there's a commentator who makes really horrible comments like, "I haven't seen a Jew run like that since Poland 1931," or "I haven't seen someone take a blow like that since Hugh Grant!" Those kinds of things we'll have to get around. There's a bus driver character, Ms. Crabtree who's a real bitch. You know what the bus drivers were like in school - they were bitches, so we thought about using Nomura Sachiko [omnipresent wife of Hanshin Tigers' manager Nomura Katsuya] for the bus driver. We want to make fun of Japanese "talent." And there the Japanese audience will "get it." Atsushi Kuwahara, the "transwriter" has spent time in the US and knows a lot about American culture. I provide him with pretty detailed cultural notes about what's being said or where the jokes are, or where the cynicism is and how it could play in Japan. Then we collaborate with the director who started out doing early Beat Takeshi shows. Then we either go with it or chuck it.

How do you think the audience will respond to non-Japanese characters speaking in Japanese?
Most animation characters could be Japanese, but they're not. One thing we're committed to is this is animation, not Japanese anime. Sometimes the style is similar to Japanese animation and monster movies. There's an episode where Barbra Streisand in her pursuit to rule the world turns into Mega Streisand. Leonard Maltin as Ultraman and Sidney Poitier as Gamera battle her. Finally, The Cure's Robert Smith turns into Mothra to save the day. There's actually Japanese on that; Trey Parker lived in Japan years ago. The reason they chose Barbra Streisand is that they think she's a real bitch and wanted to make fun of her. On the homepage we might talk about other people who might be suitable targets in Japan. There's no end of material.

Do you anticipate the same sort of merchandise frenzy here?
It's already happening via pirated goods but you'll be able to get the real deal soon. I always carry Kenny with me and put him on the table; he's the silent partner. We'll be doing some weird, funky guerrilla promotions, like midnight screenings on building walls in Shibuya or some wicked South Park parties. Plus buildup for the release of the film Orgazmo by Trey Parker.

Who's your favorite character?
I like Cartman, the way he just lays it out there. It makes you feel sad, but I have to say I like Kenny cuz he knows things, and everyone asks him stuff, and it really pains my heart when he dies every time. I like the way Kyle always says "You bastards! You killed Kenny!" They care about Kenny when he dies.

Will you? Tune in to South Park starting October.

Many thanks to Maki Nibayashi and Melanie C. Redmond.

299: Pokemania
Pikachu conquers the world by stealth and cuteness
298: Snow time like the present
When, where and how to get your share of the white stuff this winter
297: Helping Hands
The spirit of giving through volunteering
296: Stop the Music
Tokyo's nightclubs under attack
295: Just Do It!
Staying in shape in the city
294: 2 can play that game
The next generation of games consoles
293: Vegging out in Tokyo
Some of Tokyo's meatless oases
292: Multiplicity
The belated arrival of the multiplex
291: After a Fashion
Zita Ohe walks through Tokyo's fall/winter fashions
290: Used and Abused
Second-hand shops in the city
289: Microbrew - a mini guide
Tour the best of Tokyo's independent suds makers
288: The Delusions of a Kabuki Addict
Visit Ginza's Kabuki-za
287: Live and Learn
Studying traditional culture in Tokyo
286: Are you quaking?
Preparing for the big one
285: Sagawa Kyubin guys
Faces behind the takkyubin phenomenon
284: South Park
Christian Storms, creative producer and transwriter of the Japanese South Park
283: A saner Tokyo
Counselling and healing options for Japan's foreign community
282: Trainspotting
The Yamanote Line trivia quiz
281: The Lost World
Graham Hancock, inventor of a new genre of history mystery investigation
Graham Hancock: Transcript
280: Body of Art
Working out with traditional Japanese arts to work out
279: Open all hours
Japanese convenience stores
278: The Rice Stuff
A guide to sake
277: Get out!
Feasting al fresco in the summer
276: The Empire Strikes Big
The force behind Star Wars
275: Don't worry be happy!
A definitive guide to Tokyo's drinking deals
274: Off the hook
Tokyo's Central Wholesale Market
273: Books
Donald Richie, worldwide authority on Japan and Japanese culture
272: What's up pussy cat?
Hello Kitty turns twenty-five
271: Moving mountains for Freedom
The Tibetan Freedom Festival
270: So you think you're safe?
Women's safety in Tokyo
269: Are these the droids you're looking for?
Japan's new robot army
268: From beast to beauty
Catering to the beauty needs of foreigners
267: Perfect TV
Exploring Japanese TV
266: Let's do talk
The portable phenomenon of keitai
265: Get ready to rock!
The third annual Fuju Rock Festival
264: Kichijoji uncovered
A delightfully different day out
263: Tour Japan one bite at a time
The eleventh annual Furusato Fair
262: Golden getaways
Get you out of town this Golden Week
261: Millennium fudge
Can Tokyo survive the Millennium bug?
260: Ueno Park
A walk in the low city
259: Stressed to kill
Lifethreatening stress in Tokyo
258: Oodles of noodles
A day in a life of a local ramen shop
257: Off the shelf
Tokyo city libraries
256: Lord of light
Tokyo Classifieds founder Mark Devlin
255: Are you game
Indoor sports to get your blood on the boil
254: Eat your heart out
Valentine's Day in Japan
253: The way of wagashi
A friendly face in Japanese cooking
252: Face to face with Harajuku
Yoyogi Park street culture
251: What a grind!
In search of the perfect cup of coffee
250: The year of the rabbit
Chinese astrological signs