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Characters get cultural makeovers
By Geoffrey A. Fowler and Amy Chozick | The Wall Street Journal
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Published: 10/25/2007 12:14 AM

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Big round heads and tiny bodies make the Powerpuff Girls instantly identifiable to their fans in America. The preteen karate superheroes star in one of the top-rated shows on Cartoon Network.

Last year, though, the "Powerpuff Girls" showed up in Japan with a whole new look. On "Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z," the heroines have grown up, sprouted long legs and wear skirts well above their knees. In the American storyline, the girls were created of sugar, spice and everything nice; their Japanese counterparts are normal girls who acquire superpowers from a chemical reaction initiated by a rice cake.

Once, American entertainment companies exporting characters just dubbed them into other languages. But in recent years, Asia has become the testing ground for character reinvention, a process called "transcreation."

The idea is to help characters designed with one audience in mind to really resonate in another culture.

Marvel Entertainment Inc. and Gotham Entertainment introduced a transcreated "Spider-Man" to the Indian market in 2004, although the original had been familiar there for a long time.

There, Spidey's alter ego, Peter Parker, is known as Pavitr Prabhakar. Spidey gains his powers from a mysterious yogi rather than a radioactive spider. When fighting crime, he sports a traditional loincloth.

Spidey also inspired one of the region's first transcreations. In 1978, the Japanese media company Toei turned Peter Parker into a racing champion named Yamashiro Takuya, who wears a bracelet that gives him the powers of a spider. His alter ego "Supaidah Man" controls a giant transforming robot to battle an enemy named Professor Monster.

Disney has had a hit in China with its "Cuties" line of Mickey Mouse and friends featuring tiny eyes, button noses and the almost-not-there mouths of Japan's Hello Kitty. Sometimes the cutie Minnie even carries a cell phone. Disney came up with the design six years ago in Japan, and now it's a top seller among preteens in China who didn't grow up with the original Mickey.

Adults like Sarah Chen, a 23-year-old graduate student in Shanghai, like them, too. "They are so cute and sweet, just like a little baby," says Chen.

Most media companies acknowledge the need to localize their fare. While there's still a global audience for "Tom and Jerry" reruns and Hollywood blockbusters, American imports don't top the TV ratings in most non-English-speaking markets. Transcreation nods to that need for local relevance.

"There are very few things that work everywhere," says Orion Ross, a vice president of creative at Time Warner's Turner Networks in Asia. "Places with strong national identities, like Japan and India, need adaptation and change."

For some time-tested characters, change doesn't come easily. Disney tweaked Mickey into "Cutie" form, but still insists that only Western women can play Cinderella and Snow White at Tokyo and Hong Kong Disneylands. A Disney spokeswoman says, "These performers bring the animated roles to life and are therefore cast to most closely resemble the onscreen characters … It's about remaining true to the original animated feature."

The family of Charles M. Schulz, the creator of "Peanuts" who died in 2000, forbids any changes to his comic strip. "There is no adapting Peanuts," says a spokeswoman for United Media, the New York company that distributes the feature to newspapers around the world.

Sometimes, though, changes slip in under the radar. The Times of India printed the Peanuts strip with the dog Snoopy painted brown. After the Wall Street Journal asked about that, a United Media spokeswoman said it was a "coloring error" that would be corrected. Now, Snoopy is white in the Indian newspaper, as he is in the U.S.

Ratan Barua, senior cartoon colorist for the Times in New Delhi, says coloring Snoopy brown was his idea. "I thought he should be brown," he says. While he has complied with the distributor's request to adhere to white, he says the result is "not very good."

When Craig McCracken created the Powerpuff Girls show, he deliberately gave it what he thought was a "Japanese look." But when the show first aired in Japan in 2001, it failed to attract a wide audience. So Cartoon Network decided to reinvent the characters, an idea McCracken welcomed.

In their transcreation, Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles got Japanese names and the lives of typical Japanese junior-high-school students.

Toei Co., the Japanese animation house brought in to help rework the characters, kept the original Powerpuff premise of crime-fighting girls with superhuman powers. To appeal to a preference among Japanese children for longer, more dramatic plots, it made the seven- to 11-minute shows 15 to 20 minutes long. It also gave them a common Japanese theme: accepting people who are different.

"Monsters can be anyone who is different from us. If we change our attitude, they can become our friends," says Hiromi Seki, a producer at Toei who helped create the show. That's a particularly relevant message in Japan, where pressures among children to conform are intense.