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Helen McCarthy on anime’s best/worst puns

Mardock Scramble: the title alone warns you this is one over-egged pudding. Doctor Easter’s partner is an enhanced mouse named Oeufcoque. That’s a bastardised version of the French for soft-boiled egg. Easter, egg, geddit? The villains are Dimsdale Boiled and Shell Septinos. The heroine, Rune Balot, might not look egg-shaped but she’s named for the Asian delicacy balut – a boiled duck embryo eaten in its shell. Creator Tow Ubukata has a thing for eggs.

We Brits think we’re pretty good at puns and linguistic jokes, but we’re not the only nation to make that claim. The Japanese and Chinese also love to play games with words. They may even have an unfair advantage: their languages are packed with multiple readings for a single character and multiple characters that can sound exactly the same, opening up a world of opportunities for the dedicated punster.

Still, not all punsters are as determined as Zhao Yuanren, who wrote a narrative riddle in 92 Chinese characters, each of which is spoken as “shi”, though with a slightly different tone. The romanised version, with no tonal variations, is ridiculous rather than humorous. The story, about a man named, naturally, Shi, killing and eating ten stone lions in a stone room, is also less fascinating in narrative terms than philosophical or linguistic ones. Sadly, many puns in anime share these tendencies.

For at least six decades, Japanese writers have used English to add a twist of foreign sophistication or wackiness to material for their home market. Blame Osamu Tezuka, postwar progenitor of this as so many other trends. He loved European languages and literature, and borrowed frequently and audaciously from both. Many of the character names in Tetsuwan Atomu contain puns or double entendres, an extra challenge for Frederik L. Schodt, translator of the English-language edition.

In 1963, when the anime version of Tetsuwan Atom was shown in the USA as Astro Boy, the adapters simply swapped the names for the kind of comical monickers common in Western cartoons. Dr Ochanomizu, possessed of a huge nose, became Dr Packadermus J. Elefun. Since the manga was clearly set in Japan, Schodt and the publishers wanted to keep original Japanese names and locations wherever possible. Schodt was able to translate the nickname of Astro’s schoolteacher directly: Higeoyaji (Old Man Moustache) became Mr Mustachio. Instead of renaming other major characters he tried to work their jokes or puns into the script, but he managed to find equivalent English puns for some minor character names.

Tezuka did it again with Ribon no Kishi, translated as Princess Knight. Princess Sapphire, her horse Opal, and the kingdoms of Silverland and Goldland, are named for precious metals and gems, with a diversion into fairytale for hero Prince Franz Charming. The bad guys are named for cheap, mass-produced modern substances like nylon and plastic.

It doesn’t always work. Foreign references risk getting lost in translation. Sometimes that would be a blessing. Naming Mobile Suit Gundam antihero Char Aznable after ageing chain-smoking Gallic crooner Charles Aznavour seems strange to most English speakers, but his second-series alias, Quattro Bagina, sounds laughably juvenile to any Western audience. It’s better to stick to international pop-culture namechecks, like Kazushi Hagiwara’s nods to favourite heavy metal bands in Bastard!!

There again, Bastard!!‘s signature spell Venom is almost as gruesome as Rune Balot’s gourmet-embryo namesake in Mardock Scramble. Venom summons an enzyme from the Gates of Hell to liquefy anything it’s gobbed onto. That’s enough to put anyone off their oeufs.

Mardock Scramble is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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