The first Hollywood film shown in Japan to carry subtitles on the screen was the Gary Cooper epic “Morocco,” released here in 1931. Up to that point, distributors had dubbed the actors’ lines in Japanese. But the talkies had only been around for a few years, the Sankei Shimbun (May 11) points out, and facilities for voice dubbing could not keep up with demand.
Fortunately, the Cooper film turned out to be a major hit, and audiences came to accept subtitles on foreign films.
More recently, however, film distributors have become increasingly aware that younger audiences are unable to comprehend subtitles on current films. To simplify things, subtitle producers have been ordered to reduce the number of words flashed on the screen to the bare minimum, and use of Chinese characters has been cut.
But the comprehension problem may also be indicative of the dumbing down of the nation. Young adult moviegoers’ lack of familiarity with many basic historical facts, says the Sankei, in some cases has not progressed beyond middle-school level.
As a result, distributors are rapidly switching over to voice dubbing -- not only for animated cartoons, but also for conventional cinema.
The Sankei notes that up to the end of the Pacific War, Japanese subtitles appeared vertically on the screen’s right, with up to 13 characters per line and a maximum of three lines. After the war, the rule of thumb for reading speed was set to 4 characters per second, resulting in the maximum characters per line being reduced from 13 to 10, with a maximum of two lines.
Partly due to the boom in home video, around the mid-1980s, the characters per line -- by this time appearing horizontally in the center of the lower screen -- reverted to 13. The maximum of two lines remained unchanged.
More recently, however, many young viewers are finding this speed to be too daunting for their reading comprehension, and voice dubbing is making a comeback.
“We are devoting the utmost care to provide the highest level of voice dubbing,” says a spokesperson for distributor Toho Towa, which will be releasing three films between August and October. A spokesperson for Warner Brothers was quoted as saying that demand for dubbed versions of the “Harry Potter” film series has outstripped those with subtitles by a ratio of 60 to 40. “This trend has been increasing year by year,” he adds.
Subtitle length, however, is just one of the problems related to viewer comprehension.
“After a preview test showing of a certain spy film, members of the audience really surprised me by posing questions like, ‘What is the Soviet Union?’ and ‘What are Nazis?’” a production manager tells the newspaper.
“It appears that growing numbers of young people are unfamiliar with names and words that most Japanese take for granted,” remarks Koji Kikuchi, a veteran subtitler who has worked on some 1,000 films.© Japan Today