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Movie titles in Japan: Jack, we understand your frustration

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By Chris Betros

Last week, marketing officials of the distributor for the film “The Bucket List” must have squirmed when the movie’s star, Jack Nicholson, told a news conference he didn’t like the way the titles of movies are changed in Japan. For its release here, “The Bucket List” is titled “How to Find the Best Life,” which kind of describes the story. But that didn’t satisfy Nicholson. Even in the U.S., he said, people scratched their heads when they first heard the name. The expression, which is explained in the film, refers to a list of things one wants to do before kicking the bucket.

“The expression has since entered the U.S. political campaign with all candidates talking about their bucket list of things to do,” Nicholson went on to say. He pointed out that when Japanese films are shown in the U.S., their titles are not changed. He cited “Rashomon” as an example, saying that the title has become an English term in its own right, used to refer to several different interpretations of the same event.

I understand your frustration Jack. I’ve had the same problem ever since I went into a video rental shop when I first came to Japan eons ago and tried to rent “The Magnificent Seven.” Not knowing what to ask the clerk for, I tried “Magunifusento Sebun” in my best Japanese. That drew blank stares, as did “Subarashi Shichinin,” which I thought might be close to a literal translation. Eventually, I spent half an hour glancing at titles before I finally found it – “Koya no Shichinin,” which means something like 7 men of the wilderness. I observed that many westerns use the word “koya” in their titles.

The way foreign movies are retitled in Japan defies logic. I have spoken with staff at movie distribution companies about this over the years. It all comes down to how the title sounds and what feeling it connotes, say marketing staff. But there never has been any pattern, as a visit to a DVD rental shop will show. For example, if you want to rent “An Officer and a Gentleman,” you’ll have to ask for “Ai to Seishun no Tabidachi” (A Journey of Love and Youth). Curiously, the word “ai” (love) turns up in a lot of titles, where it’s not mentioned in the originals - "Renai shosetsuka" (Romance Writer) for Nicholson's own "As Good as It Gets" is one of a zillion examples.

The list is endless. For some titles, the “cute” factor is important: Director Garry Marshall’s films usually have the katakana for “pretty” in them because of the success of “Pretty Woman;” Reese Witherspoon’s “Legally Blonde” became “Cutie Blonde,” while “Miss Congeniality” is “Dangerous Beauty.” Anything with Steven Seagal (yes, he’s still churning out cookie cutter action films) has to have the word “yosai” (fortress) in the title, probably because of the success of his first “Under Siege” film. I tried for years to find out why Frank Capra’s 1936 classic “Mr Deeds Goes to Town” was retitled “Opera Hat,” but apparently there is no one alive who remembers. Maybe some titles defy translation. The best Japan could do with “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” was “Austin Powers Deluxe.”

The main reason the title is changed from a katakana version of the original is usually to explain the story line somewhat. “Michael Clayton,” which is currently playing, becomes “Fixer,” which describes what George Clooney’s title character does. “Cloverfield” is “Hakaisha” (destroyer), and so on. The first choice is always to transliterate most titles into the katakana renditions of the original title, although language factors have to be taken into consideration. When a movie is based on a famous novel, the distributors have to use the same title as the book, which is what they have done with the “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” series. “Memoirs of a Geisha” was rendered as “Sayuri” because that is the title of the Japanese translation for Arthur Golden’s book.

While distributors tell me they would like to use a more descriptive Japanese title rather than katakana, the time lag between releases makes it difficult. If a movie opens big in the U.S., the Japanese media report it and the original title becomes quickly known, so the Japanese distributors have to go with it – which is why “There Will Be Blood” is transliterated as it is, even though it is cumbersome to pronounce in Japanese. On the other hand, the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men” became just “No Country” – for No Good Reason.

Like Nicholson, some directors and producers over the years have expressed dissatisfaction at the titles (and subtitles) attached to their work. Stanley Kubrick was notorious for not only wanting the original title to remain, but he reportedly used to request that the Japanese subtitles be retranslated back into English so he could check to see how accurate they were. When the buzz for “Back to the Future” first started back in the 1980s, there was considerable debate at the Japanese distributor about a) what the title meant in English, and b) what it should be called in Japanese. Surely, one goes ahead or forward to the future, they reasoned. Apparently, Steven Spielberg, who produced the film, insisted the title stay as it was. These days, most distributors in Japan have one or two foreign staff who can explain titles to the Japanese staff.

In the end, most stars don’t care (sorry Jack). Some even like the Japanese titles, while others are just curious or puzzled. Pat Morita wanted to know why "The Karate Kid" was called "The Best Kid" and said he was told by a Japanese movie writer that "Karate Kid" in Japanese sounded childish. I also recall Sean Connery remarking in a television interview once that he didn't get why his 1967 James Bond film “You Only Live Twice,” which was filmed in Japan, was called “007 wa Nido Shinu” (007 Dies Twice).

So Jack, don't worry about it. Fans are still going to see your movies no matter what the title is. Just be thankful you don't have to listen to the Japanese voice actor who does your movies when they are released on TV. It's likely to be the same guy who does half a dozen other actors.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

37 Comments
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Movie titles are changed in Japan for the same reason that they are changed all over the world: The distributors want to make as much money as possible, and are often afraid that the audience won't be intelligent enough to understand the original title. Of course, some of them are just impossible to effectively translate!

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One of my favorite nonsensical movie title translations is the one for the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze action flick 'Point Break' which in Japanese is 'Heart Blue' for some reason. Had a hard time finding that one at the video rental store.

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Oh, and don't get me started on Japanese movie subtitles. The subtitles for the end of 'The Last Samurai' nearly killed me...

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I find it funny how native English speakers make fun of things like this, and other things concerning adaptations of English. English contains a large number of words originiating from other languages, and in all cases the pronunciation has been changed. Yet, what is the reaction if a Japanese person pronounces an English word with a Japanese accent? Yep, they are made fun of. Same for movie titles. All over the world English movie titles are NOT adapted. Can we say the same about non English movie titles entering the native English market? No, we can't.

Native English speakers have in general no idea about languages. This commentary and the discussion following it has again reminded me of that.

<strong>Moderator: Back on topic please.</strong>

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I'm endlessly amused by the thought that someone is out there trying to rent "Point Break" at all.

I agree that subtitles are often heavily (or just poorly) digested when they appear in Japanese, and I think it's a shame. I would rather see more direct translations, even if they seem awkward. That way, people could get a feel for the native language. This goes for ENG to JPN and vice versa. I enjoy Hemingway's translations of uttered Spanish, French, or Italian in his books, because they tend to be very direct and unfiltered into English.

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sarcasm123:

The pronunciations have been changed in -all- cases? I would like to see some linguistic data backing that up, because I'm a native English speaker who uses those words in the proper context. Actually, just an example of a word would suffice.

Native English speakers have no idea about languages? I beg to differ. That is an incorrect statement and a poor attempt to discredit the previous posters.

The Japanese also make fun of non-native Japanese speakers. It doesn't make it right, but it does happen. Also, most languages contain a large amount of words from other origins.

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Lord of the Rings.....99% of Japanese people seem to think its "Road of the Rings".

While some of the titles are amusing, often confusing, I can handle it.

Sarcasm 123 is correct, Japanese movies, especially Miyazaki's anime get weirdo titles in English: Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi became "spirited away", Hauru no ugoku shiro becames "Howls moving castle", Majo no takkyûbin became "Kiki's Delivery service", Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta became "Castle in the sky", probably a good thing in this case as laputa is "whore" in Spanish.

The thing that I really dislike is dubbed movies - fukikae (anime is an exception, you can get away with it in animation)

But for non animated live action movies I dislike them in any language, I won't watch a dubbed movie in English, I will only read the subtitles and listen to the original language, even if you don't speak it you can get the feeling, the mood much better and the background sounds are not affected. Dubbed movies are just plain awful. They are for children who can't read Kanji.

The star channel irked me greatly when they changed their second of three channels to a dubbed channel with the majority of movies only dubbed and few prime time ones in bilingual.

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flammenwerfer at 12:51 PM JST - 5th May : Hauru no ugoku shiro becames "Howls moving castle"

Actually, "Howl's Moving Castle" is the title of the book by Diana Wyne Jones on which the movie is VERY LOOSELY based. It's another case (like "Gedo Senki" movie was Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series) of utter destruction of a beloved book at the hands of Studio Gibli. Indeed, not only titles get mangled; books get distorted, too.

http://www.ursulakleguin.com/GedoSenkiResponse.html

On other things, English dubbing is too harsh sometimes.

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It is not such a big deal. In Spanish speaking countries we have the same issues. Maybe 10-20% of the population understands English and just a few would understand the expression "kick the bucket". The exact translation would be very funny and people will not go. Other problem in Spanish translation is that you cannot put regionalisms, as it is generally subtitled for all Latin America and Spain. I find it impossible to make an exact translation without sounding funny or ridiculous.

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In Spanish, "kick the bucket" is "patear el balde" which as an expression is used as much and means the same as "liar el petate," "estirar la pata" or "mudarse de barrio," all of which mean, to pass away. Rather literal, actually.

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I wonder if it isn't a kind of arrogance that they think they know best, or sanitising/re-claiming it for themselves in the classic 'us and them' mentality of the Japanese. Remember the cult classic "My big fat Greek Wedding"? It was reduced to "big fat wedding" in katakana, thus totally missing the point of the title. To me, Katakana titles smack of a kind of glib formulaic generalisation that plasters over the subtleties of movie titles, as they do with borrowed words. I would understand if they had a Japanese version of the title that puts it within a Japanese cultural context, but not the kind of reduction that katakana does to it.

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shugotokumaru

Hey!! Point Break is one of the finest movies ever made!!! ; )

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When in a moment of extreme bordeom, I went to see "Diehard 3 With A Vengeance" in Umeda in Osaka, I was shouted at by the audience for laughing at all the jokes in English, while they hooted in joyous hilarity at "I see why Holly divorced you, you drunk!" "Yippy-Kay-Yeay- Mother****er!" just didn't translate either!

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Hmmm, The author states there is no pattern, and then goes on to refer to the most well known ones, Pretty whatever, Steven Seagal and“yosai”, the use of "ai" in any romantic comedy.... in twenty years of watching movies here I have found that titles reflect more about what is hip at the time they come out than what they are about (or what previous hit movie they can be tenuously linked to). Getting audience attention is primary.

My favourite bad subtitle was a Kris Kristofferson western, in which he played a sheriff. His warning to the bad guys that if they ever showed their faces in town again they should "expect no quarter", (i.e. no welcome, no lodgings) was translated as " we will only wait fifteen minutes.". I had to wind it back three times to confirm this, and the rest of the plot lost all its meaning for me.

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It's not just Japan with the titles of English movies all messed up. Look at Chinese movies:

House of Flying Daggers (USA)= Ambush from 10 Directions (Chinese) = Lovers (Japan)

The Banqet(Chinese)= Empress(Japan) = Legend of the Black Scorpion (USA)

Anyway, thanks to IMDB.com I can figure out all these messed up movie titles.

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The best I saw was the title of Bill Murray's "Scrooged" got translated to "Three Ghosts". Given the Japanese attitude toward the afterlife, that movie tanked at the box office when it was released in theaters here.

RR

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One reason Japan considers itself civilized and subtle is that the people think foreigners talk in movie subtitles -- which in Japan are purged of all elegance and subtlety.

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I dont know how many times I have had to re translate for Japanese friends so they could understand a movie. The Japanese don't even understand, and whats with whats her face, does she only know how to translate "you stupid ass" into "BAKA" or "Boke"

The other one that gripes me is the way the ending might play out in the states but is then PC corrected for Japanese audience's.

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funny that someone actually wrote a piece on this. It's just like the loose use of English words in store names etc. It's really pretty funny that a country as advanced as Japan feels the need to use a foreign language and yet can not or will not master it.

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I wodner what they'll do with IronMan considering the history of the name "Tetsujin."

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It has always mystified me why Japan feels the need to change the titles of movies.. personally I think they should be allowed. Ever tried to rent a dvd, ask if they have say "Billy Elliot" and have the reply.. "oh, you mean "Little Dancer?" WTF???

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sarcasm123...How predictable. You use an article pointing out the obvious shortcomings of katakana -- a non-language created simply to keep Japanese people from having to really learn English -- into a rant about English speakers. That is truly rich. Personally, as an English speaker, I could care less what the Japanese movie distributors call a movie, since I rarely rent movies, and instead go to the cinema or watch on cable. I think the joke is actually on the Japanese, since the translated title may have very little to do with the actual content. If the Japanese audience cannot understand the concept of a "bucket list", they are not going to really enjoy the movie anyway. And, Grouchy, I agree. I often times find myself being the only person in the theatre laughing at funny lines/scenes in movies, as the Japanese simply cannot understand the cultural contexts. Although I have yet to be verbally assaulted for doing it.

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katakana -- a non-language created simply to keep Japanese people from having to really learn English

You're right that it's a 'non-language', just like the alphabet is a 'non-language' - they're simply marks on paper roughly corresponding to sounds. If you really think that katakana was invented to keep Japanese people from learning English, you need to run, don't walk, to the nearest hospital and get yourself an urgent anti-paranoia injection.

Katakana was developed in the early Heian Period (794-1184 AD), when the Anglo-Saxons were still struggling with the language of Beowulf. An example (no prizes for guessing what this is) -

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum, Si þin nama gehalgod. To becume þin rice, gewurþe ðin willa, on eorðan swa swa on heofonum. Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg, and forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum. And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele. Soþlice.

Putting that in katakana would probably have stopped the ancient Brits from learning English, never mind the modern Japanese.

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I often times find myself being the only person in the theatre laughing at funny lines/scenes in movies, as the Japanese simply cannot understand the cultural contexts.

You mean that constant repetition of the f-word? Real deep there Jerseyboy.

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Thanks a lot, cleo. It must make quite a change for some here to be corrected by somebody else than me :P

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Meanwhile, the bit about this problem that really winds me up is when they keep the original title, but, perhaps working on the insulting assumption that the typical Japanese punter can't handle plurals, render the title as a pidgin singular. Thus a few months ago, we had a poster of a group of robot-cum-modes-of-transport which publicised a film called "Transformer". We're supposed to figure out which one of the featured bots can transform.

And on the subject of bots, does anyone else remember the extremely pleasant snap of three callipygean leather-clad sets of glutea maximi (that's nice arses), which advertised something called here - and only here - "Charlie's Angel"?

Which one is Charlie's Angel? Are we to assume the remaining two sets of buttocks belong to bad girls? If so, how bad are they and would they like my telephone number?

It's just wrong, and it doesn't matter how well Sarx thinks she can read Japanese (before she brings that up again). It's wrong, and it gets right on my teat end.

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007 - "Which one is Charlie's Angel?"

Natalie, of course! No, wait- Alex! No, wait - Dylan! Heck - they're all Charlie's Angel!

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I think soothsayer (the original poster) has it right - it's a business. Bugger logic, intelligence, common sense, linguistic accuracy - just plug in the words that will get the punters laying out the money.

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"Scrooged" tanked maybe because it sucked.

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bust it baby!

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I often times find myself being the only person in the theatre laughing at funny lines/scenes in movies, as the Japanese simply cannot understand the cultural contexts.

Same here. I got a good laugh in Analyze That when Paul Vitti was working at the Lincoln dealership and made that "Remember Pearl Harbor" comment to the guy who drove a Lexus. I was the only one in the theatre who laughed at that.

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Hey guys and gals, please help keep this new wiki page updated to make life easier on us expats in Japan!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titles_in_Japan_for_Foreign_Movies

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Huh? Something went wrong with the url above.

Rather than try again, I'll just ask you to search for on wikipedia for: Titles in Japan for Foreign Movies

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Venlo, How many brothers and sisters do you have? I assume around 10? lol

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and catt is your brother, too? frisk's question was HILARIOUS, wasn't it?

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Quadruplets: Frisk, Cat, Pen, Ven (reborn), all born in June after Bas born in May. Told my fb friends who are also JT readers. They are all said, “LMAO, z is so small"

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hmmm... I've got some thumbs down...It seems like I'm not the only one still following this article posted four years ago. I love this movie title, "Jack, we understand your frustration"

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