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