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Localisation: Making the Movies Make Sense in Japan

Anyone who knows me will tell you, when it comes to kicking back and relieving my stress at the end of a busy day, I love nothing better than a good movie or a stint of gaming on my beloved PS3.

As both an avid gamer, and a movie aficionado, I have accumulated literally hundreds of movies, DVDs, and video game disks and cartridges down the years. Since coming to Japan, I have been quite intrigued at the different way in which Japanese people perceive certain movies and games here. Not only is the media itself received differently by the consumer, but also in addition, the titles themselves can often be named and marketed completely differently from how we may remember them in Europe or the US.

For example, we all know about the classic Zombie horror video game and more recently movie franchise Resident Evil. Made by Capcom, one of Japan’s most famous gaming firms, one would think RE would be as much of a household name here in Japan as anywhere globally.

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Not so however, in fact, very few people in Japan would even know what Resident Evil is. In Japan, it has always been known as Biohazard, and even the individual titles in the series were named and marketed differently. For example, the third entry of the series was titled Biohazard: The Last Escape in Japan. Whilst the “Last Escape” subtitle did appear in some literature prior to the games initial release in the US and Europe, ultimately, it was named Resident Evil 3: Nemesis.

There are a couple of cultural reasons behind this subtle difference.

First of all the title “Biohazard” was already owned by a different company in the US, so Capcom had to change the name, for fear of copyright violation.

Secondly, whilst video game and movie narratives in Japan are often driven by plot devices and situations, western audiences tend to buy more into individual characters.

So in the case of RE3, whilst Japanese audiences were drawn to the narrative of heroine Jill Valentine’s final journey out of the besieged Raccoon City, her “last escape” as it were, European and American audiences were far more attracted to the seemingly indestructible new villain of the piece, The Nemesis. Hence the game became known in the west as Resident Evil 3: Nemesis.

The same can also happen with movies. For example, let’s look at the classic 80’s action drama saga, The Karate Kid.

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In Japan, these movies also proved popular upon their initial release, but they were not called “Karate Kid” in Japan. Instead they were titled “Best Kid”, “Best Kid 2” and “Best Kid 3”. Again cultural sensitivity was the deciding factor here. It was felt that if audiences in Japan were pitched a movie about an American boy suddenly becoming a Karate champion over the period of just a few months, it would come across as not only unbelievable, but also somewhat disrespectful to the years of dedication regular Japanese practitioners of martial arts put into mastering their craft. Hence, the movies were renamed, with direct references to Karate in the dialogue toned down from the original English version.

I recall the first time I watched one of these movies with a Japanese friend of mine many years ago in Tokyo.

In the second movie, the newly crowned Californian Karate Champion Daniel, and his teacher Mr Miyagi head to Okinawa.

One scene sees Miyagi reunited with his childhood sweetheart. In what is one of the movie’s more tender moments, the two express their continuing affection for each other and their regret at having been apart for so long.

My friend however, was less than impressed with their heavily accented English dialogue.

They are both supposed to be Japanese right?” she asked.
Yes,” I replied.”
And where is this scene supposed to be taking place?” she went on.
Okinawa.” I answered.
Then why aren’t they speaking Japanese!?” she proclaimed.
Lacking any coherent reason to refute her logic, I somewhat hesitantly and regretfully replied: “Erm… Because Americans are too lazy to read subtitles!

Sometimes it also the case that a movie’s title may not translate well into Japanese or it may sound cumbersome and hard to pronounce in Japanese.

For example, when I first arrived in Japan in 2006 one of the surprise hits in cinemas that summer was the classically “so bad, it’s brilliant” disaster movie: Snakes on a Plane.

This may sound like a pretty straightforward title to translate. However, Japanese executives at the movie’s distribution company felt it was too long a title, and it was changed to the admittedly snappier “Snake Flight”.

Another example of this kind of necessary simplification was the 2014 hit X-Men: Days of Future Past, which was released in Japan as X-Men: Future and Past.

Unfortunately there are times when the push towards simplistic and snappy English titles that can easily be processed into Japanese phonetics, leads studios to abandon all pretenses of adherence to English language or grammar. For example the 2013 actioner GI Joe: Retaliation, was released in Japan as GI Joe: Back to Revenge!

A catchy title to be sure, but also an English teacher’s worst nightmare.

There are also times when more direct changes to the movies themselves are necessary in order for it to make sense to local audiences.

For example, the upcoming animation movie “Inside Out” features in its US version a scene where the young protagonist expresses her deep resentment at being made to eat broccoli, in adherence to the well-worn stereotype that all American kids hate eating green vegetables.

However, as Japanese kids have no such qualms about eating broccoli, in a Japanese context this scene would, ostensibly, make no sense. So, the director commissioned a re-shoot, exclusively for the Japanese version, of this one individual scene, where the broccoli is substituted for that classic symbol of Japanese kids loathing and revulsion, the humble green pepper.

For all our differences, I can honestly say that the Japanese are as adept at making and as appreciative of a good movie as anyone else around the world. Long may it continue.

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