Bad Tuning

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Speaking of the cinema, one of the things that’s almost impossible to do in Japan is talk to Japanese friends about foreign films. Not that they haven’t seen the film in question or that they won’t have an insightful opinion. It’s that it takes forever to figure out what it’s called in Japanese. With both song and film titles, Japanese distributors are wont to give the work a “houdai” (邦題) — “Japanese title” — that will be attractive to domestic consumers. Creating an accurate translation of the original does not, apparently, fall into their game plan. They simply assign more “palatable” titles that will appeal to the broadest possible audience.

Now, American firms are quite guilty of equal crimes. For example, how did C’est arrivé près de chez vous become Man Bites Dog?

But in Japan, the blatant rewriting of film titles for marketing purposes is a widespread, ingrained practice. Distributors must first take out all words used metaphorically or abstractly and replace them with specific, direct meanings. Then, if love enters into the plot at any level, they must insert the words 恋, 愛、心、or ハート.

Some choice cuts:

Chariots of Fire –>「炎のランナー」 (The Runners of Flames)
Dead Poet’s Society –>「いまをいきる」(Live the Today)
Dazed and Confused –>「バッド・チューニング」 (Bad Tuning)
Before Sunrise –>「恋人たちのディスタンス」 (The Lovers’ Distance)
重慶森林 (Chungking Express/Jungle) –>「恋する惑星」(Love Planet)

There are a million more like it — some sensible, some egregious. (The new War of the Worlds‘ houdai is 「宇宙戦争」, which pretty much means “Star Wars.”) These title changes, however, make sense: Why would anyone want to see a movie starring dead poets? Or how could you go on a date to a movie with the word “Chungking” in the title? Can you imagine a Japanese fan really getting into the Partridge Family song “I Think I Love You” if it was not re-named 「悲しき初恋」(“sad first love”)?

Maybe Wes Anderson likes the fact that his film Rushmore is called「天才マックスの世界」(The World of Genius Max), but these title changes seem to reflect another theme quite apparent within Japanese society: Companies think very little of their consumers. In this extremely low-risk culture, distributors fear that filmgoers will choose films based solely on the title. “Rushmore?!” exclaimed Yoshi, “I’m not seeing a movie about that monument in South Dakota!”

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

27 Responses

  1. Momus Says:

    …another theme quite apparent within Japanese society: companies think very little of their consumers.

    As usual, I don’t quite see the point of the adjective “Japanese” in this sentence. You’re blaming the Japanese for what everyone does. Do you want a list of foreign films released into the American market with stupid, reductive titles? How about:

    “Les Amants du Pont Neuf” (Carax) => in US the bland “The Lovers on the Bridge”
    “Sada Abe: A Docu-drama” (Oshima) => in US the opportunistic “A Woman Called Sada Abe: Beyond the Realm of the Senses” (cashing in on Oshima’s hit)
    “Godzilla” => in the US the unnecessarily long (not to mention oddly royalist) “Godzilla, King of the Monsters”
    Even the extremely inventive new film from Katsuhito Ishii has a bland, orientalist title in the US: “The Taste of Tea”.

    For some reason, though, Americans want to believe Asians give Hollywood movies crazy new names. In 1998 some wag added some fictional, totally ridiculous Asian retitlings to a Wall Street Journal article. The New York Times reported the crazy titles (“Pretty Woman” => “I Will Marry A Prostitute to Save Money” etc) as fact. Although they retracted the article and apologised for their poor research, the spoof titles were reported in all sorts of other American media as fact for months afterwards. It seems that, just like Marxy, the US media loves this idea of “zany Asians”.

    http://www.topfive.com/html/rantorama.shtml

  2. marxy Says:

    Common Momus tropes:

    1) Refusing to acknowledge a difference in degrees. Yes, American firms change titles, but Japanese companies are way more market-driven and seem to show zero respect for the artistic reasons behind titling. This would be something you would understand better if you could read Japanese instead of just extrapolating from ethereal “feelings.”

    2) Going crazy over things that aren’t real. Am I wrong that the Japanese title of Ishii’s movie is 「茶の味」which means “The Taste of Tea”?

    3) Intentionally lumping my arguments in with the “Zany Japanese” crowd to discredit me. Which of my title examples were zany? “Koi suru wakusei” isn’t zany; it just drips of complete devotion to marketing and capitalism. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the word “lovers” is a translation for “amants.” Where did they get 恋する惑星” from ‘重慶森林”?

  3. hikikomoriyamanaotaro Says:

    “The Taste of Tea” is a direct translation. No orientalizing going on there. (What a great movie though!)

    Japanese translators of foreign movie titles also seem to like location. If the movie is set in New York then ‘New York’ is somehow worked into the title. If the movie occurs in Alabama then “アラバマ物語” it is!

    If it is a reimported American remake of a Japanese horror movie it is much simpler, just add ザ.

  4. Bri Says:

    Is it that distributors really think little of Japanese consumers? Or is it that they know them all too well?

    I don’t know how many times I’ve gone the video store and let my girlfriend pick out a title, and observed that her decision is almost always based on her assessment of the beauty of the main actress as depicted in the photo on the box, and/or whether or not the box is predominantly pink in color.

    She prefers romantic comedies, and the packaging for such comedies must involve cute girls, and pink… right?

    “Rushmore?!” exclaimed Yoshi, “I’m not seeing a movie about that monument in South Dakota!”

    This is precisely the point. If there is significance to the title Rushmore beyond the name of the monument, would you expect an audience that is not fluent in English or well-versed in American pop culture to fully grasp the nuance of the title?

    And if the title doesn’t have any particular significance, does it matter much how it is changed for the Japanese market?

    By the way, I’ve been reading your site for a while, always an interesting read. First time I’ve commented though…

  5. rachael Says:

    bring it on = cheers!

    i know it’s about cheerleading, but i thought most japanese might think about a bar somewhere first.

  6. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    Speaking of Anderson,
    I noticed at Tsutaya last night that Bottlerocket (finally available here) is called Anthony’s Happy Motel!

  7. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    oh yeah…that Lesbian cheerleading-camp movie;

    But, I’m a Cheerleader!=Go-Go, Cheers!

  8. nate Says:

    I could be wrong, but I think Uchuu sensou is the title that has been carried over from way back when. Otherwise I think it would have been a good candidate for katakanification.

    certainly better than za dei aftaa tumaro.

  9. Reality Bites Says:

    For the most part, I have no problem with the renaming of movies.

    A weird one:
    “John Malcovich’s ana” or literally JM’s “hole”, for “Being John Malcolvich.”

    One that rubbed me the wrong way:

    One egregious example, that particularily bothered me though was, “Baka na Amerika-jin” (at least I think that was it), for a Michael Moore DVD (I forget the real title-maybe the hideous truth). My Japanese isn’t good enough to get the full flavor of the inference.

    Is it inferring:
    1. That the host Michael Moore is dumb.
    2. That the movie is suggesting American’s are dumb.
    3. Or is more like a rhetorical statement. “Gee American’s are dumb!” or “Stupid Americans!”
    4. All of the above?

    I’m not sure if “na” was in the title or not, which obviously changes the meaning. It may have just been “Baka Amerika-jin”.

    Are they couching the seriously volatile political content in a derogatory title so that people take it less seriously?

  10. Brad Says:

    nate’s right, 宇宙戦争 is the old name of the book and the ’53 film. (BTW, even though you might not need me to say this, the new “War of the Worlds” is junk.)

    And I agree with marxy, it’s incredibly annoying when trying to explain a great foreign movie to a Japanese person and having to say “Well, it’s called ‘Blah blah’ in the States, but I’m not sure what it’s called in Japan.”

    I feel sorry for all of the title injustices that Wes Andersen has had visited upon him…

  11. Brad Says:

    Reality Bites,
    The show’s original title is “The Awful Truth”. A translation of Michael Moore’s book “Stupid White Men” was just released, titled “Aho de manuke na Amerika hakujin” which is a pretty good representation, I think. So they used the opportunity to release DVDs of “The Awful Truth” with the same title, hoping to ride the wave. No hidden agenda here, except for whatever Moore originally had.

  12. Chris_B Says:

    “Baka na Amerika-jin” (at least I think that was it), for a Michael Moore DVD

    Pure Wisdom. May Mr. Moore rot in hell.

  13. Chris_B Says:

    BTW I’ve found that mentioning the leading lady/actor and a once sentance description of the plot works better than trying to figure out the title. Works well in video stores too.

  14. marxy Says:

    For those non-Japan residents, Tsutaya rental stores have a lot of old movies organized by actor/actress and a wall of films organized by director.

  15. jnal Says:

    I just wanted to remind you–though I’m sure you know this–that titles are rarely the product of ‘pure’ (whatever that would mean) artistic intention in the first place, as opposed to marketing considerations. I know this is the case at least for novels; coincidentally, I just read today how Henry Roth’s classic of American immigration had a whole list of crappy potential titles before he finally wrote in a letter to his editor something like, “I don’t care anymore. Just call it _Sleep_.”

  16. koitsumi Says:

    trope:
    n.

    1. A figure of speech using words in nonliteral ways, such as a metaphor.
    2. A word or phrase interpolated as an embellishment in the sung parts of certain medieval liturgies.

  17. marxy Says:

    Thanks, Koitsumi.

    I guess I meant “device.”

  18. Brent Says:

    funny that you should make this post. As long as I’ve been promising myself to learn PHP (a couple of years), I’ve always thought my first project should be to make a database that does exactly what you did in this post: Give the American title, the Japanese title, and the translation back into english.

    I don’t know that i’ll ever get around to it, but i’d like to think i will.

  19. Reality Bites Says:

    Chris, have you read any Michael Moore?

  20. jasong Says:

    I won’t defend the titles given to foreign films by domestic distribs, but whether you can speak/read Japanese or not, as a foreigner you may not see or hear the titles as a native Japanese person would. Something that’s catchy or eye-catching to a native speaker (not forgetting the visual aspect of kanji/kana) screams lameness to a foreigner who can read it (myself included). Perhaps this is true for Japanese capable in English who see “clever” English titles. I don’t know…

    Anwyay, I think your ongoing thematic thread of Japanese consumers constantly getting it up the ass is on its last legs — game legs to begin with. You obviously put a lot of thought into your writing, though, which is good.

  21. marxy Says:

    You obviously put a lot of thought into your writing, though, which is good.

    Thanks, Dad.

    Anwyay, I think your ongoing thematic thread of Japanese consumers constantly getting it up the ass is on its last legs

    It’s not about Japanese consumers “getting screwed,” as much as there’s a different power balance in Japan than in America. Consumers here are much more picky that their media be “authoritative,” which in turn makes magazines/producers more powerful in creating trends, but oddly enough, magazines thus must work to prove to the consumer that they have the proper legitimacy. In the past, I’ve made it out to be a simplistic top-bottom type flow of information, but it’s more complicated than that. Non-manual magazines here are vastly less popular than the fashion instruction sheets.

  22. jasong Says:

    Anytime, Son.

    There’s no doubt there are differences in the consumer/supplier relationship than there is in the west, but I’m not convinced that one is “worse” than the other. Maybe you’re not either, but it definitely comes across that you believe that being a Japanese consumer is somehow more of a sentence.

    Using your “instruction sheet” example — I too used to (still?) scoff at the notion of a magazine telling you exactly how to dress and coordinate in great detail, even when it comes to punk (surely Japan has the cleanest, carefully torn-clothed punk rockers in the world?) People who dress head-to-toe in Uniqlo are vaguely frightening, as well. But tell me there aren’t a good number of foreigners here who copy textbook “looks”. You mentioned one template yourself a while back.

    I suppose in America people copy the dress style of their heroes, as those heroes are increasingly becoming the same age as the consumers themselves. In Japan, people like it photographed, spelled out, annotated, with accompanying store map. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know.

    The amount of guidance and demonstration of the “right way” that goes on in other aspects of Japanese life carries over to consumerism as well. It would be odd if it didn’t, I suppose.

  23. marxy Says:

    There’s no doubt there are differences in the consumer/supplier relationship than there is in the west, but I’m not convinced that one is “worse” than the other.

    Well, if we are like Momus and believe that the end completely justifies the means, the Japanese consumer press does a much better job in making a fashionable population than any other international media. Although my personal preference for self-actualization over consumerism comes out in my writing, the main thing I am trying to show is that this “creativity” does stem from authoritarianism at some level, but whether authoritarianism is bad or good is up to you to decide.

    it definitely comes across that you believe that being a Japanese consumer is somehow more of a sentence.

    I don’t think being Japanese in general is very easy, and some foreigners – who are essentially exempt from the hardest responsibilties while free riding on society’s positive externalities – tend to extrapolate their own pleasant experiences here into the Japanese daily life. The designer Geoff McFetridge was here selling a limited-edition Nike last year, and he told me that all the kids who waited in line all looked dour and severe – as if this consumption was more of a responsibility than a self-selected joy. This is probably not true for everyone, but I think it’s irresponsible to ignore the social pressures that ultimately play a large part of fashion in Japan.

    The amount of guidance and demonstration of the “right way” that goes on in other aspects of Japanese life carries over to consumerism as well. It would be odd if it didn’t, I suppose.

    Exactly, so why should we assume that crazy Harajuku looks are some kind of confrontational individualism?

  24. jasong Says:

    and some foreigners – who are essentially exempt from the hardest responsibilties while free riding on society’s positive externalities

    Well put. I know I ride that wave. It keeps many foreigners here and happy (depsite the complaints).

    as if this consumption was more of a responsibility than a self-selected joy.

    Yes, I’d love to ask them “How would you feel if you didn’t or couldn’t buy it?” Would they be able to answer such an odd question?

    why should we assume that crazy Harajuku looks are some kind of confrontational individualism?

    Well, if you look at it as the individualism that comes from what amounts to basically a few city blocks, then yes, the Harajuku look is unique in the world and warrants some attention, but on a single consumer level, they also have the “instruction” magazines, yes?

    Here’s an experiment: pick up an issue of a Harajuku mag from 2 or 3 years ago, have a girl replicate one of the looks, then have her interact with the girls on the front lines. Would they be able to peg what issue her outdated look came from, would they be vaguely uncomfortable with someone who wasn’t following the latest template??

  25. marxy Says:

    Well, if you look at it as the individualism that comes from what amounts to basically a few city blocks, then yes, the Harajuku look is unique in the world and warrants some attention, but on a single consumer level, they also have the “instruction” magazines, yes?

    Harajuku is absolutely interesting and unique when viewed on an international level. But we shouldn’t project Western consumer or subcultural motives onto those kids.

    pick up an issue of a Harajuku mag from 2 or 3 years ago…

    I’m not convinced that look has changed so much in 2-3 years time, or even that much in the last decade. There may be subtle changes (Super Loves is out, for example), but the current Japanese economy just can’t handle/expect drastic trend changes like it could in the past. The Harajuku industry generally prospers by having new kids come in as older ones graduate to more “mature” looks, opposed to pressing newer and newer trends like it did in the pre-subcultural market of the 80s.

  26. jasong Says:

    I’m not convinced that look has changed so much in 2-3 years time, or even that much in the last decade.

    I wouldn’t know the difference between Harajuku looks of fall 2001 and spring 2005 either, but that’s why it’d be an interesting experiment. Maybe certain accessories or patterns from a few years ago would scream “anachronism” to them, but go unnoticed to foreign eyes.

    But we shouldn’t project Western consumer or subcultural motives onto those kids.

    I haven’t read much of the fetishistic western press on the scene (and it does get quite a lot of ink), but I assume most of the writers don’t know even the basics of the consumer behaviour here that you’re often talking about.

    Gwen Stefani’s lyrics for Harajuku Girls — they’re really verbose (and bad) and take the point of view that the girls have supreme command over all of this. What do you think?

    Gwen Stefani – Harajuku Girls Lyrics

    Were mono – there’s me, there’s you (hoko-ten)
    In a pedestrian paradise
    Where the catwalk got its claws (meow)
    A subculture in a kaleidoscope of fashion
    Prowl the streets of Harajuku (irasshaimase)
    Super lovers, tell me where you got yours
    (at the super lovers store)
    Yoji Yamamoto, I’m hanging with the locals
    Where the catwalk got its claws, all you fashion know-it-alls
    With your underground malls in the world of Harajuku
    Putting on a show, when you dress up in your clothes
    Wild hair color and cell phones
    Your accessories are dead on

    Harajuku Girls you got the wicked style
    I like the way that you are, I am your biggest fan
    Harajuku Girls you got the wicked style
    I like the way that you are, I am your biggest fan

    Harajuku girls, I’m looking at you girls
    You’re so original girls
    You got the look that makes you stand out
    Harajuku Girls, I’m looking at you girls
    You mix and match it girls
    You dress so fly and just parade around (arigato)

    I’m fascinated by the Japanese fashion scene
    Just an American girl, in the Tokyo streets
    My boyfriend bought me a Hysteric Glamour shirt
    They’re hard to find in the states, got me feeling couture
    What’s that you got on? Is it Comme des Garcons?
    Vivienne Westwood can’t go wrong, mixed up with second hand
    clothes
    (Let’s not forget about John Galliano) (no)
    Flipped the landscape when Nigo made A Bathing Ape
    I got expensive taste (oh, well) guess I better save up (cho
    takai)

    Harajuku Girls you got the wicked style
    I like the way that you are, I am your biggest fan

    Work it, express it, live it, command your style
    Create it, design it
    Now let me see you work it
    Create it, design it
    Now let me see you work it

    You bring style and color all around the world. (You Harajuku
    Girls)
    You bring style and color all around the world. (You Harajuku
    Girls)

    You’re looking so distinctive like D.N.A., like nothing I’ve
    ever seen in the U.S.A.
    Your underground culture, visual grammar
    The language of your clothing is something to encounter
    A Ping-Pong match between eastern and western
    Did you see your inspiration in my latest collection?
    Just wait ’til you get your little hands on L.A.M.B.,
    ‘Cause it’s (super kawaii), that means (super cute in Japanese)
    The streets of Harajuku are your catwalk (bishoujo you’re so
    vogue)
    That’s what you drop

    Cho saikou – Harajuku Girls
    And that’s what you drop, that’s what you drop
    Cho saikou – Harajuku Girls
    And that’s what you drop, that’s what you drop
    (I don’t think you understand I’m your biggest fan)
    (Gwen Stefani – you like me?)

  27. Chris_B Says:

    ah those lyrics make me want to puke. Once again, I’m so glad I dont live near there any more. Contrary to my former belief, a flamethrower would not help solve the problem.

    Brent: At Tsutaya, they sometimes have a book which decodes the translated titles. There may well be an online version of said document.

    Reality Bites: Yes I’ve read Moore’s writing. IMNSHO he is the lowest level of populist windbag and has harmed the left far more than anyone else in recent years. Any fool can point fingers at problems, not many fools have the money to hire the editing and production staff that he does. It wouldnt surprise me if he was on the payroll of some extreme right winger. Yes I’ll celebrate his death, yes I’d dance on his grave and yes he is on my list of people to throw a party when their death is announced.