Tuesday, February 21, 2012


A few days ago, I took my daughter to go see The Secret World of Arrietty, the newly released film by Studio Ghibli. I can do a whole other post on the world of Miyazaki/Ghibli films for I am a total nerd, but today, I am going to touch on translations and casting that I find interesting when these films cross the ocean.

When I see a Japanese film with English subtitles, or vice versa, I listen and read at the same time to see how things are translated. Depending on the nature of the film, sometimes lines are totally altered to get the humor across or to explain what people of that particular culture take for granted. In Miyazaki's Spirited Away, which was the first of his films to get a wide theatrical release in the US, there was a lot of that because while the setting was fantastical, the notion of a bath house and different kinds of gods are imbedded in Japanese culture. There was also the whole thing about the protagonist's name. Her name is Chihiro, written in Japanese as 千尋. In the Japanese version, Yubaba (the witch) takes away the second character and leaving her with just 千, pronounced Sen. In the complicated written language that we have, every character has at least two pronunciations--the Japanese and the Chinese. So the first character of her name went from being pronounced one way to another. And it made sense in Japanese, that she took away part of her name and the sound changed. I was curious to see how that would get translated and it was just that she took away her name and gave her a new one. I don't blame them because how do you explain THAT? But in other, less complicated situations, I was also mighty impressed as to how Disney snuck in a word here and a sentence there to casually explain the setting.

Something else I learned when I read an interview of a very famous Japanese subtitle writer/translator is that in the case of subtitles, you have to condense a phrase into something like six words at a time (or less) or human brain won't process it. Now, that is hard because you have to not only be concise, but also translate all the nuance in that one phrase. In the case of a voice over, the length of the lines has to match the movement of the mouth, I imagine--which is differently challenging. There is an art to it, for sure.

In the case of
The Secret World of Arrietty, there was not too much cultural confusion because the base story of The Borrowers originated in England. But, as I was watching the film in English, I noticed something that is very Japanese in this version that I did not pick up when I watched it in Japanese. Nodding. Japanese people nod a lot. If you see us talking from a distance, you can tell we are Japanese because we nod constantly. We nod often when we listen as if to say "uh-huh," and we nod to punctuate things while we talk. And when we are in the listening side, there is a sound that accompanies it, which is, "m." This is slightly challenging to translate because Americans don't nod at the rate that we do. In the film, sometimes nodding was left silent. Other times, nodding was given some grunting sound, and in others, given a short word or sound like "hmmm." I was imagining the team of translators figuring out what to give to which and was appreciative and entertained by the choices they made.

Then there is casting. I'm always interested in how Disney casts these films knowing the kind of voices and celebrities they use in Japan.
I think they do a pretty noble job of matching the voice quality and finding similar personalities of the Japanese actors for the most part. As animated films in the States do, Miyazaki gets people who are right for the part but also has some name recognition--lately, anyway. They are not always the most popular at the time, but they are people who have made a mark playing a certain type of role. For example, in Ponyo, the role of the mother was voiced by Ritsuko Tanaka (see left), who in the '90s was known for playing young, career women who were funny and independent and "one of the guys," kind of characters women aspired to be. In the States, that voice was Tina Fey.
In Howl's Moving Castle,
Howl was voiced by Japan's super star hunk, Takuya Kimura (see right--Incidentally, he is my total guilty pleasure but that is also another post). In the States, it was Christian Bale (I'm not gonna lie. I think he is also hunky). See what I mean?

I like to give my stamp of approval. Like anyone cares. That would be one of my dream jobs--to cast the US voices for Miyazaki film. But I digress.

Here is the trailer in Japanese:

And here it is in English:

You can see their efforts. It's fun for me to experience Japanese films in the theatre in the US. I watch the audience's reaction as if I made the film--it's National pride, or something. I pay attention to what people find funny or not funny and how they seem to like it. Miyazaki seems to now have quite the fan base here so the audience for his films are ready to like it, which is nice. I once saw an interview with John Lasseter who said that when artists at Pixar get stuck on a project, they pop in My Neighbor Totoro for inspiration. That's saying something.

As we were leaving, I asked my daughter which version she liked. She thought for a moment and said, "Japanese," which is interesting because she has a better comprehension of English than Japanese. Perhaps it's because she saw it in Japanese first. Or maybe because she felt that was right. I'm OK with that.


  1. I'm so fascinated by all of this-- so interesting! I also work with a lot of Japanese people and have noticed the nodding thing; really interesting to hear a little more explanation from you.

  2. I gotta agree with you. Takuya Kimura is a hunk! Wow! What a cutie! As for Christian Bale...yeah...he's ok too. Interesting read. Thanks.

  3. Now that I saw the previews...it's amusing to me because as a child, I used to imagine a secret world of little people. I called them the little people that lived in the drain, because I used to imagine them living in my bathroom sink drain, in the side sections and that it ran into hidden tunnels. I imagined them riding ants and coachroaches as coaches, and borrowing soap bubbles, and toothpaste blobs that fell into the sink. I imagined them borrowing everything...just like the story said...little things that humans would not miss. How amusing it is that someone else had the same idea that I had as a child, and wrote a book about it. That is something else I also considered doing, as I have written a few children's stories, but have yet to publish them. I think I will enjoy this film. Thanks again.

  4. Wow, I've never thought of all this as deeply as you have. It's funny because I've now seen 5 Studio Ghibli films, though Arrietty was the first I ever watched in Japanese first. So, I find the English version to be a bit odd, since I'm used to the original Japanese version. Vise versa, it's a bit funny to see the other films such as Kiki's Delivery Service in Japanese because I watched it many times with the English voice over.
    I love learning about the little details of Japanese culture. It's quite complex, so I've had many "ah-ha" moments. The same goes for my sister who is dating a Japanese gentlemen, so she too has had many moments of "Ah-ha, so that's why he does this." =)

  5. Hello :) Found your blog randomly while doing a search for travel/language blogs. It's great to finally find a few like yours, which are light-hearted and at the same time interesting! (I love Studio Ghibli, too!). I grew up English & German and for that reason I'm always very aware of how things are translated, too. I shall be following your blog. :)

  6. This was an interesting blog. I love love these movies from Studio Ghibli! The first one I watched was Kiki's Delivery Service when I was about 11 years old. :)) I haven't seen all the movies yet but definitely want to.


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