February 26, 2020 § 2 Comments
Of the many heartfelt acceptance speeches by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, the most memorable was not made at the Academy Awards, where his film won four Oscars, but at the Golden Globes. Accepting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bong said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Who could argue with that? Well, President Trump, for starters, who recently ranted bizarrely about the injustice of “Parasite” winning the Academy Award for Best Picture at a rally. Beyond the fact that his predecessors never involved themselves in awards season, Trump clearly hadn’t seen “Parasite.” Why would he? The film is entirely in Korean, which means that he would have had to read subtitles for two hours and twelve minutes.
Ah, subtitles. From the time I was a child, I remember hearing that Americans—apart from intellectuals who worshipped French cinema and the films of Ingmar Bergman—would never willingly read them, thus dooming all foreign language films to art house theaters and meager receipts. I always found this hard to believe, but then I grew up in Japan, where every non-Japanese film was subtitled and audiences of all ages and backgrounds still flocked to see them.
Japanese is a difficult language to master, with complicated grammar and levels of formality, the highest and lowest of which sound quite different from standard speech. Korean is even more complex, but at least its writing system—Hangul—is a single alphabet. In contrast, written Japanese mixes kanji (Chinese characters) with hiragana and katakana, syllabaries that bridge the gaps between Chinese and Japanese, which are very different languages. Though homonymous, kana serve different functions: hiragana is used for Japanese words, while katakana is used for foreign and technical terms. In addition, Japanese subtitles use furigana—hiragana renderings of harder kanji that younger viewers might not know yet. So Japanese audiences, while at the same time following the onscreen action, appreciating the performances and listening to sound effects and music, have to read several lines of dialog at rapid speed. This is far more challenging than reading English subtitles on foreign films, yet no one objects.
After “Parasite” won its historic superfecta (Best International Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture), Morning Consult published this survey https://morningconsult.com/2020/02/04/for-u-s-audiences-foreign-cinemas-one-inch-wall-of-subtitles-seen-a-mile-high/?fbclid=IwAR0zLbIpwdtGd89O79M5mTSnlaV7CAK8xVk_UY-ZqaLc5A5w0Ow1nFfq8Ag
In addition to listing American viewers’ many reasons for disliking subtitles, it ranks non-English language movies as the least popular of all genres. Reason Number One: “It’s hard to read subtitles and follow the action of the movie.”
Because Japan and America have the same literacy rate—99%—the American aversion to subtitles is clearly a matter of custom, not ability. It’s understandable, since until recently the vast majority of films shown in the United States were, if not American-made, in English. Now, as international films garner greater recognition and popularity, American audiences are seeing and liking them more. And fans of Jong Boon Ho, whose films explore such universally compelling themes as economic inequality and environmental crisis, already seem to read subtitles without complaint.
February 21, 2019 § Leave a comment
This week marks the tenth anniversary of this blog, which I started to promote my third documentary feature film, Under the Hollywood Sign. At that point, UTHS was in post-production, and my editor Kate Johnson and I were shaping scores of interviews, around eighty hours of footage and hundreds of archival images into a cultural history of Beachwood Canyon.
Wanting to explore the film’s many topics in greater depth, I wrote about the Theosophists, film stars and oddball characters who populated the Canyon in the early 20th century. I described Beachwood’s natural beauty and wildlife, and the California holly that blooms in the hills each December. I detailed the creation of Hollywoodland, California’s oldest hillside planned community, from its granite walls, gates and stairs to its most famous features: the Hollywood Sign and Lake Hollywood.
After exhausting Beachwood Canyon’s history, I moved on to present-day matters. By then neighborhood was becoming a mecca for GPS-guided tourism, and between 2010 and 2015 the number of visitors in search of the Hollywood Sign surged. Crowds overwhelmed the narrow streets, eroded the trails and drove the wildlife back into Griffith Park. Hollywoodland’s narrow streets, tricky to navigate in the best conditions, became chaotic and frequently gridlocked. Until permit parking was instituted a couple of years ago, residents were frequently trapped in or out of their houses by vehicular and pedestrian traffic that also blocked emergency vehicles. Writing about these issues brought me a slew of hostile comments, the gist of which was our right to use your neighborhood for recreation trumps your right to live here. Long after I stopped writing about local issues, angry and even threatening letters continued to roll in.
These days I write mostly about film–not mine but other people’s. I also write about Japan, where I grew up and whose history and culture I’ve studied for most of my life. As for documentary filmmaking, I’ve stopped. I’ll explain why in my next post.
January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
Longtime readers of Under the Hollywood Sign will remember my articles on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous films and the linguistic and cultural confusion they engendered. Some of the problems stemmed from a lack of understanding of Japanese culture by American critics, while others were caused by Kore-eda’s English subtitles.
An example of the latter occurs in “Nobody Knows,” where the criminally neglectful mother refers to herself in English subtitles as “Mother.” Although in Japan it’s standard to refer to oneself by familial title–mother, father, brother, sister–it isn’t in western languages. This led to one American critic using “chillingly” in describing the mother’s perfectly normal Japanese. Clearly, “Mother” should have been translated as “I.”
In light of this, I was relieved that “Shoplifters” has much better subtitles–at least until a key scene near the end. In it, Osamu Shibata, the head of a fictive family of societal throwaways says–according to the English subtitles–to Shota, the boy he has lovingly fathered, “From now on, I’m not your dad.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what he says in Japanese. As spoken by the actor Lily Franky, that pivotal line is: “So, I’ll go back to being your uncle.”
What difference does it make? For starters, what seems to be Shibata’s rejection of the boy he bestowed with his own first name (both Osama and Shibata being pseudonyms) is anything but. He desperately wants to remain a part of Shota’s life, as Kore-eda makes clear when Shibata subsequently runs after the bus Shota is riding. In fact, it is Shota who rejects Shibata by not looking back, though when he is out of sight the boy whispers, “Dad.”
At a reception before the recent Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium, I broached the translation with a member of Kore-eda’s production team. She told me that they had discussed the line but decided not to translate it literally because they assumed the word uncle would confuse non-Japanese viewers. “He’s not really his uncle,” she said, and was surprised when I told her that avuncular relationships among people unrelated by blood are common in America and Europe, too.
“Shoplifters” is a masterpiece, and highly deserving of the Palme d’Or it won last year at Cannes. But Kore-eda, who speaks no English, needs a subtitler who understands cultural nuance as well as Japanese and English. There’s so much more to languages than words.
January 13, 2019 § 1 Comment
Last weekend’s pre-Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium at the American Cinematheque, always an interesting event, was even more revealing than usual, thanks to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s comments about his film “Shoplifters.” Asked by moderator Mike Goodridge about how he created the film’s family from his ensemble of actors, Kore-eda, speaking through an interpreter, said “The first day of the film was the summer sequence….I watched them as they interacted on the beach…I was inspired by this short scene that we took and built the script from there through my imagination.”
That Kore-eda’s beautiful film–about an unrelated group of children and adults on the margins of society who to live as a loving family–could have been made without a pre-written script elicited enthusiastic applause. One certainly couldn’t tell, as “Shoplifters” has structure and coherence. But it also has looseness and spontaneity, particularly in the scenes with children.
It was Alfonso Cuarón, nominated for his own film with children, “Roma,” who drew Kore-eda further into a discussion of his technique. (I had seen the two directors beforehand in the wings speaking avidly, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when Cuarón shifted from nominee to interviewer.) About the scene in which the boy and girl run home through monsoon rains, nearly interrupting an intimate moment between their fictive parents, Kore-eda said that he thought of adults’ scene after filming the children running through the rain. He also revealed the secret of his child actors’ naturalistic performances: never having them read a word of the script. Instead, Kore-eda said, he explains each scene, then gives the children their dialogue, line by line. The result in “Shoplifters” is the gold standard for child actors: performances in which they don’t seem to be acting at all.
April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment
I have mixed feelings about “Isle of Dogs,” just as I do about other Wes Anderson films. On the one hand, it’s an homage to Japanese culture, particularly the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa. On the other, it’s a stereotype-laden tale that trots out (pun intended) every conceivable Japanese cliché: Cherry blossoms! Swords! Sushi! Megacities! Machine Politics! None of that offended me. What did were the references to World War II, particularly the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki;the post-apocalyptic Trash Island; the kamikaze-like plane of Atari, the “Little Aviator;” and the island’s deformed and wounded native dogs, survivors of laboratory experiments. For those who might have missed those references, Anderson helpfully provides an explosion with a mushroom cloud.
Anderson and his co-writer Roman Coppola apparently love Japan and have spent time there. But like countless other infatuated gaijin, they can’t resist the urge to explain Japanese culture, despite their shaky and superficial understanding of it. It’s a long tradition among white males that began with Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Cypriot journalist and wanderer. As the first westerner to write extensively on Japanese literature and culture, the non-fluent Hearn got so famous that he attained a professorship–in English literature, a subject he was also unqualified in–at Tokyo University in 1896.
These days, the explaining goes on less in books than in movies and television, but with the same mixed results. Roman Coppola does better in the current season of “Mozart in the Jungle,” which has several episodes set in Japan. There the orchestra performs on temple grounds and at a Tadao Ando-designed complex, among other picturesque locations. In other scenes, the Japanese love of classical music is depicted at a bar where patrons go to listen to recordings on high-end equipment. All of this culminates in a tea ceremony attended by the two leads (Gael Garcia Bernal and Lola Kirke) and conducted by a Japanese woman who is a master of the form. So far, so good, but then the characters drink the tea and find themselves in a Kurosawa-inspired bamboo forest, where they speak forbidden truths and achieve the enlightenment that they either were or were not seeking–I forget which because I’d already tuned out.
As in “Isle of Dogs,” the western fantasy of Japan collapses under its own weight in “Mozart in the Jungle,” and soon the musicians are back in New York where they belong. Japan clearly deserves better. It’s absurd that non-Japanese-speaking outsiders feel compelled to explain its complex culture to the world, but as long as there are white male Japanophiles, there will be attempts.
March 27, 2018 § 2 Comments
Last week’s rains transformed the narrow channel that confines the LA River into something that actually looked like a river, albeit an ugly one hemmed in by high concrete walls. Staring at it from the windows of my gym, a fellow member said, “I keep expecting to see a body going by.” We’d already seen tree branches and plastic bottles in the fast-moving water, so anything seemed plausible.
I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, and throughout my years here I’ve been hearing about plans to restore the LA River into a more natural body of water. To date, one can only access the river in small sections: at the Sepulveda Basin and the Glendale Narrows near Dodger Stadium, and in Frogtown. Burbank is another area slated for restoration, but so far it hasn’t happened.
The main problem with the LA River is that it’s not really a river. It’s an arroyo, running dry in the summer and dramatically coming to life in the rainy season. (Los Angeles is unique among the world’s major cities in lacking a navigable river or deep water harbor; only Brasilia, with its artificial lake, compares, but it’s a master-planned city founded in 1960.) Before the LA River was channelled it regularly flooded, causing fatalities and property losses. After the devastating flood of 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers concreted it almost completely, putting an end to flooding but creating a massive eyesore.
Given our desert climate, Los Angeles will never have an unchanneled river. But even channeled rivers can be beautified and improved. I grew up in western Tokyo, on a hill above Meguro River, which in those days was less a river than a dank urban waterway filled with garbage. Whenever our car crossed its bridge, an ominous thunk made me imagine the horror of falling in. Then, around the time my family left Japan in the 70’s, the river was cleaned up by the city. Cherry trees were planted along the banks and walking paths were built on both sides. As the trees grew, new apartment houses sprang up on both sides of the river. The neighborhood became chic.
I had all but forgotten about the Meguro River’s existence, so I never saw its transformation. Then in March of 2013, I arrived in Tokyo and was told by a friend to hurry and see the cherry trees there. An unexpected hot spell had forced an early bloom that year, and the trees alongside the river were already past their prime. It was also raining that day, but no matter: the experience was magical. Festive lanterns lined the riverbanks, and the fencing was low enough to allow picture-taking. The pathways were carpeted in petals, and as I walked blossoms fell with the rain. Though the Meguro River was still channeled, the sweeping branches of the cherry trees detracted from the concrete, giving it a more natural appearance. Why can’t the LA River be like this?, I wondered. I still do.
September 20, 2017 § Leave a comment
As the countdown to “Blade Runner 2049” continues, it’s worth remembering that the original “Blade Runner” wasn’t met with the kind of reverence it enjoys now. When it came out in 1982, I was living in Berkeley and saw it in a packed theater on what I’m pretty sure was opening night. From the first scene–explosions over an ominous-looking Los Angeles–I knew “Blade Runner” was a masterpiece. I loved the dystopian future it depicted, from the constant rain to the Japanese-influenced motifs. I loved the fact that Deckard was an updated Raymond Chandler detective who lived in a famous Frank Lloyd Wright house. I loved the fact that the climactic chase scene was filmed in the Bradbury Building, George Herbert Wyman’s 1893 iron-and-glass masterpiece that, like the film itself, was years ahead of its time.
I was surprised, to put it mildly, when the critics didn’t share my enthusiasm. Janet Maslin, though she praised the movie’s special effects, called “Blade Runner” “a mess, at least as far as its narrative is concerned.” On their TV show “At the Movies,” Gene Siskel called it “a waste of time,” while Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs up only for the effects. Twenty-five years later, Ebert reappraised it positively, in part because the once-futuristic lighted billboards had become a reality: “the story benefits…by seeming more to inhabit is world than be laid on top of it.” (Siskel died in 1999, so there’s no way of knowing whether he would have changed his mind.) The Hollywood Reporter called it “a Felliniesque journey into Dante’s Inferno, with Micky Spillane in tow,” though it also called it “mesmerizing.” Thanks to its decidedly mixed critical reception, “Blade Runner” was a box office dud.
The film’s reputation started changing with the release of Ridley Scott’s director’s cut in 1992. Shorn of its voice-over narration, “Blade Runner” gained a new following and began to be regarded as a science fiction classic. The lack of narration–tacked onto the original because some thought the story confusing–gives the film greater dynamism, as did additional footage that seems to affirm the theory that Deckard himself is a replicant. In 2007, the Final Cut, which I haven’t seen, expanded the unicorn dream sequence, remastered the haunting Vangelis score and added three scenes.
On October 6th, we’ll finally get the sequel: “Blade Runner 2049,” starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, it looks worthy of the original and will draw a massive audience of fans, including me. As for the critical reception, it’s safe to assume a much better response than the original received in 1982.
My ebook on “Blade Runner” is available here: