April 30, 2022

A title by any other name

The anime industry in Japan now takes in as much income from overseas markets as it does from domestic distribution. One logical consequence of this international growth is that anime studios are increasingly incorporating English titles into the opening credits of original Japanese productions.

The best known example to date is probably your name. For the North American release, all they had to do was flip the font sizes.

Besides keeping publicity efforts inside and outside Japan on the same page (a constant challenge for news sites like ANN is what to call a new series announced in Japan but not officially licensed), this is a clever way for writers and artists to exert control over their content.

The most basic approach is to translate nothing and instead transliterate the original Japanese into its romaji equivalents, as with anime like Chihayafuru and Hinamatsuri and movies like Akira Kurosawa's Ran.

Taking a step up in complexity is a straightforward (if abbreviated) translation of the Japanese title. Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away is the last word in the full Japanese title, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi. More recent examples include Sound! Euphonium and Children of the Whales.

A title can double up on the meaning by addressing one aspect in Japanese and another in English. Ghost in the Shell, which Masamune Shirow adapted from Arthur Koestler's philosophical treatise, The Ghost in the Machine, is titled "Mobile Armored Riot Police" in Japanese.

And then there's the uniquely Japanese approach that creates the English title first then transliterates it back into katakana for the Japanese title.
To be sure, it has long been common practice for Japanese distributors of Hollywood movies (especially action flicks with plots that can be summed up in a poster) to phonetically transliterate the English titles into katakana. Congratulations! You can read Japanese.

As Brian Ashcraft points out, "One thing Hollywood continually gets wrong [is that] when it tries to recreate Japan, it puts everything in Japanese, which simply isn't done in reality." English is ubiquitous in public spaces, though not necessarily the English that native speakers of the language are used to.

English is a required subject in Japan, and Japanese students are very good at mastering the subject well enough to pass the tests. But not much beyond that. The result is a working comprehension of English that is, well, quirky. The kind of quirky that can make the end results all the more striking.

I mean, it's hard to imagine even an imaginative native English copywriter coming up with titles like Made in Abyss, Angel Beats! and No Guns Life. Again, the Japanese titles simply transliterate the English into katakana.

And here's one more.

Wait a minute, what happened to the North American release?

Rifle is Beautiful is a great title. Chidori RSC is utterly opaque. It stands for "Chidori High School Rifle Shooting Club," which you would never figure out without watching it first. I initially assumed that "Chidori" was the name of the main character.

I can only imagine that Sentai Filmworks thought Rifle is Beautiful sounded like an NRA bumper sticker and wanted to avoid catching any flak about it. Because, you know, somebody might get triggered. I do understand the caution, but this series is as harmless as the rifles the girls shoot.

But especially with light novel titles growing to unwieldly lengths, tweaking the name of a series may become a simple necessity. So "A Corpse is Buried Under Sakurako's Feet" is Beautiful Bones in English, leveraging the main character's similarities to Temperance Brennan in Bones.

Star Blazers was the title attached to the first Space Battleship Yamato series for its broadcast debut in the United States in 1979. That title has now become part of the franchise name.
And speaking of the Yamato, the docudrama Yamato (「男たちの大和」) did well in Japan but brought in hardly any box office overseas. Nevertheless, the name of the battleship (the final two kanji) is repeated in big romaji characters on all the posters anyway. Because it's just way cooler that way.

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# posted by Blogger Matthew
4/30/2022 10:11 AM   
Cool essay, Eugene!