The Importance of Translation and Localization in Preserving Cultural Art: Exploring the World of Japanese Arthouse Cinema

Cinema is a universal language, yet each film is deeply rooted in the culture and language of its origin. This is particularly true with Japanese arthouse cinema, which often explores themes and narratives unique to Japanese society and philosophy.

When stumbling upon the words “Japan” and “cinema” in one sentence, a person is very likely to think of anime – one of Japan’s most well-known “exports”, especially Studio Ghibli’s masterpieces, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. However, there is another type of cinema, “competing” with anime but also somehow complementing it – and that is arthouse cinema. Being one of the best in the world, Japanese arthouse cinema deserves to be talked and written about. Let’s find out why.

Japan has one of the oldest and largest film industries. The country remains the world’s third-largest box office territory in 2023 behind North America and China. Of course, this is due to manga and blockbusters, but let’s go back to the 50’s and meet some of the great cinema masters in the times when a blockbuster had a different meaning than today.

The golden age of Japanese cinema

Akira Kurosawa

Widely considered one of the most influential directors in the history of cinema, Kurosawa’s oeuvre was created in the course of five decades. He is known for his innovative techniques, storytelling skills, and profound influence on both Eastern and Western cinema. Kurosawa received numerous awards, including an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1990. Some of his most famous films are Rashomon (1950; one of the best screenplays ever written and arguably the most influential Japanese film of all time), Seven Samurai (1954; a true blockbuster in scale and ideas, before blockbusters were a thing and one of Kurosawa’s films most certainly anyone has heard of), Throne of Blood (1957; an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, set in feudal Japan), Yojimbo (1961; inspired Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful Of Dollars”), Kagemusha (1980; won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival), Ran (1985; an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, set in feudal Japan), Yume (1990; eight novellas based on Kurosawa’s recurring dreams, with Martin Scorsese starring in one of them).

Example:

A very interesting topic is the translation and localization of movie titles within Kurosawa’s filmography. Some titles, like High and Low (天国と地獄, Tengoku to Jigoku; literally Heaven and Hell), are translated to convey their thematic essence directly. Others, such as Ran (乱, Chaos) and Yojimbo (用心棒; Bodyguard), retain their original Japanese names, preserving cultural context and intrigue. 

An intriguing case is The Idiot (白痴, Hakuchi), where the title translation supports the film’s marketing by highlighting its connection to Dostoevsky’s famous novel. This balance between retaining original titles and translating them demonstrates the nuanced decisions involved in the localization process, ensuring the film’s appeal while respecting its cultural roots.

Yasujiro Ozu

One of the greatest filmmakers worldwide, best known for his minimalistic style and the classics Tokyo Story, Early Spring, Late Autumn, Tokyo Twilight, and many more. Ozu influenced many arthouse directors – in the first place Wim Wenders (who even has a documentary about him), Abbas Kiarostami, Jim Jarmusch, and many other film giants. Ozu’s films often focus on family life and family relationships, have a very distinctive visual style, often achieved by specific movements of the actors, combined with static shots, and avoid melodrama in order to focus on quiet everyday interactions between characters.

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Ozu’s minimalistic style and focus on quiet, everyday interactions demand a nuanced approach to translation and localization. His film titles like Late Spring (晩春, Banshun), Early Summer (麦秋, Bakushu), Early Spring (早春, Sōshun), Late Autumn (秋日和, Akibiyori), and The End of Summer (小早川家の秋, Kohayagawa-ke no aki) reflect a deep cultural association between the stages of human life and the changing seasons. This theme has long been a cornerstone of Japanese poetry, painting, and other forms of art, symbolizing the natural flow of time and human experiences. 

Tokyo Story is a perfect example of the importance of translation in cinema. The film’s nuanced depiction of generational conflict and social change in post-war Japan is deeply rooted in the Japanese cultural context. 

The precise translation and localization of films are essential in conveying their cultural significance and emotional resonance to global audiences. This approach ensures that the cultural depth and poetic symbolism in Ozu’s work are preserved. Effective translation and localization help international viewers to fully appreciate the intricate connections between life’s stages and the seasons as envisioned by Ozu, making the film not just a piece of entertainment, but a window into Japanese society and culture.

Kenji Mizoguchi

Another master of arthouse cinema. Mizoguchi’s work is celebrated for its emotional depth, visual beauty, and social commentary. He is often mentioned alongside Kurosawa and Ozu as one of Japan’s greatest directors. His classics include The Life Of Oharu, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, Ugetsu, Street Of Shame. The stories he tells are often about women in Japan – about their struggles and sacrifices, social and personal hardships. This focus was influenced by his sister’s experiences as a geisha and his own empathy towards women’s struggles. Mizoguchi is also known for his elegant visual style and his mastery of long takes and complex mise-en-scène.

Masaki Kobayashi

A legendary Japanese filmmaker, best known for his nine-hour epic The Human Condition (1959-1961), deals with the human capacity for war and compassion in the times before, during, and after World War II.

Translation and localization come with their challenges. Language is deeply tied to culture, and some concepts may not have direct equivalents in other languages. In these cases, translators and localizers (and subtitlers!) must find creative ways to convey the original meaning without losing its essence. 

Japanese new wave: Breaking the mold with social commentary and experimentation 

Similar to the French New Wave and American independent cinema, Japanese New Wave (Nuberu bagu) is somewhat a cousin of the other independent cinema movements around the world. It took place between the late 1950s and the 1970s, and the most prominent representatives include directors Nagisa Oshima, Yoshishige Yoshida, Masahiro Shinoda, and Shohei Imamura. Another important figure was Kaneto Shindo (Children of Hiroshima, The Naked Island, Onibaba), who co-founded his own independent company as early as the 50s. 

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Japanese New Wave was characterized (as expected) by its rejection of traditional filmmaking conventions and its embrace of experimental techniques (handheld cameras, unconventional angles, rapid editing) and a focus on contemporary social issues (radical politics, juvenile delinquency, uninhibited sexuality, changing roles of women in society, racism, and the position of ethnic minorities in Japan). 

The themes and techniques pioneered by the Japanese New Wave continue to resonate in contemporary Japanese cinema, as seen in the works of directors like Takeshi Kitano, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Hirokazu Kore-eda.

Example:

In its original Japanese, the title is 幻の光 (Maboroshi no Hikari), which translates to “Illusory Light” or “Phantasmic Light.” The localized choice to shorten it to Maborosi in the Western market is noteworthy. This abbreviated version retains a sense of the original while making it more accessible to international audiences.

Translating this title poses a unique challenge due to its multiple interpretations. The term (Maboroshi) can mean a trick of the light, an illusion, or something phantasmic, while (Hikari) means light. The title carries significant thematic weight, as the concept of light is woven throughout the film’s narrative and visual composition, symbolizing death in a way that contrasts with the typical association of death with darkness rather than light.

Effective localization often requires more than a literal translation, it demands an understanding of the cultural and emotional connotations behind the title. The choice of Maborosi successfully preserves the poetic and enigmatic nature of the original, allowing audiences to engage with the film’s deeper themes while respecting its cultural roots. Nuanced translation and localization can enhance the viewer’s connection to a film’s core message and aesthetic.

A haunting genre: Exploring Japanese horror cinema

Exploring the World of Japanese Arthouse CinemaBut before discussing modern Japanese arthouse, let’s scratch the surface of Japanese horror cinema. Well deserving a separate article, this genre has been largely embraced due to Japan’s tradition of horror stories, whose origins can be traced back to the XVII century. Post-WWII-era is when the horror genre rose to prominence in Japan and the first movies, that were inspired by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were often about kaiju (giant irradiated monsters). The first movie on this topic is the cult classic “Godzilla” (1954). 

While films about kaiju don’t really belong to the arthouse genre, one of the first major Japanese horror films was Onibaba (1964), directed by the aforementioned Kaneto Shindo. Like many early Japanese horror films, elements are drawn largely from traditional Kabuki and Noh theater. Masaki Kobayashi also directed a cult horror film – Kwaidan (1965), an anthology film comprising four stories, each based upon traditional ghost stories. Another controversial figure in Japanese horror cinema is Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer, 13 Assassins, Visitor Q, Gozu) whose work contains elements that overlap with arthouse cinema, though he directed several mainstream and commercial titles too.

The quiet power of observation: The films of Hirokazu Kore-eda

If we’re to pick one modern Japanese arthouse director, Hirokazu Kore-eda definitely deserves the mention. His work often explores the complexities of human relationships in a quiet, observational style, reminiscent of Ozu. He began his career in the early 1990s as a director of television documentaries and then made a transition to feature films. Kore-eda’s films frequently revolve around family dynamics and explore the bonds between parents and children. He often directs in a naturalistic style, characterized by long takes and minimal camera movement (hence the Ozu comparisons, though Kore-eda himself states Ozu isn’t his biggest influence). 

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His debut film Maborosi (1995) was chosen by the famous film critic Robert Ebert as one of the best movies of the year. After Life is Kore-eda’s second feature and it’s the film that brought international recognition to his work. Other notable parts of his oeuvre are Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), Like Father, Like Son (2013), and his most acclaimed film to date, Shoplifters (2018), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Kore-eda’s last feature is Monster (2023), based on an amazing intricate screenplay by Yuji Sakamoto, scored by the late great Ryuichi Sakamoto and including masterfully directed performances by two little boys.

Example:

Even minor details in dialogue can significantly impact how natural and relatable a movie feels to its intended audience. In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster (怪物, Kaibutsu), Saori Mugino’s comment about seeing a girl “handing out tissues to promote it” represents this. While distributing promotional tissues is a common practice in Japan, it may seem unusual to Western viewers. In Japan, these tissues are favored for their practical use, unlike flyers which are often thrown away quickly.

For Western audiences, localizing this detail to “handing out flyers” would provide a smoother and more intuitive understanding. Such subtle changes enhance the natural flow of the film and make the viewing experience more immersive. Considering cultural practices in translation and localization is key and it demonstrates how even small adjustments can significantly improve the audience’s connection to the film and its context.

Akira Kurosawa on the Essence of Cinema

Instead of a conclusion, I’ll finish my brief overview of Japanese arthouse cinema with an excerpt from Akira Kurosawa’s autobiography (“Something Like an Autobiography”, 1981, translated into English by Audie Bock):

“What is cinema? The answer to this question is no easy matter. Long ago the Japanese novelist Shiga Naoya presented an essay written by his grandchild as one of the most remarkable prose pieces of his time. He had it published in a literary magazine. It was entitled “My Dog”, and ran as follows: “My dog resembles a bear; he also resembles a badger; he also resembles a fox…” It proceeded to enumerate the dog’s special characteristics, comparing each one to yet another animal, developing into a full list of the animal kingdom. However, the essay closed with, “But since he’s a dog, he most resembles a dog.” I remember bursting out laughing when I read this essay, but it makes a serious point. Cinema resembles so many other arts. If cinema has very literary characteristics, it also has theatrical qualities, a philosophical side, attributes of painting and sculpture and musical elements. But cinema is, in the final analysis, cinema.”

Stay tuned for 1-StopAsia’s upcoming blog series on the importance of translation for the creative industry!