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I want my DVD: The word is out on the small screen

by Donald Richie

Now that our shelves contain a lot more than books — CD-ROMs, VHS tapes, DVDs — it is worth reconsidering a question that occasionally interests the resident foreigner: How do you find Japanese films with English subtitles?

Heretofore, you didn’t. Few titled film copies existed locally, so you had to order them on video from England or the United States. Now, with DVD, all of this has changed. These days, Japanese-produced English-titled Japanese films (all in DVD versions) are available at your local Japanese video/record store.

Not all Japanese films, however, are titled — even those the interested foreign viewer would especially want. Though the complete films of Kon Ichikawa and Yasuzo Masumura are available on DVD, not one of them has English titles. It is the recent product that turns up with titles; that, and the topical and trendy. Some of Takeshi Kitano (“Hanabi,” “Kikujiro”), for example, and lots of Shunji Iwai (“Undo,” “Love Letter”) and Shinji Aoyama (“Helpless” and, coming up, “Eureka”).

None of the older films now in DVD versions has English titles, though a lot of Kenji Mizoguchi, Heinosuke Gosho and Mikio Naruse have appeared. There are some Akira Kurosawa DVDs, but none of these has English titles. As yet there are no Yasujiro Ozu DVDs at all, but Shochiku plans to remedy this when his centennial occurs next year.

A reason given for not including titles is that the rights to Ozu and Kurosawa have already been sold overseas, and these foreign purchasers now have sole English-language claims. This seems unlikely. Kitano, for example, has sold in local language-titled VHS and DVD versions all over the world, and yet in Japan Bandai-Visual puts out “Hanabi” with English titles.

In fact, none of the DVD makers in Japan is particularly interested in the market for English-titled versions, and this is indicated in the fact that there is no listing anywhere of such Japan-made DVDs. (The listing on the Internet is partial, inaccurate and vague.) Even the companies themselves do not know which of their products are titled, and the existing DVD catalogs often do not list as titles those which are. This lack of interest is understandable. Why would a company be interested in what must constitute about 1 percent of its market?

Another answer to this strange selectivity, however, concerns the perception of English-title use. English is considered “cool” or “with it” and is often used to add cutting-edge appeal whether the customer can actually understand or really wants anything English at all. Thus films that are “hot” (Aoyama, Iwai, Kitano) often incorporate English titles. In addition, these films are all festival-goers and hence titled prints are already there, ready for use.

Nonetheless, films of more lasting interest are also available in English-titled DVD versions. Shochiku has released a titled version of Nagisa Oshima’s latest film, “Gohatto,” on DVD. Jun Ichikawa’s charming and cryptic “Tokyo Marigold” is available. So are two by Kazuhiko Hasegawa, “Seishun no Satsujinsha” and “Taiyo o Nusunda Otoko.”

Mamoru Oshii’s strange and splendid “Avalon” is on the shelves, as are two delightful 1983 films by Naoto Yamakawa, “An Attack on the Bakery” and “A Girl, She Is 100 Percent.” Asmik Ace has English-titled DVD versions of a number of films, including Satoshi Isaka’s near-masterpiece, “Focus”; Kaneto Shindo’s “Sanmon Yakusha” (Third-rate Actor), “Onibaba” and “Genbaku no Ko,” among six or seven others by the director; the Kurosawa-scripted “Ame Agaru” (After the Rains); and Yoshimitsu Morita’s megahit, “Shitsurakuen” (Paradise Lost).

At present the company is readying a whole box of the films of Hiroshi (“Woman in the Dunes”) Teshigahara, though none will be English titled since the prints that will be used to make the DVDs do not contain them. Well, why not just find some that do, then? These films have all been titled before. Or (since those prints are now sold in the United States) why not make new titles? Well, yes, but who would pay for this large expense? The cost would certainly cut into the dividends from the local market.

At present, DVD English titles are thought of as a product perk, but their potential is much greater than this. Perhaps someday they will be seen as a selling point. In the meantime you must look at each and every DVD to discover if it has titles or not. The information is listed on the back: look for under .