How top lowbrow U.S. humor translates in Japan

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Somewhere in the history of American cinema, someone (maybe John Waters?) decided that gross and profane and funny could all sit on the same park bench and start up a friendship. That was way back in the 1970s.

Today that friendship has moved on to total and committed “bromance.” Check out two summer releases, “21 & Over” (opening tomorrow) and “The Hangover III” (opening on the 28th), for the advanced course on why mankind (or just men) continue to launch full-scale genocide upon their own brain cells and wallow in regurgitated body fluids, while throwing around the “F” word like they’re in a high school locker room after football practice.

The question is: Do the Japanese effing well get the joke?

Traditionally, the Japanese have relied on film critics to tell them what was going down in American cinema — what it is they’re supposed to like and in which scenes they’re supposed to laugh. Having few reference points about American fads, culture or relationships, it was hard for the average Japanese to get what there was to get about, say, the sight of Divine vomiting in a John Waters movie.

Enter Nagaharu Yodogawa, arguably the best-loved film critic in postwar Japan, whose vast and diverse knowledge of films and filmmakers extended from Billy Wilder and Roberto Rossellini to John Carpenter and James Cameron. He even got John Waters.

Yodo-san, as he was affectionately known throughout the Japanese film industry, could as easily tell you why John Belushi was so scintillating in “The Blues Brothers” as weep over the line about life being like a box of chocolates in “Forrest Gump.” He was a living, breathing incarnation of IMDb.com long before the Internet.

Film-industry commentator Yoichi Kawabe says that when Yodo-san passed away in 1998 aged 89, it was a providential turning point in terms of the relationship between American entertainment and the Japanese.

“Times had changed; Japanese society had grown up and gotten savvy,” he tells me. “We still loved to hear Yodo-san explain things to us on TV, but there was a new generation of Japanese who came of age watching ‘Seinfeld’ on their VCRs. And they felt like they didn’t need his wisdom and insight to get what the laughs were about.”

Even so, the post-Yodogawa generation felt more secure with some kind of “CliffsNotes” equivalent, especially in the immediate years after 9/11, to help them penetrate the specifics of Western funnies.

“American humor changed, almost imperceptibly at first,” says Kawabe. “A lot of over-the-top sex jokes started coming out, maybe spurred on by the huge success of ‘Sex and the City.’ On the other hand, we saw some really disgusting examples of American humor, like ‘Jackass.’ Personally, I would have liked to hear Yodo-san’s take on that one, but perhaps it’s just as well he missed it.”

In the new millennium, Berkeley-based Tomohiro Machiyama emerged onto the scene as the new cool guy to instruct us on the finer points of American cinema. Machiyama is that rare Japanese media aficionado to up sticks and settle in the U.S., where he has collaborated with Northern California’s J-pop culture expert Patrick Macias on a book about Japanese anime and film.

Unlike Yodo-san, Machiyama employed the Internet to full advantage and built up a cult following of movie enthusiasts. Being on the ground in California gives Machiyama an edge over other Japanese film critics: Long before a movie is released here, he’s already seen it, reviewed it (in Japanese) and given us a big heads-up. Machiyama’s self-given nickname, by the way, is Wayne Machiyama — after “Wayne’s World,” which he’s cited as one of the greatest movies to come out of Hollywood.

Eight years after 9/11, the last-word (or last-stich) movie on American sludge comedy blew up the multiplex screen, and it was called “The Hangover.” Rated R and starring the too-handsome-for-his-own-good Bradley Cooper and comedian Zach Galifianakis, “The Hangover” was to the American adult male what “Sex and the City” was to the grown-up working woman: an escape hatch from the realities of the daily first-world grind.

Only in the case of “The Hangover,” that hatch led straight to a sewage system with the ropey “The Hangover Part II.” (We’ll see how “Part III” goes down here next week.)

Not that it turned people off. On the contrary: Box-office records revealed that audiences (admittedly, predominantly male) liked wading through such gunk, more so than Hollywood had given them credit for. As shock waves from the Lehman collapse reverberated through America and George W. Bush finally vacated the White House, it seemed that moviegoers took to filth in a big, big way. Who’da thunk it.

Here in Japan, “The Hangover” was at first received with a little apprehension. For one thing, the majority of males didn’t get the stag-party thing. Though the “Hangover” trilogy is widely acknowledged in the U.S. as the spanking gold standard for the “bachelor party” genre, audiences in Japan privately nursed a sense of “huh?”

“We heard rumors about ‘The Hangover,’ and then the section chief in our department said it was mandatory viewing, says Masahiro Koike of ad agency Hakuhodo Inc. “At first, I didn’t see why those guys were making such a fuss over the pre-wedding-night party. I mean, why? And then I read Machiyama-san’s review and it was like, oohhhhhhkay. So that’s what it was all about. Plus, I learned to get over the stag-party bit and enjoy the movie for what it was, which is about three guys who had way too much to drink. I could relate to that.”

Koike says that American-style humor isn’t all that different from Japanese, and the once-wide rift is about to close.

“I used to think that Japanese comedy was inferior to American, and that Americans laughed on a loftier level,” he says. “I’ve gotten rid of that preconception, thanks to movies like ‘The Hangover.’ Nothing lofty about that. And ‘Over 21,’ made by the same writing team — now that looks so stupid it hurts. Ultimately, I guess that’s a good thing. At least I’ve gotten over my inferiority complex.”

  • Gady

    We need to understand “The idiosyncrasies of each People “and their vocabulary correct and slang to understand fully the meaning of each film, translations are a disaster in films or TV, if the people who translate the films are not knowledgeable about this things will be always bad translations..

  • thedudeabidez

    Well, the big issue here that isn’t mentioned is subtitles: crude verbal humor (and you go back to Eddie Murphy to find examples of this that well pre-date “The Hangover”) is often translated poorly, which results in the jokes falling flat. Actually, the more sight-gag oriented style of The Hangover plays better in Japan because it doesn’t rely on trash-talk.