Japanese distributors of foreign films usually follow the path of least resistance in titling their products for the local market, either rendering the title in katakana or translating it more or less directly. One recently released example is the shocker “The Last Exorcism,” whose katakana-ized Japanese title “Rasuto Ekusoshizumu” (「ラスト・エクソシズム」) is faithful to the original, save for the missing “the.”
Quite often, though, distributors come up with new titles for films whose English monikers they feel would be baffling or off-putting to local fans. Take the new documentary “No Impact Man” about a family living in New York City that tries to reduce its carbon footprint to zero for a year. The Japanese title “Chikyu ni Yasashii Seikatsu” (「地球にやさしい生活」 or “A Lifestyle Gentle to the Earth”) is arguably clearer than the original, if more prosaic.
More imaginative, but still descriptive, is the Japanese title for “Fast Five” (AKA “Fast and Furious 5: Rio Heist”) the fifth installment in the “Fast and Furious” car-action series: “Wairudo Supīdo MEGA MAX” (「ワイルド・スピード MEGA Max」 or “Wild Speed MEGA MAX”) could almost be the name of a Japanese pop band, but it tells the audience, with easily understood katakana English, what to generally expect in the cinema.
And how about the currently screening Finnish horror comedy “Rare Exports : A Christmas Tale,” in which a long-buried Santa Claus is uncovered by mysteriously motivated diggers and turns out to be a child-snatching meanie, with a troop of nasty elves at his command? The Japanese title “Rea Ekusupotsu Toraware no Santa Kurosu” (「レア・エクスポーツ 囚われのサンタクロース」 or “Rare Exports: Imprisoned Santa Claus”) hints at a key plot turn: The capture of this bad Santa by a boy and his hunter father. (On the other hand, it may make Santa seem a sympathetic victim.)
Sometimes, however, nuance goes missing. The Japanese title for the romantic drama “Dear John,” “Shinai Naru Kimi e” (「親愛なるきみへ」 or “My Dear One”), has none of the original’s kiss-off implications.
Japanese titles are also often more loftily poetic, though literalists may complain that they say little or nothing about the story. One classic example is “Ai to Seishun no Tabidachi” (「愛と青春の旅立ち」 or “The Departure of Love and Youth”), the local title for the Richard Gere and Debra Winger romantic drama “An Officer and a Gentleman.” Ai (愛) and koi (恋), which both mean “love,” feature in many Japanese titles of foreign dramas, less for their relevance to the actual contents than their proven ability to pull in audiences.
Similarly, kōya (荒野, wasteland) once signaled fans that a Western was in store, as in “Koya no Yojimbo” (「荒野の用心棒」, “Wasteland Bodyguard”) the title for the 1964 Sergio Leone Western, “A Fistful of Dollars.” The use of yōjimbo (bodyguard) is a clever reference to the eponymous 1961 Akira Kurosawa film, “Yojimbo,” on which Leone’s was based.
More of a head scratcher is “Mitsu Kazoero” (「三つ数えろ」 “Count to Three”), the Japanese title for the 1946 Howard Hawks detective thriller “The Big Sleep.” The film’s plot was so notoriously convoluted that Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel on which the film was based, had no ready answer to a query from Hawks and his scriptwriter about how a minor character had died — by murder or suicide. (“Dammit,” Chandler later wrote to a friend. “I didn’t know either.”) So it’s perhaps only right that the Japanese title is a puzzler as well.
The frequent disconnects between the Japanese and English (or other foreign-language) titles creates dilemmas for non-Japanese more familiar with the latter. How do you ask for a DVD at a store or a ticket at the box office if you don’t know or can’t read the Japanese title? If the English title is simple and straightforward you can often make yourself understood by pronouncing it as if it was written in katakana, leaving out articles and prepositions. The toy-to-movie sci-fi actioner “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” becomes “Toransufoma Dakusaido Mun” (「トランスフォーマー ダークサイド・ムーン」 or “Transformer: Dark Side Moon”) in Japan, but 「トランスフォーマー ダーク・ムーン」 (“Transformer Dark Moon”) will probably do fine.
This quick-and-dirty solution doesn’t always work, unfortunately. The utterly pedestrian title “Final Destination 5” becomes “Fainaru Deddoburijji” (「ファイナル・デッドブリッジ」 or “Final Dead Bridge”) for reasons best known to distributor, Warner.
And if the original title is at all idiomatic or allusive you are most often left clueless since the Japanese title will be totally different. One work-around is to search a Japanese links site, such as www.eiga-site.info that lists the original title in Roman letters together with the Japanese title. Another is to Google the original title together with eiga (映画, film) in kanji. Trying to read the minds of Japanese distributors is not recommended, since their titling methods, as the above examples indicate, have a logic all their own.