Culture | CULTURE SMASH

The story behind anime localization

by Roland Kelts

For the past 10 years I’ve been guesting at anime conventions across the United States. Each one is unique. On the coasts they tend to be larger and older than cons in middle America, with massive crowds and decades of history, but common to all is that they’ve each become more diverse. Most today report a near 50-50 gender mix, with attendees spanning racial and ethnic spectra.

What’s frustrating, though, is that I hardly ever get to talk with anyone. (I talk to them, of course. That’s my job. But sustained conversations are rare.)

Once the crowds show up, cons are dizzying affairs. Your liaison escorts you to the venue, navigating through clumps of cosplayers. The fans pour in, get their book signed, mutter their thanks and maybe share an anecdote about their favorite show, a trip to Tokyo, or a story you wrote that they read. It’s nice, but brief.

Unfortunately, the same goes with other guests, many of whom are professionals I’m eager to meet. A quick hello in the green room, an exchange of pleasantries at the breakfast buffet. Hello, good to see/meet you, goodbye.

I’ve come to appreciate being asked to moderate panels on top of hosting my own presentations. I’ve moderated silly ones (AKB48 in New York stands out), others with rising stars who have now risen (Makoto Shinkai) and some with industry staff who really know their stuff: the sausage-makers working the factory floor.

At Anime Los Angeles last month in Ontario, California, I was lucky enough to be hosting a panel with writing, dubbing and adaptation/localization experts Les and Mary Claypool and Mitch Iverson. The panel was called “The Art of Writing in Anime, Manga & Comics,” which was a misnomer, since I don’t think any of us write original anime, manga or comics.

I decided to focus on stories, mainly, the elements that distinguish Japanese from Western narratives, and the challenges in defining and localizing the former for audiences outside of Japan.

Anyone who’s seen Pikachu, Sailor Moon and Hello Kitty is familiar and comfortable with some of the broader characteristics of Japan’s iconic visuals. The stark, distinctive lines, long legs, large eyes and kawaii cute minimalism. As late American comic legend Stan Lee once observed, “The proportions, the head in relation to the body might be a little different proportion, the way they move, and you can usually tell something that’s a Japanese cartoon from an American one.”

But the stories are another story.

For the Western fan, Japanese stories tend toward the elliptical and unresolved. This is as true of Haruki Murakami novels as it is of the 11th-century “The Tale of Genji” and most contemporary anime and manga.

If, to a non-Japanese, the stories seem to lack conventional structure, they compensate with protean pathways. They may be more like our hyperlinked, video-game experience of today than the West’s Aristotelian, three-act models.

It’s also why Japanese essays can feel like endless digressions to Western scholars, and why Western essays may feel like constricted cookie-cutter exercises to many Japanese readers.

“The structure of Japanese storytelling does not adhere to a strict three acts,” says Mary Claypool, who wrote the 1995 English-language script for “Ghost in the Shell,” an anime classic. “At times, the story meanders and takes the viewer on a seemingly unrelated path. It all connects in the end, yet some elements are never explained.

“Characterizations are richer, deeper, darker,” she adds. “Plots are often complex and convoluted, serving primarily as vessels to display incredible visuals.”

“Ghost in the Shell” is a perfect petri dish for examining the differences in storytelling between Japan and the West — and Hollywood’s failure to accommodate them. The English-language adaptation Mary wrote for the original anime feature was as much personal as it was transactional.

“When I write a project, I immerse myself in the story and characters. A little bit of me goes into everything,” she says. “I was sent to Japan to meet with (the filmmaker) Mamoru Oshii for one week to discuss every aspect of his film, in order to ensure that I understood it thoroughly and would maintain the story’s integrity. (But I) immediately realized that the literal translation was going to be a problem.”

Translation is not adaptation, let alone localization — different processes that involve multiple transactions between the original artist, the local distributor, the localizer/adapter and the audience. For Mary’s husband, Les, who oversaw the entire dubbing process for signature titles such as “Akira,” “Ghost in the Shell,” and “Cowboy Bebop,” the challenge is twofold: Americanize without bowdlerizing.

“My personal opinion is that you need to ‘Americanize’ it enough to draw in a portion of the larger audience to make the projects financially feasible, yet stay true to the Japanese essence so that you do not alienate your hardcore fan base,” he says.

“My personal contribution to the numerous titles from an audio and mix standpoint was not to treat them as cartoons, but rather as mini-feature films with enhanced sound FX and perspective cutting all of the dialog to give them more interest, and to draw the viewer into the television and story, as opposed to it all just flatly sitting there on the screen.”

Next week will see the release of Hollywood’s latest anime adaptation, “Alita: Battle Angel,” from Yukito Kishiro’s manga, “Gunnm.” Not surprisingly, many anime fans, burned by clunker live-action adaptations of “Dragon Ball Z,” “Death Note” and “Ghost in the Shell” are pessimistic.

But Mitch Iverson, the young writer who adapted “Voltron: Legendary Defender” for Netflix, believes that sharing stories across cultures is atavistic and intrinsically valuable.

“I think whenever two cultures honor each other by sharing media and retelling each other’s stories, it gives them a new kind of power,” he says. “But that means that when retelling a story, I need to honor how it made me feel. Just retelling it as it once was is unnecessary. So I focus deeply on why it resonated with me.”

Iverson recites a line he heard from Portuguese-American director Joaquim Dos Santos, a showrunner for Netflix’s “Voltron” reboot: “What we remember is more important than what we saw.”

Which reminds me of a brilliant Japanese student of mine at the University of Tokyo. I was trying to teach her to write essays in the English-language model: thesis, body paragraphs, support evidence, conclusion.

She tried. She failed. And she finally said: “Professor, I think I get it. But that’s not how I think.”

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and is a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.

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