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Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli

– tekijä: Steve Alpert

JäseniäKirja-arvostelujaSuosituimmuussijaKeskimääräinen arvioKeskustelut
191915,363 (4)-
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This is not an autobiography. Steve Alpert has produced a collection of anecdotes both of his time at Studio Ghibli—ostensibly one of the most successful animation-film studios—and of his gaijin life in Japan.

The first third of the book is being transported into Japan with all of its quirks and weirdness, at least, for myself.

Many years ago when I was still a student in Japan, I was out drinking with a Japanese friend in a backstreet section of Osaka’s Dotonbori entertainment district. It was late, maybe 2 am, and we were stumbling around looking for a taxi, having had a lot to drink in the bars and clubs called “snacks” that my friend often frequented. We came to a very narrow street, so narrow you could have stretched out a leg and reached the other side in a single step. The street had a pedestrian traffic light. The light was red. The streets were completely and totally deserted except for the two of us. Having lived for years in New York I instinctively moved to cross. My friend reached out his arm and prevented me.

“Red light,” he said.

“Oh come on,” I said. “It’s completely deserted. No cars are coming. No one else is around. Why would we let a dumb, inanimate machine tell us if it’s safe to cross?

“Arupaato-san, of course I know it is safe to cross. But I have the inner strength to stand here and wait for the green signal. That is the problem with you gaijin. You are weak. You lack the discipline to stand here and wait for the green light.

It was an argument that was hard to refute, from the Japanese perspective anyway. We gaijin don’t work on Saturdays. We might do overtime once in a while, but not as a regular thing, and we expect to get paid extra for it. We don’t share desks at work and expect to have a whole desk all to ourselves. We complain if the offices we work in are more crowded than the legal limits imposed by the municipal fire department. We don’t think smoking should be allowed in the office. We don’t think women with the same job description as men should automatically be required to make tea (coffee), wear uniforms when men doing the same job don’t, or neaten up everyone’s desk at the end of the day. We sometimes allow the people who work for us to tell us that we’re wrong and we even get angry when they fail to advise us that the truck they see roaring down the road, which we haven’t noticed, is about to flatten us.

Not only don’t gaijin do the many basic things that every Japanese company worker understands, is expected to do, and expects others to do, but we’re not even aware of most of them.

Another feature of Japanese meetings that has always puzzled me is that once a person begins to talk, no matter what he/ she has to say, the floor is his/hers for as long as he/she thinks he/she needs to say it. Even when the person is saying something completely and wildly off topic, overlong, or embarrassingly inaccurate, no one ever intercedes, politely or otherwise, to end or limit the speech. The person just keeps going on until he/she is done.

The author is far left; Hayao Miyazaki is in glasses.
Alpert helps out with bringing Ghibli to the masses, which is no small feat, especially where the English-speaking markets are involved. As such, Disney enters, and Ghibli tries to work with them.

The film [Princess Mononoke] did prove too edgy for the Walt Disney Company to release it under its own name. Which is why Princess Mononoke was eventually released by Disney’s new subsidiary, Miramax.

Alpert creates an interesting image when discussing the voice-overs for the English-language version of Princess Mononoke, the film that brought Ghibli into the western-mainstream eye.

After putting up some numbers, which always sounded more impressive expressed in dollars or euros because most people couldn’t do the math in their heads, I would launch into the report on the casting of the US version of Princess Mononoke.

The cast list changed weekly and Harvey Weinstein rarely distinguished between wished for and confirmed. Leonardo DiCaprio agreed to play Ashitaka. Robin Williams is going to perform Jigo Bo. Juliet Binoche will be Lady Eboshi. Cameron Diaz will be San. Meryl Streep is going to do Moro.

The audience was impressed and didn’t even seem to notice or mind that actors who had committed one month before would then be out in the next. I was on the verge of discovering one of Tokumashacho’s own secrets: for some audiences, if you’re entertaining enough, it doesn’t really matter that what you are saying isn’t factually accurate or strictly true. A whiff of truthiness will suffice.

I’ll wager that Alpert didn’t foresee how much work he was in for, perhaps especially in trying to keep tabs on how translations and sounds were handled by Disney.

Many of the words you choose are wrong, like in the film Sophie’s Choice when Meryl Streep’s character misidentifies a seersucker suit as a cocksucker suit or like President Clinton’s Polish translator getting the wrong word for “delighted.”

When I was asked to start translating Ghibli’s films into English, I wanted to do better than that, and I was immodest enough to think that I could. As Groucho Marx once said, you should never criticize a person’s work until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. If he gets mad, you’ll be far away and you’ll have his shoes.

The image I now have of Hayao Miyazaki, the top head of Ghibli, is that he is an artist whose will decides how everybody else works; that is, if he isn’t persuaded to do something differently.

There will be things that just can’t be translated. The Japanese film is called Mononoke Hime. The English title is Princess Mononoke. The translator (me) has left the two-word title 50% untranslated. When I first heard the title of the film the word mononoke was completely new to me. This is exactly the kind of word that Hayao Miyazaki likes to use in his titles. It is a word that most Japanese rarely hear or see in print or can even reliably recall the meaning of unless they stop and think really hard about it. It is a word that no two people will define or explain in the same way.

The dictionary is no help. It provides things like specter, wraith, or supernatural being, but everyone I ask says this isn’t it exactly. Any attempt to further explain it takes paragraphs. Japanese is full of words like this. So I decided to just leave it. I assumed that by the time the film came out in English, someone cleverer than me would have come up with a good word (or words) for it.

In the nearly twenty-plus years since the film came out, no one has come up with anything.

Rule 4—Don’t take anything for granted. In the film Spirited Away is a scene where it’s reported that the character Haku has stolen the character Zeniba’s seal. The Disney writers working on the English-language screenplay of the film contacted us urgently because they were puzzled by this.

In Japan, a seal (an emblem used as a means of authentication) is a very important thing. Americans routinely affix their signatures to checks, credit card slips, and legal documents, but in Japan everyone uses a seal for this purpose. For legal documents and such, a Japanese person takes out his/her seal, presses it into a pad of red ink, and then stamps it onto the relevant document.

The Disney writers wanted to know why, if Haku had stolen Zeniba’s seal (semi-aquatic marine mammal), the seal never appeared in any subsequent scene in the film.

When it comes to foreign cultures, you just never know what other people know and what they don’t.

Rule 5—Review everything. When we got back the first screenplay for Castle in the Sky from Disney to review, we checked the dialogue over and over again, but we didn’t think to check the characters’ names. It was only later when we began to get samples of recorded dialogue that we noticed that some of the characters had odd names.

Wishing to impart to his film a slightly international flavor, Hayao Miyazaki had given two of the characters French names, Charles and Henri. These names pronounced and written in Japanese come out as Sharuru and Anri.

Disney’s translator, who was a third-generation Japanese-American and had never lived in Japan, and who also didn’t believe in asking questions, had decided that the names were probably Chinese. So despite Disney’s frequent complaint that the names in Ghibli’s films were too exotic and hard to pronounce for an American audience, Disney ended up with characters in its version of Castle in the Sky named An-Li and Shalulu when they could have had Henry and Charles.

Hayao Miyazaki’s way of making a film was particularly stressful, and that was exactly how he thought it should be. He would often say that a person only does his best work when faced with the real possibility of failure and its real consequences.

Several times after the completion of one of his films, Miyazaki would suggest that the studio be shut down and all the staff be fired. He thought this would give the animators a sense of the consequences of failure and make them better artists if and when they were rehired for the next film. No one was ever sure if he was just kidding.

It’s quite funny to see how Miyazaki didn’t care that much about how he was perceived in the public eye; I mean, he seems to be a person who lets his work speak for himself. That’s why pieces of this book are funny:

Most of the reporters in these interviews would ask exactly the same questions and expect to get individualized responses. In this respect Hayao Miyazaki is a reporter’s dream, since he almost never gave the same answer when asked exactly the same question.

For example:

Reporter: The main character of this film is a young woman. Do all your films have women or girls as the heroines?

Miyazaki 10:00: Yes.

Miyazaki 10:30: No.

Miyazaki 11:00: Half of my films have heroes and half of them have heroines. The split between males and females in the human race is about 50/50 so I think this percentage is about right.

Miyazaki 11:30: When I conceive a film I don’t really pay so much attention to whether the main character is male or female.

Miyazaki 12:00: I wanted to make a film for ten-year-old girls, so of course the main character had to be female.

Miyazaki 12:30: Women generally make better main characters so I always try to have the main character be female.

This paragraph made me retch, regarding Harvey Weinstein:

This was well before Harvey’s “Me Too” troubles, and at the time there was no hint at all that the things he’s been accused of were taking place. But there was a certain unique feel to paying a visit to Harvey Weinstein at the Peninsula Hotel in LA.

‘Troubles’. Yikes. The use of that word makes me wonder if Alpert would use it for similar types of people, like ‘The serial killer was jailed because of his troubles.’ I have a hard time with people who don’t directly point out problems as committed by the perpetrators rather than just existing in their sphere, like some kind of sprayed mist that’s appeared from somewhere.

There are a lot of details on minutiae that surrounded the process of not only translating Princess Mononoke but even stuff like ‘Flying abroad with the same 250 pounds of metal canisters was also challenging. Japan Airlines, a one-time coproducer of a Ghibli film, helped out by letting us hand-carry the prints.’

After a third of the book, I felt it becoming a bit tiresome and repetitive; thankfully, this stopped circa halfway into the book, where more details about the process of making Princess Mononoke into English were concerned; there are oodles of details on this, so if you’re not into the film business, Disney, Pixar, language, differences between Japanese and English, etc. you’ll likely quickly become bored.

There are a lot of instances where Alpert had to deal with Disney/Miramax where they try to get away with things:

As we watched the film in short sequences, first a minute or so of Laputa original Japanese and then the same minute or so of Castle in the Sky English, the changes that had been made were obvious to even the most casual observer, even from the very first seconds of the film.

The English version began with dialogue that was not on the original soundtrack. There were numerous added sound effects and more added dialogue. There was added music and added musical flourishes like drum rolls and gongs. MOJ and the lawyers watched the screen visibly aghast.

After sampling only several more sequences they put a stop to the demonstration. “I don’t know what to say,” MOJ said. “We have clearly made changes to the film. We’re going to have to make this right. We will make this right.” Then he turned to X and gave her the kind of verbal lashing that makes grown men cry.

I love this bit of info on Disney:

Me: So, if you don’t mind my asking, why would anyone care if there were ghost images when you went frameby-frame if you can watch the film normally and not see them? And since these films will only be out on VHS where the ghost images can’t be seen at all, why is it necessary to correct the anomalies?

Q: Because it’s Disney’s policy to correct them for all films. This all started back when the laser disk technology first became available to the public. Certain videophiles were examining films frame-by-frame and they discovered something that had long been a Disney secret. The animators for Walt Disney films, going all the way back to the earliest ones, had … well, a kind of raunchy sense of humor. I suppose drawing the same images over and over maybe can get a little tedious or something, I don’t know, but they started amusing themselves by drawing things in a single frame that they knew no one would ever be able to see.

b: Drawing things? Like what?

Q: Oh, well for example we found a frame where Mickey has his hand up Minnie’s skirt. One film had swastikas all over the place. You probably heard about the column in the undersea palace of The Little Mermaid that was actually a penis. That sort of thing. And well, technically savvy consumers were discovering these things and writing in about it.

b: Consumers who owned laser disk machines and watched the films frame-by-frame?

Q: Well yes, but some ordinary person with a laser disk might happen to stop or pause the machine for any reason at just the wrong spot. There were an awful lot of these things in the early films. I can tell you it took us a lot of time, expense, and effort to go in and delete them all. I think Disney senior management just felt they didn’t want to take any chances and made it a policy to find and eliminate them.

The details about Harvey Weinstein and his narcissistic aggressiveness are rife with everybody who’s ever been involved with him, also here:

Someone from Miramax caught up with me and told me that Harvey wanted to see me. I joined him and several Miramax executives at a table in the center of the restaurant. Miyazaki and Suzuki were enjoying a chat with Claire Danes at the next ( )
  pivic | Jun 1, 2020 |
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