Lost in Localization: The Challenge of Presenting Japanese Anime to Non-Japanese Speaking Audiences

While translation and localization are never easy, the subtitling of Japanese anime films can be particularly daunting. One director of popular Japanese anime films, Makoto Shinkai, admits that it is nearly impossible to perfectly localize Japanese anime due to precise words and expressions that may be lacking when translating/subtitling Japanese anime into English and other languages. Specifically, he discusses that some cultural nuances belong only to one region and that only one language has the words and expressions related to these cultural practices or nuances. Therefore, there will always be some parts of Japanese anime that are lost in translation for audiences who do not speak Japanese. 

The anime film Suzume, written by Shinkai, is intended to be a lighthearted film.  However,  it is based on some tragic events. Some Americans may form the opinion that it is not very entertaining, and Shinkai explains how this is likely due to distinct cultural differences and not a localization problem. 

Suzume is written as a fairy tale, but also has clear narrative structure. It is meant to portray love and show that tragedies can be overcome. 

Makoto states:

I think very much what I do is rooted in Japanese culture, and I think it’s important to cherish what cannot be localized because it feels like there’s something there.  And yes, I know we’re trying to expand to a more global audience and have more people engage and consume and understand and watch these films, and it might almost sound like reverse logic, but I think it’s important to be very localized in what we take as a thematic element, and that’s what’s going to help animation expand to newer audiences; that factor that cannot be localized. 

Japanese anime and its characters have become increasingly popular in the United States, especially among millennials. Some theaters in the United States are playing Japanese anime films on a monthly basis. These films are often paired with games, prizes, cosplay, and a marketplace.  As Japanese anime films and merchandise become increasingly popular throughout the United States it will produce more awareness of their culture and build better relationships between Japan and the United States. This cultural awareness, while entertaining, is important to diplomacy. 

Rachel Kraft

GLS Marketing Manager

Sources: slashfilm.com and amp.thenewstribune.com