Interview with Don Brown

I have been reading Don Brown’s column at the Asahi Shimbun for as long as I can remember. His articles on Japanese cinema are not only insightful but filled with unique and amazing information you cannot find elsewhere. While he provides English translations to a lot of Japanese films, his insights into the production process itself, the filmmakers and actors offer more than a glimpse into the Japanese movie scene.

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Don Brown interpreting for Hara Keiichi at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in 2015, for the film Miss Hokusai. Photo courtesy of Mr. Brown

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A lot has transpired in the past few years  – the domination of manga/anime into live action adaptations, the influence of the powerful production committees on what sort of movies will be released and the casting (in cooperation with the equally influential talent management agencies, which are also part of such committees).

In this interview, PsychoDrama asks Mr. Brown on the process of providing quality English subtitles and his opinions and views about the ins and outs of the Japanese entertainment scene…

When you started making English subtitles? Can you still remember the first Japanese movie you were tasked to do the subs? How was the experience like?

The first film I worked on was probably Toyoda Toshiaki’s documentary “Unchain,” but that was really just helping out a friend who did the actual translation. I think the first movie I actually handled myself was Furumaya Tomoyuki’s “Goodbye, Midori.” I could translate to a decent standard, but didn’t have any idea of the rules of subtitling (character limits etc.), so I think I’d die of shame if I saw my work from back then now.

It wasn’t until I went freelance and started doing it full time in 2010 that I really began to learn the ropes properly. I never had a “mentor” in the proper sense, so I had to pick up what I could from reading other subtitled films, and little bits of advice I was given from people in the know.

How long have you been staying in Japan? New Zealand may not be too far away, but how different is the culture in Tokyo? Did you find it difficult (or easy) to adapt to your new home?

I’ve been living in Japan since 1999, when I was sent to Osaka as a Coordinator for International Relations on the JET Programme, and I was amazed by how quickly I felt at home here. New Zealand’s actually quite a long way away, but I didn’t visit home for the first two-and-a-half years because I was having such a good time.

That’s partly because of how well JET and my local government office took care of me, especially tricky things like tax, health insurance, and pension payments.

Once my three years were up and I had to fend for myself, things got really tough really fast. I relocated to Tokyo and had a horrible time there for about six months, then got the hell out and moved to Narita in Chiba, out by the airport.

I love the ride on the Keisei Line from Nippori to Narita – the compressed urban sprawl gradually fades away, until there are just acres of stress-melting spacious green fields.

I’m not a big city type, so I prefer Tokyo in small doses. Kanagawa, where I am, is a much more chill place to live. Even its largest city, Yokohama, doesn’t have the oppressive feel to it that Tokyo does.

Among the many Japanese movies you have seen and prepared the subs, which are your personal favorites? Would it be possible to give us your top 5? Why do you like them a lot?

Man, that’s a tough question. I tend to develop a fondness for every film I subtitle, even ones I wouldn’t buy a ticket for in a million years, because I have to watch them so many times and so closely to translate them. I also have a seriously crappy memory.

I don’t have “favorites” so much, but there are some that are memorable for other reasons.

Hirayama Hideyuki’s “Lady Joker” was the first film I saw on the big screen with my subtitles, at the Tokyo International Film Festival. I was so excited to see my credit come up at the end that I tried to take a photo, but a cinema staff member zoomed over to me like the Flash and told me off.

Sato Sakichi’s “Zero Man vs. The Half Virgin” was the first movie I subtitled that I had a part in. I’d interpreted for Sato at the Tokyo Projection Gathering, and we got on really well. I have no ambition to become an actor, but what was I going to do, turn down an offer from the man who wrote Miike’s “Gozu” and directed “Tokyo Zombie”? Come on.

Getting the chance to subtitle classics is always an unbelievable honor, like Somai Shinji’s “Sailor Suit and Machine Gun,” Mizoguchi Kenji’s “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum,” and Ozu Yasujiro’s “Late Spring.” As a movie fan first and foremost, nothing makes me happier as a translator.

Doing Sono Sion’s “Tokyo Tribe” was probably the most fun I’ve had subtitling a movie. It was damn hard, but all those rap lyrics gave me a chance to be way more creative than usual, and all those years of listening to hip hop proved to be useful for a change.

Above all though, working on Yamada Yoji’s “The Little House” was the most profoundly satisfying experience I’ve had, because it represented a completion of my journey from film lover in New Zealand to film subtitler in Japan. Seeing “Tora-san” movies in Auckland, then meeting Yamada while I was working at the New Zealand Embassy, then subtitling one of his films, and chatting with him on a couple of occasions… Totally surreal, in a massively gratifying way.

Our viewers are mostly from the US, Southeast Asia, and even as far as Mexico, Brazil and of course Europe so getting to know such insights into the filmmaking process and the creative people can be quite thrilling. Would you care to expand a bit on your encounters with Yoji Yamada? I’ve read how some foreign reviewers/bloggers hint on him being groomed as the successor to Ozu though the way it was written seems like people are “pushing” him at the forefront. How was he? What do you think of the comparison between the two filmmakers (Ozu & Yamada)?

Considering his age and our vastly varying statuses in the film industry, Mr. Yamada has treated me with far more kindness and respect than he ever had to. I’ve done a couple of discussion sessions with him about adjusting my subtitle translations of his films, and although he’s not fluent in English, he has a keen awareness of appropriate wording and conciseness. While sipping on tea and munching on snacks together, he was also happy to chat about current events, especially the incumbent government, as well as stories about making his films. You can imagine how much fun that was.   

Comparisons between him and Ozu aren’t really fair, and would probably infuriate a few people anyway, especially as Ozu is worshipped by cinephiles, while Yamada is often vilified. Yamada’s work has always been aimed at a much broader audience anyway – he’s more of a crowd pleaser than an aesthete – so I think any comparison is quite unfair.  

I don’t know enough about film history to comment on whether he was actually “groomed” or not, but he is definitely revered as the main man at Shochiku today, having propped up the studio financially for decades with the success of his films. He’s got his own office out the back of one of their cinemas in Ginza too.

I understand the problems some people have with his films, in particular his recent work, but all I can say is, don’t let that deter you from digging into his vast filmography. Unfortunately, a lot of his best films aren’t available overseas, as with a lot of brilliant filmmakers who aren’t Ozu or Kurosawa.

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Don Brown interpreting for Hiroki Ryuichi at a screening of “Kabukicho Love Hotel” at Tokyo Filmex 2014. Photo courtesy of Mr. Brown.

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Speaking of Tokyo Tribe, our community is fascinated with Shota Sometani and he rapped at Sono’s film – which is quite a pleasant surprise – have you heard of any new projects for the young actor? What do you think of him?

I interpreted for him once, at a screening of “Kabukicho Love Hotel” at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. He’s obviously talented, but I think he’s been through a slightly unfortunate phase that a lot of actors go through when they become popular, in which they’re cast in a huge number of films and television series over a relatively short period. Suda Masaki’s going through the same thing now.

The problem is, in their rush to maximize their income, talent agencies and producers shoehorn these hot properties into roles that they might not be entirely suited for. Sometani’s good, but his range isn’t too broad yet. He’s perfect for playing certain types of people, such as his character in “Wood Job,” and is still finding his groove. Suda is already more versatile in that aspect.

Sometani has a supporting role in the new Yamazaki Takashi movie “Kaizoku to Yobareta Otoko,” which I just finished subtitling. It’s another patriotic historical epic in the style of “The Eternal Zero.” Sometani’s character is quite comical but ultimately poignant too, so his fans should get a kick out of it, even if his screen time is limited.

The continued dominance of the Production committees has been the subject of many discussions. Even Adam Torel of Third Window Films considers the committees as one of the major reasons for the decline in the quality of Japanese films, do you agree?

They’re part of the problem, but they’re not at the heart of it. If that were the case, indie movies that aren’t made by production committees should be superior in some ways, but they’re often rubbish too.

I think the real problems in commercial cinema are Japanese showbiz as a whole, specifically the idol industry and the whole culture of amateurish performance, overbearing management, and myopic fandom that surrounds it. There’s also the adherence to an overly theatrical and simplistic style of drama that many viewers are accustomed to and demand, which is standard in television drama, and now in film too because the line between them has become so blurred.

Then you’ve got the impoverished indie sector, which also churns out too many of the same kinds of films for a niche audience with its own expectations. There are just as many dreary cliches in this sector than in the commercial one. Money, or rather the lack of it, is part of the problem, but the root cause here is also the standard of writing, acting, and directing that is generally deemed acceptable, both by filmmakers and audiences. 

I can’t agree more on your observation! I think the quality and how they accepted it as the ‘standard’ is the real culprit as you confirmed to us. A promising actor, Yuki Furukawa, who seems to be quite popular outside Japan (based on reports of his drama in mainland China, Hongkong, and Taiwan) told in an interview that Japanese audience doesn’t really care about seeing great acting on television but rather see their idols play most of the major parts. What’s your take on having idols do the acting? Are there anyone who can really act?

It wouldn’t be fair to see that the whole Japanese audience is like that, but idol fans anywhere tend to be insanely loyal and spend a lot of money.

Just look at how a lot of South Korean films are marketed here in Japan. If there’s a male K-pop idol in the cast, they’re inevitably used as the biggest selling point. For example, all the press release headlines for Shim Sung-bo’s “Haemoo” led with the fact Park Yoo-chun from JYJ was in it. I bought the Japanese special edition Blu-ray, and the cover is just basically a big headshot of him.

My main problem with idols being cast in films is that they are generally given roles based on their talent agency’s directives and marketability to their fanbases, rather than their talent, suitability for a part, or even their actual desire to act in a movie. Of course, there are exceptions, but if they were truly serious about becoming actors, they wouldn’t have become idols in the first place.

Mind you, there’s a very thin line in Japanese entertainment between idols and actors anyway, at least in terms of attractive young-ish actors who appear in numerous commercials and television series. I can think of plenty of examples of well-known figures who keep getting cast in high-profile roles despite being embarrassingly bad, simply because they’re good-looking, have lucrative commercial deals, and most importantly, belong to powerful agencies.

On a related question, there were news that some independent filmmakers resorted to partnerships with Foreign investors (like France and the UK) to produce their films since Production committees are not interested in financing movies that are not within the list of favored genres (rom-coms, horror-thrillers). Is it all about the money, do these production committees even consider the artistic side of movie making?

If you look at the current state of Japanese commercial cinema in general and focus on the worst examples, you would have to say no. Then again, you have revered filmmakers like Kore-eda Hirokazu and Kurosawa Kiyoshi, whose recent works have all been beneficiaries of the production committee system, so you can’t just say “production committees are bad, mmmkay?” They’re an easy target, and they’re often mentioned with the presumption that Japan is the only country where films are produced in this way (it’s not). That’s just overlooking the fact there are more fundamental problems dragging Japanese cinema down.

Foreign investment won’t make a difference either – just look at Netflix. They’ve simply teamed up with local television networks and entertainment conglomerates to produce content that’s indistinguishable from what’s already available on free-to-air TV. I hope to be proved wrong with their series “Spark” though, which has the involvement of proper filmmakers including Hiroki Ryuchi and Okita Shuichi.

Who among the Japanese filmmakers working today do you admire the most? Why would you consider them to be at the forefront of the industry? What makes them exciting, innovative filmmakers?

These are just a few names that spring to mind:

Shiraishi Koji has been doing amazingly playful and imaginative things in the horror genre on shoestring budgets for a few years now, especially his “Kowasugi!” series, but they’re so low budget that they haven’t made it overseas yet. Instead of tailoring his material to meet his financial limitations, he just says “to hell with it” and puts his ideas up on the screen anyway, which impress with their ambition even if the production values aren’t great. With any luck, his “Sadako vs. Kayako” will continue in that vein.

Hashiguchi Ryosuke proved how much he’s been missed with “Three Stories of Love.” No one makes more dramatically superb and socially conscious features. That latter aspect is sorely missing from much of Japan’s modern cinematic output, which I think is one very important reason why it has been lagging behind South Korea. That ability to mix quality entertainment with contemporary social relevance used to be more prevalent here, but Hashiguchi is one of only a few filmmakers still capable of pulling it off.

Oh Mipo is another director whose work feels firmly connected to modern-day Japan, at least with her last two features, especially “Being Good.” As with “The Light Shines Only There,” it was simply superb in every category, but it was more accessible, at least in terms of subject matter. She should be given the backing to keep making movies like that, which will hopefully lead to her becoming Japan’s next big internationally-renowned filmmaker…

But then again, the big festivals seem to prefer to give preferential treatment to the same few directors, regardless of whether there are better films out there from Japan, so I’m not going to hold my breath.

Cannes seems to favor Koreeda, Miike, Awase and Kurosawa so much that the film festival organizers appear to have no interest in budding new talents. Is there any ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for aspiring Japanese directors? If the Japanese entertainment influencers will do nothing to promote them, how can they get their films shown to the international audience? I’ve seen Mipo O’s movies and your insight just leave me very frustrated. I hope you could expound on this issue…

Fukada Koji just gatecrashed the Japanese directors’ party at Cannes this year, with his “Harmonium” making the Un Certain Regard section and winning the jury prize. Did the fact his film is being represented internationally by French sales agency MK2 have anything to do with it? Or that he’s a big fan of French cinema? I imagine so, but he’s also been working toward such an achievement for years on the independent scene, so I wouldn’t say it’s undeserved. I haven’t seen the film yet, although I hope to soon.

I’ve heard some people in the indie filmmaking scene say that Fukada’s feat could open the floodgates for more Japanese directors on the international scene, but others are taking a more sober view.

There’s a general lack of films in the indie scene and especially the mainstream that deal with pressing contemporary social issues, and viewers overseas are bound to be interested in Japanese directors’ personal takes on the current state of their country, so I’m sure that more outwardly focused, well-written and acted movies with high production values would be received well. They’re just very difficult to fund and sell in the current climate. 

Hashiguchi Ryosuke’s film are on every film critics’ list as the best Japanese movie of 2015, and Kinema Junpo regard it as numero uno too. We are not too familiar with him, would you tell us more about Hashiguchi’s style and approach to filmmaking?

Hashiguchi hasn’t made many films since he burst onto the scene via the Pia Film Festival back in the mid-1980s, which is largely attributable to struggles with depression and financial difficulties. I saw his second full-length feature “Like Grains of Sand” when I was a university student back in New Zealand in 1995, yet he’s only made three more subsequently.

His films deal with serious issues close to his heart, such as the treatment of homosexuality in Japan, mental illness, and the twisted nature of Japanese society, but they never feel heavy-handed because he injects just the right amount of comedy into them, lightening the drama without lessening its impact. “All Around Us” was about a court artist who witnesses several shocking cases based on actual events and his wife who suffers a nervous breakdown after miscarrying, and yet it was probably his funniest film to date.

Although his scripts are carefully structured and feature painstakingly refined dialogue, his style of direction is very actor-focused and brings out the naturalistic best of his performers, whether they be seasoned pros or virtual amateurs, as was the case with “Three Stories of Love.” In that sense, he has a lot in common with Kore-eda.

We are always on the lookout for new talents – the kind of actors that inspire, provoke, entertain and charm. Can you tell us some of the actors and actresses you would consider to be potential great talents?

One of my personal theories that I like to bore people with is that Japanese actors typically give performance of wildly varying quality from film to film, depending on who’s directing. There are few that maintain a high standard of performance in every film they’re in, like Ando Sakura and Yamada Takayuki, but many “stars” who are just awful in everything until they meet a director who knows how to do their job properly. Fujiwara Tatsuya in Yukisada Isao’s “Parade” and Ayase Haruka in Kore-eda’s “Our Little Sister” are perfect examples of that.

Plus, actors don’t tend to get proper breaks unless they’re signed to a powerful agency, and/or they become popular on an NHK morning drama serial or something like that. Suzuki Ryohei didn’t become a household name until he appeared in one, but he should’ve become a big action star after “Hentai Kamen” and “Tokyo Tribe.”

That being said, I think Murakami Nijiro has fantastic potential, and hasn’t yet developed any of the familiar tics of Japanese acting. Okayama Amane has been doing great work with supporting parts in films like “Gassoh” and “Litch Hikari Club.” Kubota Masataka made a big impression when he took the lead role in Miike Takashi’s “Keitai Sosakan 7,” and has since popped up in impressive supporting roles in quality movies like “The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky,” but lately he’s been appearing in too many films and TV series, a lot of which aren’t very good. He needs a better agent.

Sugisaki Hana was fantastic in “Pieta in the Toilet,” and really propped that movie up. Fujino Ryoko made an impressive debut in the “Solomon’s Perjury” films, and followed them with a small but equally memorable turn in Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s “Creepy.” Kadowaki Mugi has two memorable lead performances under her belt now with “Love’s Whirlpool” and “A Double Life,” so I have big expectations for her future career.

Personally, I usually enjoy character actors a lot more than headliners, because they’re generally the real actors who do all the heavy lifting, while the stars are often talent agency-pampered celebrities whose performances pale in comparison. Uno Shohei, Uchida Chika, Ando Tamae, Kimura Midoriko, Furutachi Kanji, Matsushige Yutaka, Shimada Kyusaku… Even if a film itself isn’t much to speak of, if I see their names, I know there’s at least one aspect of it I’m going to enjoy.

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Don Brown
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Well, we don’t belong to the sort of people who can get bored with regards to discussing Japanese talents. In fact, the community is quite interested in getting to know more about them, how they develop their acting styles and their collaboration with local filmmakers. [ Most definitely, I’m going to do my own research on the actors you’ve mentioned and feature them ]

Speaking of Sakura Ando and Takayuki Yamada, can you think of other actors who have shown such consistency? How about Hikari Mitsushima, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Yu Aoi and Eita? What do you think of them?

Mitsushima and Aoi, yes. Both have been impressive on numerous occasions. I can’t remember either of them turning in a bad performance, although they have been miscast (Mitsushima in “The End of Summer”) or wasted in disappointing movies (Aoi in the “Rurouni Kenshin” movies) on occasion.

Tsumabuki and Eita are consistent in a sense because a lot of the parts they’ve played have been so blandly similar, i.e. handsome leading men without a lot to distinguish them.

I think Tsumabuki might be best playing characters who don’t fit that mold, as he did in “Fly With the Gold” and “The World of Kanako.” Eita hasn’t found roles as juicy as that yet, although he’s by no means a bad actor. He just needs chances to show he’s capable of more.  

I’ve seen Gassoh – maybe I’m one of the few who got the privilege courtesy of Shochiku – and one of my favorite articles you’ve written relates to this film and how you distinguish the characters of Yuya Yagira, Koji Seto and Okayama (whom you mentioned above as one of the guys to watch out for).  In General, is it harder to do English subtitles to historical dramatic films rather than films in a modern/contemporary setting?

Glad to hear you’ve seen “Gassoh.” I wonder how many people outside of Japan can say the same?

Films with historical settings can be harder to do, although so can modern day ones with lots of technical information in the dialogue, like Tsutsumi Yukihiko’s “The Big Bee.”

The really hard ones to translate are generally classic films, because people seemed to be more literate in the past, and could understand much more complex dialogue. Actors back then often gave super-fast mumbling line readings too, which makes it incredibly difficult to fit the necessary information into a translation.

New films with historical settings are a lot easier to translate because they’re made for today’s audiences, who need a lot more hand-holding to understand a movie. Not just in terms of historical information, but the ability to “read” a film. People are used to having everything explained to them in an easy-to-understand way from television, which makes my translation job a lot easier, apart from all the unnecessary lines…

By far though, comedy is the most difficult to translate, regardless of the era in which a film was made. If the humor is based on local references and Japanese wordplay, the more accurate your translation is, the less the joke will actually work. You’ve got to retain as much of the essence of a line as possible while thinking up a setup and punchline that will still make the audience laugh. It’s enough to make your brain bleed.

Please indulge us with some observation of Yuya Yagira. He is just a fascinating actor, though I am not really sure if you hold him in high regards. What do you think of him as an actor? Do you think the upcoming Distraction Babies will be good (or great or bad)?

I do think Yuya Yagira can be a powerful, intense actor with a lot of potential, not unlike Yamada Takayuki. It’s easy to forget he’s only 26, as it feels he’s been around a lot longer. Overcoming personal problems during his early career following “Nobody Knows” can’t have been easy either, so he’s an unusually young showbiz survivor.

He also has a solid physical presence now, which not a lot of young male actors have these days, as thin effeminate guys are favored for some reason (see “idols”…).

He was a livewire highlight of Lee Sang-il’s “Unforgiven,” and added much-needed mystery and sex-appeal to Yukisada Isao’s “Pink and Gray.” He’s also one of the best things about “Distraction Babies,” making an incessantly violent and somewhat unrealistic character believable. I wasn’t a fan of the movie itself, or rather what it was trying to say, but the fully committed performances of Yagira, Suda, and the rest of the cast make it worth watching.

Midnight Eye, one of the most comprehensive and respected sites on Japanese cinema closed down a few months ago. It seems the reason is the decline in their passion and interest for Japanese cinema. While we don’t regard ourselves as anything close to Midnight Eye, what sort of advice can you give to foreign language websites that deal with Japanese cinema and Japanese entertainment in general? It appears like the question is self-serving ( to us, that is), but I think with your experience working with Japanese filmmakers and the years you’ve spent in Japan has given you more than the authority to say something.

I wouldn’t say I’m an authority on anything, apart from making an arse of myself.

I know a lot more people overseas care more about anime, idols, celebrities, and other Japanese pop culture than movies nowadays, so I think it’s important to cut through all the hype about certain actors or directors being “hot” because of their looks, media exposure, and commercial success. True talent and quality often doesn’t get enough recognition.

That being said, everyone has different ideas of what’s good, so just be honest and stay true to that. If you’ve done your homework, it’ll come out in your writing.   

Do the locals (Japanese audience) and the people in the Japanese entertainment industry have any regard for sites that feature their movies and drama? Do Japanese even care or consider opinions outside Japan?

Sometimes film sites here pick up on English language articles online, but they’re usually straight film news about upcoming productions, celebrity gossip, or those stupid best-of lists. More thoughtful pieces are generally harder to translate and don’t generate as many hits, but that’s true of anything.

For the most part, I don’t think Japanese film companies care much about how their films are covered on film sites apart from the trades, with the petty exception of copyright issues involving images and such.

Their international divisions are often understaffed and overworked, and upper management is usually preoccupied with more immediate matters close to home. If it doesn’t involve or affect the sales of their films, it’s pretty much irrelevant to them, which is one reason certain companies are a nightmare to deal with.

I think there’s a certain level of interest among the public here as to how Japanese movies are perceived overseas, as they are with anything homegrown that does well abroad these days. “Foreigners praising Japan” has even become an annoyingly popular genre on TV.

On the other hand, cinema is nowhere near as popular as it used to be here. Non-multiplex films are already a niche entertainment with little relevance to the lives of regular people.

Fortunately, like any breed of otaku, Japanese film fans are some of the most obsessive and dedicated cinephiles you’ll find anywhere in the world, so they’ll keep the flame burning for a while yet. At least until somebody makes a live-action adaptation of “My Neighbor Totoro” starring Kimutaku. I give it another five years.