Where once foreign movies on Japanese theater screens were mostly subtitled, today's Hollywood blockbuster, filled with fast-paced action and 3-D imagery, is increasingly showing with dubbed voices.
Behind the shift is the rapidly evolving style of Hollywood box-office hits, which makes it harder for audiences to follow the type at the bottom of the screen.
When Wowow Inc., a satellite broadcaster airing sports, movies and other entertainment programs, launched the showing of foreign films in 1991, it billed the offerings as “no cuts, no commercials and with subtitles.”
The pitch told viewers they would be able to enjoy watching films just like at the theater.
But the provider began receiving requests from subscribers for a dubbed version about 10 years ago, according to Wowow officials.
Similar requests surged markedly in the past five years, they say.
Kazuma Watanabe, a Wowow official, said one factor behind the increase is the aging of mainstay audiences, who are now in their 50s, after the passage of two decades since the launch of the channel.
“It is becoming an effort for them to follow subtitles,” he said.
In fact, people in their 50s and 60s are the age groups asking for a dubbed version.
Watanabe also said he suspected viewers are finding a subtitled movie too restrictive because they have to constantly watch the screen to follow the plot. With a dubbed version, people can still keep track of the storyline while doing something else, such as housework.
The Cinema Inc., a communications satellite broadcaster, plans to air more dubbed versions of popular films from the 1970s and 1980s, including Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” series and Eddie Murphy’s “Beverly Hills Cop” hits, after they have received favorable responses.
Audiences are familiar with movies from that period when TV stations pumped them up by broadcasting them with well-known Japanese voice actors and actresses.
Tohokushinsha Film Corp., a film distributor that specializes in subtitles and dubbing, is also seeing an increase in the number of dubbed movies for release in theaters.
It produced about 10 dubbed versions for foreign films shown in theaters a decade ago.
The number jumped to 42 in the current fiscal year, including “Cars 2” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”
Dubbed versions are becoming increasingly common among not only family-oriented animation films, but also live-action epics.
For example, the first and second installment of the “Mission Impossible” series came out only with subtitles.
But 25 percent of the screenings of the third installment were dubbed when it premiered in 2006.
In the fourth, which opened in 2011, 44 percent came with dubbing.
Shigeki Sujino, who heads Tohokushinsha’s production department of foreign films, said dubbed films are in growing demand, regardless of the age of viewers.
“Dubbed versions were originally meant for older people who find it hard to follow subtitles,” he said. “But we seem to receive many requests for dubbed versions from young viewers.”
A key factor behind the rise of dubbed versions has something to do with a change in the way Hollywood movies are now shot, according to an official with an operator of a chain of cinema complexes.
“Rapid succession of footage (in Hollywood movies) makes it harder for audiences to read subtitles,” the official said.
The emergence of 3-D movies is adding to the difficulty.
“Many have voiced that it is getting harder to read subtitles because they have to wear special 3-D glasses,” said Kunio Yamada, sales department director at Warner Brothers Pictures International.
The increase in the number of dubbed movies in Japan means that it is joining Italy, France and other countries, where dubbing foreign films is the norm.
According to research by a group of Japanese production staff who dub foreign films, 98 percent of foreign-language movies in Italy are dubbed. In France, that figure is 90 percent.
One theory holds that in earlier years, foreign-language films in Japan invariably came with subtitles because the costs were one-fifth to one-third that for creating a dubbed version.
But the cost is no longer an issue. It is becoming a standard practice to produce a dubbed version when the movie’s DVD is made.
Another possibility behind the increase in dubbed films is movie companies’ efforts to win back fans of foreign films by featuring popular actors and actresses doing voice-overs, according to observers in the movie industry.
In 2006, box-office receipts for Japanese films, at 107.7 billion yen ($1.4 billion), surpassed those for foreign films, at 94.8 billion yen in 2006, for the first time in 21 years.
It coincided with the time when calls for dubbed versions began growing.
Such calls also started a trend to bring popular actors and actresses as well as TV personalities to do voice-overs to promote a movie, a common practice now.
Mao Daichi, a renowned actress, did a voice-over for all the “The Chronicles of Narnia” series.
In the computer graphics animation “Happy Feet,” Yuya Tegoshi, a popular TV personality, did dubbing work for the first installment released in Japan in 2007.
In the second sequel, released in 2011, popular child actor Fuku Suzuki was cast for a voice-over.
Mariko Shinoda, a member of the popular female singing group AKB48, will do dubbing for “Time,” a Hollywood blockbuster that opened in February.
Despite growing requests for dubbed versions from audiences, some are critical of the trend for what they see as lack of respect for foreign-language films.
“Screening foreign films with subtitles reflected a culture in which Japanese movie distributors paid respect to the individuality of foreign actors and the originality of each work,” said Hiroo Otaka, a movie journalist. “(The proliferation of dubbed versions) indicates people no longer pay as much respect as they used to.”
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