Why Is Japanese On-Screen Text Missing From Movies?

by Justin Sevakis,

Tormaid asked:

In Funimation's recent Blu-ray release of Shin Godzilla, they chose to remove Anno's trademark on-screen text and added a multi-line, unstyled translation at the top of the screen. This promoted a discussion I became involved in about the reasons they might have done this, and it was suggested to me that Funimation may be required by the terms of their licensing agreement not to modify the appearance of the video track, beyond using the no-text version they were given, presumably. In your experience authoring DVDs and Blu-rays, is this ever the case?

I don't know what Anno's immediately identifiable font is called, but I've started mentally referring to it as Anno Pro. I'm sure someone will tell me what it actually is. It's a subtle thing, but boy, once you've seen Evangelion and maybe a few other films, that font is like Mamoru Oshii's basset hounds. One glimpse and you know EXACTLY whose work it is.

Anyway, the Japanese film industry has been selling its films to overseas distributors for the better part of a century. At some point many decades ago, it became common practice to deliver to them a master with no Japanese on-screen text, as well as a finished English subtitle script. The subtitle script, obviously, would include translations for any super-imposed text, and hopefully any important incidental on-screen signs.

This is basically one hand not talking to another. When a production team takes on a project, they go through the subtitle script and style each line according to their in-house rulebook. Dialogue on the bottom, text on top, and whatever color or italics according to their usual practice. Then the script is then transformed into whatever formats are required for various delivery methods: XML files for Netflix and/or Hulu, burned onto the video for other streaming platforms, PNG files for Blu-ray, TIFF files for DVD.

Anime companies used to burn on-screen text translations onto their video masters, but early in the DVD era they learned not to do this. Fans screamed at them to leave the Japanese master alone. So now, nobody is in the habit of doing anything but adding English credits to the Japanese master. Nobody's checking to see if they should do more, because that's no longer part of the process. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if nobody who had seen the original Japanese version with all of the text had even worked on the video. It's likely nobody even realized anything was missing. (And even if they did, they'd have no idea anything was styled in a unique way.)

I highly doubt that licensors would have balked (or even noticed/been consulted) if Funimation HAD wanted to burn those translations into the video. Most licensors would go the other direction and insist on such things. One prominent licensor demands that Japanese credits be replaced with comparably typeset English ones. I've also seen some live action Japanese (and other language) films released in the US with burned-in subtitles for the whole feature, to prevent them from being exported back to Japan.

However, most localization production is done under a deadline, with a street date already set. Going back to the licensor and asking for a master WITH Japanese on-screen text likely would've forced a delay. If someone discovered late in production that maybe an on-screen sign would be better with a typeset burned-in replacement, it's hard for me to imagine anyone shouting, "stop the presses!" and redoing a bunch of work. After all, the signs are being translated, so it's not like the viewer is missing any information needed to enjoy the film.

Did someone miss something? Yeah, arguably. Does it rob you of that head-nod of recognition when you first see the font choice? Sure. But this is one of those things that, to non-otaku, looks like a nit-pick. Personally, I like that these small details mean so much to the fans, because they are not an accident on the filmmakers' part. And I do wish that local publishers would pay attention to these details too.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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