behind the scenes

The Oscar-Nominated Miyazaki Film The Wind Rises Is a Work of Art. Is Dubbing It an Outrage?

Say the name “Hayao Miyazaki” and producer Frank Marshall melts into a puddle of fanboy excitement. Marshall is one of the minds behind many of America’s most imaginative films: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins, The Goonies, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and The Sixth Sense, to name a few. Yet when conversation turns to the legendary Japanese animator and his illustrious Studio Ghibli, Marshall openly admires the no-limits creativity that Hollywood doesn’t make much room for. One taste of Miyazaki turned Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, his wife and producing partner, rabid.

“Back in the early 2000s [after Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away] when we were in Japan during a publicity trip, we called Studio Ghibli to see if we could meet Miyazaki-san,” he says with absolute glee. “They were very sweet and said, ‘Yes, of course.’ We talked. They have a great museum out there. We were just big fans.”

A decade later, Marshall is both a cultural crusader fighting in the name of Miyazaki’s legacy and an adversary of diehard Ghibli-ites. The producer oversees the English dubbing of Studio Ghibli films — a manufacturing strategy that ensures their release by Walt Disney Pictures while polarizing purists who hunger for raw Miyazaki. Scan the comments on any story about  Oscar-nominated The Wind Rises, the animator’s latest — and supposedly final film, as Miyazaki announced his retirement in September 2013 — and one finds hopeful cries for a sizable, subtitled release. A dub is seen as a filtered vision, sporting translated dialogue and performances rerecorded by a new set of actors and directors. If The Wind Rises is truly Miyazaki’s final film, and if Marshall and his Disney compatriot John Lasseter (who is also the head of Pixar) feel the deep reverence for the animator that they claim to, why not deliver the film the way it was meant to be seen?

Because Marshall is a realist who’s dying to put Miyazaki’s films in front of every audience he can. He knows that even a movie like 2008’s Ponyo, a Little Mermaid–esque family film, wouldn’t be “a commercial story” if it were released in America as a hand-drawn, Japanese-language release. The producers at Studio Ghibli know that, too. In Japan, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo on the Cliff all rub shoulders with Titanic and Avatar in the list of the country’s ten highest-grossing films of all time. In the U.S., they came and went.

Studio Ghibli and its devotees’ trepidation over English-dubbing is warranted. For nearly 20 years, Miyazaki’s films were brutally reinterpreted by American studios and given wet fart releases. His 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was cut up, dubbed, and spit out as the kid-friendly Warriors of the Wind; the first English version of 1986’s Castle in the Sky was produced only for international flights to Japan; a similar dub was completed for My Neighbor Totoro in 1988 and distributed to the U.S. by none other than schlock purveyors Troma Films; and when Disney eventually came aboard Princess Mononoke, care was finally taken. Sort of. Neil Gaiman penned the English script, but Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein laid on the pressure to tinker with the edit. According to Miyazaki, it took a a gift from a Ghibli producer — a samurai sword with the note, “No cuts” — to finally get Weinstein to back down.

Marshall approaches his task with the utmost seriousness. “You really have to maintain the integrity of what the director and writer — in this case, Miyazaki-san — wrote and have it make sense to an American audience,” he says. He says the The Wind Rises was the most fragile Ghibli film to date. A fictionalized biopic of famed aeronautical engineer Jirô Horikoshi, who designed the Zero fighters used by Japan during World War II, The Wind Rises swaps Miyazaki’s fantastical worlds for the pages of history. Serving as a cap to a monumental career adds to the pressure. “There are no fancy creatures. There are dream sequences, but there aren’t fantasy elements or family friendly elements like in the previous movies,” he says. “I think the issue is that a broader audience is not really used to reading subtitles. In this case, the movie is so breathtaking, the visuals are so full of wonderment, that if you’re trying to read what the characters are saying the whole time, you’re missing half the movie. The dub is subtle.”

When assembling a team to “adapt” The Wind Rises, Marshall went to the professionals. Mike Jones has written scripts for everyone from stop-motion maverick Henry Selick to Alexander Payne. Director Gary Rydstrom is a Ghibli-dubbing veteran who worked in the sound departments on films by Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, George Lucas. Both men had clocked time at Pixar, a pedigree that ultimately nabbed them the jobs. “Sometimes I think of it like those people who go to the Louvre and copy an artist’s painting,” Rydstrom says of the vision required to properly dub a movie. “We’re making our movie, but it’s our version of someone else’s movie. We’re doing the best to stay as true to what he intended as possible.

The dubbing process is expeditious. Working off an English-language script and a DVD of the film, Jones began writing his translation in October 2013. The new cast, comprised of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, William H. Macy, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, and Werner Herzog, recorded their lines last December. In under three months, a new version of the film was ready to screen.

Jones’s writing experience was like cobbling together a puzzle where half of the pieces are cut and the others still needed to be made. To write the script, he would watch snippets of The Wind Rises over and over until he could break down the cadence of the Japanese into syllables that would fit English dialogue. “I needed to watch in real motion for the rhythm of the line. And then it’s me saying the line again and again to the screen. I would do it for hours and act out every single line.” Rydstrom says the original dialogue tracks reflect Miyazaki’s unique storytelling style. “There’s a deliberateness. It’s not very American. It’s very beautiful. It lets things come to you, instead of always pushing things at the audience.”

Rydstrom believes an English dub is justified whenever a subtitled version is considered. Titles are often a direct translation, condensed so that the viewer has time to read a before it flashes to the next bit of a dialogue. There’s no artistic consideration. In Jones’s hands, the words can be adapted to reflect meaning, not semantical accuracy. “Sometimes, culturally it doesn’t translate for us,” says Rydstrom. “So the script process is trying to find a way of speaking, a vocabulary or syntax, that works for an English audience … Either finding colloquialisms or English-speaking vocabularies that get across Miyazaki’s design.”

Some moments were easier to massage than others. In one scene, Jirô (Gordon-Levitt) and his engineer co-worker Honjô (Krasinski) discuss the lag of Japanese industrialism. They relate their frustration to “Achilles and the Hare,” a paradoxical parable that Jones and Rydstrom were able to rewire into a mention of “Tortoise and the Hare” while keeping the thematic resonance intact. More challenging was finessing Jirô’s romance with Nahoko (Blunt), who first meets the college-aged lead character while fleeing a train accident during the 1923 Kantō earthquake. Later in life, the two connect and fall for each other. The duo wrestled with one of Miyazaki’s original lines: “I’ve loved you since the day you rescued you my hat.” Jones found the line ambiguous; had Jirô loved Nahoko for that many years? Is he projecting feelings he harbored for Nahoko’s caretaker, the woman who actually returned his hat, onto Nahoko?

“We talked it over because while culturally it might be romantic to a Japanese audience, I thought to an American audience it might be a little creepy,” admits Jones. “But I understood the heart behind it. It was a matter of altering that line slightly to get to what it really says rather than a misinterpretation that American audiences would put on to it.” Jones ultimately changed the line to “I’m in love with you and nothing is going to stop me,” imbuing the line with a charge of immediacy.

Still, Jones wanted to keep Miyazaki’s intention alive in some form. New lines that did not appear in the original Japanese version nurtured the possibility that there was love at first sight. During their first meeting on the train, Jones decided to have Nahoko recite the opening line the Paul Valery poem from which The Wind Rises lifts its title (“The wind is rising! We must try to live!”). When Jirô meets her again years later, he recalls the line — a trigger for his emotions.

Jones found a similar problem with a later scene where Jirô tells Nahoko’s father Satomi (Macy) that he wishes to be with his daughter. But not marry. Jones retraces his thinking: “The literal Japanese translation is, ‘Please give us permission to date.’ That’s not really romantic. But the subtitle you read in the subtitled version is, ‘Please give us permission.’ So we don’t quite know what he’s talking about. So we changed it to ’I love her very much. And I sincerely hope you’ll approve, Mr. Satomi.’ And then Nahoko comes down and says ‘I also hope you’ll approve.’ So it’s putting in the wheelhouse of an English audience but also trying to maintain the formality.”

Miyazaki had one note for his dubbing team: Don’t screw up the wedding. As Nahoko’s illness worsens and Jirô becomes more involved with military plane design, the couple eventually takes the plunge by marrying in the home of Jirô’s boss Kurokawa (Martin Short). The impromptu ceremony may seem like a traditional Japanese wedding … but it’s not.

“[Miyazaki-san] wanted to make sure we knew,” Rydstrom says. “The things the Kurokawas say [are] not real. Martin Short and Jennifer Grey [Mrs. Kurokawa] really nailed the performance of this make-it-up-as-you-go wedding, a combination of funny and touching makes it a great scene. It was a cultural thing. We could have assumed, but no.”

Written dialogue only takes the dub so far. Rydstrom relies heavily on his actors to smooth out lines. “We rewrite, change around words and timing while on the stage recording with actors, to find that balance that sounds right to our ears but fits the lips,” he says. Rydstrom admits that the lines don’t always match, and there are moments in The Wind Rises where lips flap in silence. It’s a dramatic decision. “We always err on the side of making the performances work rather than lock dead on to the moving lips.”

Each actor has his or her own method of capturing the original performance’s spirit. Patinkin listened to the line in Japanese before delivering his own take, a method Rydstrom believes derived from the actor’s musical background. Herzog, who isn’t known for his musical abilities, wound up with a song that he was more than ready to belt out.

The director lauds Gordon-Levitt for his ability to shift words, add emphasis, lay in pauses to layer the performance, and sync lines to the picture. It helped that the actor was mesmerized by the original voice of Jirô, Hideaki Anno, creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion. “There’s an authenticity to [Anno],” Rydstrom says. “A quiet, self-assured, controlled quality to his performance that Joseph picked up on. He didn’t try and mimic, but he used it as a starting point. What would an engineer falling in love sound like?”

For Rydstrom, Jones, and Marshall, the question of “Why dub?” goes back to nuance. It’s an objectively mathematical process — timing constants to solidified mouth movements — and a simple tweak can be the difference between poetry and garbled nonsense. Marshall says it is worth the risk and fan agitation just for the chance of putting Miyazaki’s visual language in front of more eyes. To the producer, the beauty of Miyazaki comes from what American films rarely provide: quiet reflection.

“[What] Miyazaki-san does, and it’s a gift he has as a filmmaker, is honor the silence that we used to have in movies,” Marshall says. “There are scenes with no dialogue, just effects and sounds. A leisurely cut movie, it doesn’t race along like all the movies we have today. A stillness. It’s almost an innocence.”

How The Wind Rises Was Dubbed Into English