In the course of my visits to the six-week-long Shochiku film festival (now, sadly, winding down), I realized that I could understand a lot more of an unsubtitled Japanese movie than I’d given myself credit (it pleased but also worried me – when I started understanding Japanese TV, I stopped watching it). So, on Friday, I visited the local Tsutaya (DVD/video/CD-rental empire found near every train or subway station in Japan) and made my way to the small (and utterly deserted) classic Japanese movie section (it does get a lot of through traffic, though, from eager customers on their way to the curtained-off porn section next to it). I spotted a movie I’d seen at the festival, Ozu’s Ochazuke-no-Aji, and noticed that although it had no English subtitles, it did have Japanese ones. I borrowed it, along with Carmen Comes Home (1951), the first Japanese colour movie, which had no subtitles at all, not even Japanese (get a hearing aid, Grandpa!), but I was in a forgiving mood.
(By the way, more foreign residents would watch Japanese movies here if Japanese studios weren’t so stingy about subtitling their movies for DVD – it’s commonplace in Korea and Hong Kong, let alone the rest of the world, but not here. Granted, these were old movies, but there’s no guarantee a new one will have them either)
Friday night, I popped Ochazuke into the iBook (yes, this is what passes for a hot Friday night when you turn 40), and, amazingly, I understood twice as much. Mind you, I had to pause now and then and flip through the dictionary, but that’s an option denied you in a theatre (“Hey, Mr. Projectionist, could you rewind to the pachinko scene?”). The men in the movie mutter a lot, in what passed for macho talk in post-war salaryman Tokyo; so much so that I thought one big scene was an argument about not buying o-miage (お見上げ, souvenirs) when in fact the uncle was scolding their visiting neice about missing an o-miai (お見合い, arranged-marriage meeting). On the other hand, either topic could start an argument in a Japanese household, so it’s not as dumb a mistake as it sounds.
I have been telling students for ages that DVDs are one great way of studying English on your own because foreign-language movies often have both Japanese and English (rather, original language) subtitles, and, unlike VHS, you can turn them on and off. This has gotten me through a few (French-subtitled) French movies in the past year or so, and now, I’m happy to say, a Japanese one too.
My Number Two Nephew (of four) didn’t talk until he was nearly 3, then within three days spoke nearly grammatically perfect sentences. His parents had been worried that he wasn’t understanding, or – worse, until tests proved otherwise – couldn’t hear what anyone was saying to him. In fact, he was taking it all in, and processing it too, but something – we don’t know what – provoked him to one day start using it all. And boy, did he make up for lost time. I’m hoping this is me with Japanese, and all that half-hearted studying I’ve been doing over the years has not been a complete waste of time.
Carmen Comes Home was a great larf, by the way. Big on green, green mountains and red,red dresses. People shout to each other from the bottom or top of the mountains so the camera can slowly pan from one to the other and take in all that great, saturated panorama. For Japanese audiences in 1951, accustomed to Ozu Yasujiro’s black-and-white, virtually unmoving, tatami-level shots, this movie must have seemed like a ride on a jet-coaster. It seems rather odd now, in 2006. A bit like watching those old 3-D movies on the late show (in 2-D) and wondering why everyone is reaching over so far to pick up up glasses and throwing things at the camera so often. For all that, it was a cute little city-vs.-country satire, and good fun to watch. I didn’t catch all the words, of course, but I got the tone, like a dog watching a house party from the corner of the living room.