{this article originally appeared on Snow Magazine on 3/24/2010}

Catching the latest foreign flick at movie theaters in Japan offers a considerably different experience compared to their counterparts in the U.S. Some may laud the lack of noisy commentators – the unshushables, as Jerry Seinfeld once called them. Others lament the minuscule beverages and stale corn chips (“this isn’t popcorn!”). Do Japanese movie theaters still insist on dimming the lights, rather than turning them completely off? I remember that used to bug the heck out of my Dad. Leg room was always an issue for me, but then again I have that problem anywhere I go. But there is another subtle yet significant difference; the presence of subtitles across the screen that continuously rotate as the film progresses. These are easy to ignore, unless you are compatible in both languages, in which case you find yourself rushing to pass harsh judgment on the quality of the translations (“they totally screwed that one up”).

Hideo Satoh, of Advanced Media Laboratory, is not a translator – although his Uncle, the late Shizuo Takase, one of the most influential forces in cinema translation, helped him get his start in the movie business. Mr. Satoh is a titlewriter, a pseudo-roman title given to a select few artisans whose job it is to create handwritten subtitles for an entire movie script. In fact, during their peak in the 1990s there were only about 10 people engaged in this line of work. I spoke with Mr. Satoh one evening over the phone, me from New York and him from his office in the outskirts of Tokyo, for a glimpse into the seldom spoken-of industry.


click images to enlarge

Over the last 40 years Mr. Satoh has created handwritten subtitles for some of the most prominent western films including Casablanca, West Side Story, the 007 series, Titanic, Harry Potter and Miss Congeniality (I’m joking). Mr. Satoh’s handwriting was considered masculine, which resulted in the majority of gigs being action or adventure films. However, he did find the occasional romance, or even porno flick, waiting for him at his desk.

The labor intensive job surprisingly begins with a trip to the local stationary store to buy A4-sized flash cards. These are then painted black and left to dry – weighted down to prevent buckling. Then comes the real meat. If you are handed an action flick you scoff and think to yourself, I’ll even have time for a nap (explosions don’t need subtitles). If you are handed a romance or comedy, you buckle down and get to work because you have anywhere between 1000 – 2000 cards to hand-write. An experienced titlewriter will take about 4 days to get the job done. Films that are less dialogue-intense only require 400 – 500 cards. The most important thing is consistency. Each character must be the same weight and height. The slightest irregularity may divert the audience’s attention, spoiling the experience, which, ideally, should be that of watching a movie rather than reading subtitles.

“I once stayed up for several nights in a row,” reminisced Mr. Satoh about the toughest job he ever did, “practicing the alphabet.” The Beatles had just released their mock documentary, “A Hard Days Night,” and the producers had decided to add English subtitles to each song. This was obviously a daunting assignment for someone who had never written a word of English.

But it wasn’t all long nights and repeated maneuvers. The fun part, Mr. Satoh tells me, is coming up with new fonts that effectively, yet unnoticeably, communicate a mood or tone that is easily lost in translation. This is done by request from the film producers, or sometimes by discretion of the titlewriter. In West Side Story, Mr. Satoh tweaked his font during the dance numbers. In Exorcist, the lines of the Devil were written in a shivering, Halloween-like font. In Harry Potter, the names of spells were given a different, from-another-world-looking font. An original, creepier, more malicious-looking font was given to Lord Voldemort’s lines.

Titanic was a significant job for Mr. Satoh. Not only was it a film receiving the James Cameron treatment (most expensive and highest-grossing, at the time) but it also marked the last film in which Mr. Satoh’s hand-drawn subtitles appeared. With the help of his tech-savvy son, Takeshi (who also helped me coordinate the interview) they were able to keep up with the changing times by digitizing the many fonts Mr. Satoh had created throughout his career – a resume that consists of over 2500 films. All subtitles are now done using computers. Besides, my hands are too frail to write anymore, jokes Mr. Satoh. But his work is still very much a part of foreign cinema in Japan. You need only to catch the latest hits – Invictus and Avatar – to see Mr. Satoh’s subtitles in person.