I feel like the first relevant words I should say are these: I thought we were over this. I thought we were done with this. I thought we’d outgrown this.
To explain ‘this,’ I have to first explain to any younger readers or readers new to anime and manga that there was a time when localization of texts could present as many problems in terms of access to those texts as it solved. These releases could serve as introductions to stuff you wouldn’t have seen without the benefit of globetrotting and language proficiency to see it raw or connections through which to obtain a fan translation, but… well. Very often, they were altered. Sometimes extensively. Sometimes not very well.
Altered as in violent, sexual, suggestive, or ambiguous content either revised or removed.
Extensively as in, sometimes that content was important to understanding the overall text and made up a large part of it. Sometimes it wasn’t even objectionable content, it just got cut for time or, perplexingly, because it contained cats.
Not very well, as in dub tracks that included the ambient sounds of technicians in the studio conversing as the actors performed.
It was, overall, a shitshow. The general consensus on official releases, for the longest time, was (at its most gentle) “Well, if you absolutely have to.” Even uncut, subtitled versions could come across as unpalatable because the scripts were produced by word-for-word translators who ignored the high-context nature of the source language. And with rights, production, and distribution being expensive, it wasn’t uncommon for the worst version to be the only version available for months or even years. Even then, unless you lived in a big city, you usually had to order it out of a catalog if it was something Not Explicitly For Kids. You might be able to rent it, maybe, if you lived near a store big enough to trifle with niche and foreign stuff. If you weren’t willing to be a pirate, you were gonna have a hard time.
I didn’t think that that was a problem anymore. With digital editing and distribution, with Japanese film sitting with relative comfort as something understood at least among its niche of devotees and distributors as an art form you shouldn’t tamper with too extensively, I didn’t conceive of an instance where it could be. Granted, I haven’t been in a position where I’m forced to find out for many, many years. I can read well enough to stagger through most manga, and I can hear well enough (with closed captioning, if I can have it) to comprehend shows and movies. If I want to see something badly enough, there doesn’t need to be a translated version, official or no. It might take me a couple passes to get everything, but whatever.
Nevertheless, I have been assured that this is no longer a problem. Localization companies respect their source material, hire both translators and writers, and release multiple cuts of the work if cuts are made at all. Series are subtitled swiftly and broadcast in coordination with original Japanese broadcasts on sites like Crunchyroll. If you want to see a faithful, minimally altered version of the Japanese source, you can. It’s easy.
When I decided to see the 2013 Harlock movie, it was not easy. Considering I wanted to prioritize supporting the official releases, it was next to impossible. Not one of the English-language options I found officially (streaming or no) matched the runtime listed on the Japanese Wikipedia page. I drew the conclusion, then, that it must be an edited dub mislabeled as a dual-audio release. While this was disappointing, it was not without precedent.Stuff gets mislabeled, there were once lags between release versions that went on for years. I could wait to support it when the full release came out. After all, there was a full two-year lag between the Japanese release and this altered English version.
I found a stream of the Japanese version (Yarr. I’ve since bought a DVD and the soundtrack, get off me.) and commenced to watch, after which my friend Gabi watched the version available on Netflix and informed me that it was in fact subtitled.
“Oh,” thought I. “I mistrusted for nothing.”
A little bit of time passed, less than an hour, and as I was bedding down with my phone I decided to indulge some of my curiosity over a scene. I texted Gabi (paraphrased): “Hey, how did Netflix subtitle the voiceover that plays while Yama is on Earth?”
I waited a beat, and did not believe the reply.
I shot up in bed, incensed and unsure as to why. What did she mean, what voiceover? I went to my PC and took a cell photo of the screen playing the scene.
“This scene! The voiceover here!”
No dice. The voiceover (and as it turns out, two of the scenes preceding it) is absent. This is a big problem for a lot of reasons.
So, what are we missing, in this case? To get there, I’ll briefly explain the family drama at the heart of Yama’s developmental arc: The key players are Yama, his older brother Isola, and their mutual childhood friend Nami. Several years prior to the movie’s events, Yama’s rash actions caused a catastrophic accident that left Isola paralyzed from the waist down and Nami in (what we discover later) is best described as a comatose state with a holographic avatar interacting where her immobile body cannot. Yama did this by trying to adjust conditions in his family’s greenhouse on Mars in order to better nurture a variety of flower beloved of his dead mother, flowers that only thrive on Earth. Whatever he did, it worked out for the absolute worst.
They all react to this differently. Yama is deeply remorseful to the point of sacrificing his dream of becoming a botanist to act as the soldier Isola can no longer be, Isola is forever furious and resentful at Yama for causing the accident and at the both of them for being unable to save Nami, and Nami is… peaceful. Undeniably the worst off, she harbors no resentment, not toward herself or either of the brothers, and that only makes Isola angrier. He displaces his resentment of himself onto her and sees her forgiveness of Yama as a threat to his position as her husband. Isola’s part of the reason she’s enduring a living death, so she must secretly hate him. Nami can forgive Yama where Isola cannot, so she must be in love with him. He seems to be the only one of the three preoccupied with that last part.
Oh, yeah, and it turns out she’s probably been using her proximity to Isola to feed his battle strategies to the pirates. Isola isn’t a big fan of that as a thing that could be happening in his life, and it only fuels his rage and paranoia. Isola confronts her, the situation escalates, and Nami confirms all of Isola’s fears: She’s betrayed him because she despises him, and she’s loved Yama from the very beginning, she still loves Yama. Isola, driven beyond his usual vindictive-victim fury, rips the plug out of the machine sustaining Nami’s comatose body. The plug scuttles on the floor and sparks out, the screen blacks, the scene changes. Faced with the confirmation of all his greatest fears, Isola has murdered this woman who never loved him in the first place in a fit of jealous pique.
Except, not exactly.
Every cut I’ve found, bar the original Japanese, omits the sequence that follows the unplugging. Nami, not quite gone yet, uses whatever draining power remains in the machine to appear as her holographic self and… apologize for lying to him. Because she did love him. She loved the kind person she knew he truly was, and she will always be with him. They embrace as well as a man and a computer ghost can, she flickers away, and he’s left alone with his grief.
Before she launches into her tirade against him, she announces the realization that it isn’t Yama causing Isola all this suffering, but her. This isn’t a woman snapping under pressure and paying for it at the hands of a rightfully jealous lover, this is a woman goading the man she loves into freeing himself the only way he can: by letting her go.
So that’s the first thing, and it’s already a strange and extensive cut because it contextualizes so much that comes later and its absence does such a disservice to Nami as a character. I can’t even forgive it as a content cut, because the dub script is super explicit about things like suicide (namely as an option for Harlock) and the movie itself is across the board rated way higher than would ever require such discretion. The only things the sequence has against it is that it’s complicated and it erases the idea that Nami and Yama are secretly love-scheming.
A propos of absolutely nothing, on to the next part. In every cut but the Japanese one (That I’ve found.), the goodbye transmission from Nami that Isola delivers to Yama is pretty simple: “Here are some of your mom’s flowers, I know they’re important to you and they’re doing pretty good. Anyway, bye.”
Again, completely missing, is another sequence that contextualizes later events and asserts the film’s central theme of hope and healing through willingness to face your problems and continue.
The rest of Nami’s message, which serves to incite Yama’s visit to the Earth that Harlock inadvertently destroyed, imparts the following relevant information: No matter how much Yama is hurting, no matter how much anger or hatred he carries around, he has to let go of it. He should understand that he shouldn’t blame himself for what’s unfolded, and that she forgives and loves the kind Isola that she knows. Yama should, by implication, do the same.
The voiceover doesn’t stop when Yama reaches the blasted Earth, but it does pause. It waits to finish talking until Yama collapses, rolls down a rocky hill, and lies facedown in this hellscape. And then it comes back, continuing its entreaty to him to understand and forgive.
“Someday, when you meet your own precious person, I hope you’ll come see us. We’re your family.”
And he looks up, and there’s this little green stem in the extreme foreground.
So he takes it, and he brings it back.
Why remove the scene and the voiceover that contextualize so much, that inform so much about the characters and the movie’s basic thesis? Why are these elements absent everywhere but the cut for Japanese audiences?
Why does the dub script change a line, spoken to Kei Yuki, a female officer on Harlock’s ship, from “That would satisfy you, huh? To die alongside your beloved captain?” to “How is the captain’s bed? I’ve always wondered.”
The first is a shitty thing to say, but it’s in line with her devotion to Harlock in the movie and even one continuity in which she falls in love with him, even if it comes to nothing and he never realizes it’s happened. As digs go, it’s nasty but it’s not non-sequitur.
The altered line is… disgusting. If localization is a conversation between creators, it sends the message that the original script was just way too respectful toward women.
So… what the fuck?