I had no intention of buying a DVD player in Japan - honest. With a shelf full of Japanese
laserdiscs, I was adamant that I wouldn't be suckered into re-buying my collection of
Japanese science fiction, fantasy and horror films, slapstick comedies, musicals, and
occasional art house films all over again. But a recent trip to Japan last November
and December, to some degree at least, changed my mind.
Laserdiscs were always bigger in Japan than they ever were in the States. If you
were a fan of Irwin Allen's TV shows, Britain's Thunderbirds series, or rarities
like Disney's suppressed Song of the South, LDs imported from Japan were the only
way to see them. I was first drawn to Japanese laserdiscs by the availability of
Japanese science fiction: Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, et al. Seeing films like
Gorath (1962), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Atragon (1963) and many others in
crisp, widescreen presentations, in their original languages (and, infrequently,
in full stereo) was a revelation, almost like seeing them for the first time. As
my interest in Japanese film widened (and I had all but exhausted the sci-fi/fantasy
mine), I was drawn to other films; other genres I noticed during trips to Tokyo
in 1994, '95, and '99, including such offbeat titles as The Crazy Cats Go to
Hong Kong (1963); Snow Trail (1947), Toshiro Mifune's screen debut, co-scripted
by Akira Kurosawa; and You Can Succeed, Too (1964), a kind of Japanese
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
But there was one big caveat to all this: Japanese laserdiscs were not cheap,
most labels charged around ¥3,800 per disc, and Toho, the company behind
Godzilla & Company, charged top dollar for their titles, typically ¥6,000.
With the exchange rate at the time, that came to about $60 per disc, and if
you had a third party import it for you, you could easily tack on another $30-35
to that. And, of course, none of these high-priced discs had English subtitles.
My initial optimism for Japanese DVDs was dampened by the gradual realization
that the situation would not be all that different from the laser days:
expensive discs, no subtitles, now coupled with the added frustration of region
encoding. Indeed, it was if the Japanese film industry decided they didn't
want their movies to be seen outside Japan. Consciously or no, Hong Kong movies
found both a cult audience and a kind of mainstream acceptance (in terms of
Jackie Chan and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon anyway) partly because their
movies trickled here in the 1980s and early '90s via Hong Kong laserdiscs
that, by and large, were English-subtitled. And it continues, too, in the
form of DVDs that are subtitled, often in myriad languages, and are without
Take, for instance, Kinji Fukasaku's instant cult film Battle Royale (2000).
With its flawless 16:9 transfer and loads of extras (including an alternate
ending), the Japanese DVD is far above the Hong Kong VCD, which has neither - but
it is subtitled and inexpensive, and for most Americans that makes all the
Yet, when I began prowling DVD stores in Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo in November
and December, I was surprised at A) how quickly DVD had supplanted laserdiscs
since my last trip in 1999; B) just how many DVDs actually did have English
subtitles, and C) the amount of American product available in Japan but
not in America.
For starters, DVD is everywhere. Because of the popularity of laserdiscs,
DVD supposedly took longer to take off in Japan than it did here, but
by last November anyway, the laserdiscs I found were largely delegated
to the bargain bin. (Indeed, if you're the type who refuses to give up
on laser, now's the time to make that shopping expedition to Japan;
even box sets are dirt cheap.) I spent the first part of my trip on
the small, southern Japanese island of Amami-Oshima, and was surprised
to find DVDs even here, at the one video store on the island, one of
a Tower Records-like chain called Tsutaya.
This continued as I combed through bins of titles at Kyoto department
stores, used record stores in Osaka, and the Japanese branch of Virgin
Megastore in Tokyo. The next big surprise was the number of Japanese
movies with English subtitles. The percentage is still quite low,
maybe 10%, but nonetheless higher than I had anticipated. However,
there is absolutely no consistency with what does get subtitled. A
label like Shochiku will subtitle their goofy
The X from Outer Space (Uchu daikaiju Girara, 1967), but not their
popular and acclaimed "Tora-san" (1969-1995) film series, all of which
were previously subtitled for limited theatrical screenings in
America. Both the original and more recent Gamera films have been
subtitled by Toshiba/Daiei Video, but none of Toho's Godzilla movies.
Kon Ichikawa's excellent Dora Heita (2001), has been subtitled, but
a new Kon Ichikawa boxed set has not. A picture as obscure as Nobuo
Nakagawa's 1960 Shintoho film Hell (Jigoku, 1960) has subtitles, but
Shintoho's similarly packaged line of war movies are without. Go figure.
My surprise extended to DVDs of American TV shows available in
full-season boxed sets as yet unreleased here. The entire run of
ER, for instance, including the past season in 16:9 format, is
available with both Japanese-dubbed and original English tracks,
with removable Japanese subtitles. You like Friends? Ally McBeal?
They're available, too, all reasonably priced. Though infrequent,
I also encountered American movies not yet released to DVD, or
released in better masters. For instance, I found a DVD of
King Kong (1933), a title long-in-coming from Warner Home Video;
and the original Planet of the Apes (1968) with a 16:9 transfer,
something fans have been crying for since its inadequate
non-anamorphic release here nearly two years ago.
But it was the Japanese titles I was most interested in, and with
DVD players in Japan now priced as low as $100, I couldn't resist.
Unlike the Hollywood majors, the Japanese consistently 16:9 enhance
all their 'scope and spherical wide screen films and, to my eye at
least, the transfers are up to American standards.
The Mysterians Toho DVD cover