Alphabetical Movie – High and Low
Having just finished with Hidden Fortress, the alphabetical movie gods favored me with a second Kurosawa film. Rather than a samurai epic, High and Low was set in modern Japan so it served as a nice contrast to the period pieces most people associate with Kurosawa.
Most of his modern films were dripping with social commentary and High and Low is no exception. In fact, the more accurate translation of the film title would be “Heaven and Hell” and given the film looks at the sharp division between the wealthy and the poor in post war Japan, that title is actually more evocative of the film’s tone.
One can complain about a great many things in the way movies are produced and marketed but most puzzling of all is the way foreign film titles are translated for Americans. It is clear that someone thought “High and Low” would make more sense than “Heaven and Hell” to American audiences. Or, perhaps, they were afraid of the word “Hell.” The latter is probably more likely.
Whatever the reason, a film title that was a little more poetic and evocative was dropped in favor of one that it was deemed American Audiences would find more palatable.
I remember watching a French Film called Haute Tension a few years back. The literal translation of the title is “High Tension,” which was actually a pretty good title for the film. At the time, the planned title for the American release was “Switchblade Romance.” I have no idea where that title came from or why anyone thought that “High Tension” was somehow worse.
The film was, eventually, released as High Tension but I still don’t understand why any other title was considered.
I presume a lot of people are paid a lot of money to figure out what title will get people into the theatre. They looked at the title “The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Pulain” and figured that the film would be a lot more palatable if it was just Amelie. I guess that’s OK because hardly anyone could pronounce that title accurately.
Short titles seem to be preferred. I mean for every Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, there are about a dozen Armageddon’s.
In America, the ideal length of a film title is one word. Two is acceptable if the first word is “the.” Additional words are often allowed for sequels so as to differentiate the movie from the first film and also for Super Hero films where a second word is required to identify the sex of the hero. I’m sure some executive wanted to call go with Iron and had to be convinced that unless it was Iron Man, some audiences might think the movie was about a girl and we can’t have that!
Films based on popular books seem exempt from this rule. You can call a film Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince because that was the name of the book. The Hunger Games is also fine and not just because there have already been films called The Hunger and The Game.
We like simple things here in America. We like Hamburgers. We like Mitt Romney. We like movies with short titles that we can pronounce. Gigli didn’t fail because it was a horrible movie (and by god was it a horrible movie), it failed because nobody could pronounce “Gigli.”
The Shawshank Redemption was a great movie but nobody watched it in the theatre because they didn’t want to look up the word “redemption.” 2012 made lots of money because that was just numbers. It wasn’t even math.
High and Low would be a good movie no matter what you called it just as no name on the planet could have rescued Gigli. The name of a movie only matters because the right name can hook the audience into the theatre. Would the name “Heaven and Hell” have attracted more people to the theatre? I don’t know what it would have done for High and Low but I have to think it would have helped Gigli.