By Dave Hackerson
Han Solo: A Star Wars Story hit Japanese theaters on June 29, over a month after the film’s initial release in the US. This marked the first time in the Disney era of Star Wars that the release date in Japan did not coincide with the US and other major markets overseas. I’m not exactly sure why that was the case this time around, but I very nearly had to cut myself off from the Force (at least the English speaking faction) to avoid any spoilers that would ruin the surprises in the film. Fortunately we had the World Cup to keep us preoccupied, and the Japanese national team defied all expectations for a stellar run out of the group stage and into the round of 16. In similar fashion, the Han Solo film has surpassed expectations of fans here, with the overall response being positive.
News of the film’s “struggles” at the box office overseas did make its way over to Japan. However, Disney deftly masked over that in their marketing by hyping up the film as the number one feature at the US box office in one of the short TV spots (pausing the screen you see the data they referenced was for the Memorial Day weekend). They also used some clever play-on-words in the Japanese voiceover for the same TV spot, saying “Soro soro, Han Soro (Solo).” The phrase “soro soro” is often used in Japanese when saying “it’s about time” to do something or for something to happen, so this nice little catch copy essentially tells the Japanese audience “it’s about time you head to the theater and check out Solo”. In addition to the TV spots, Japanese morning talk shows also did special sessions highlighting the movie in the run up to its release. These moves apparently paid off, with the film claiming the number spot in the Japanese box office in its opening weekend, bringing in $5.94 million and attracting audiences much more diverse than typical StarWars film, spanning all age groups and demographics. I have seen numerous comments on Japanese Twitter and Facebook of Star Wars fan here pleasantly surprised to hear how the film has drawn in and delighted people with little exposure to the saga. Solo remained at the top of the box office charts for its second week as well, and as of July 9 had grossed over $11.12 million dollars. The film’s success thus far should really come as no surprise given not only the popularity of the Star Wars saga in Japan, but the character of Han Solo himself. One media company conducted a survey back in 1995 on the most popular characters in the saga, and Han Solo ranked number one amongst Japanese fans, beating out the likes of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
Our family went to see it in English (with Japanese subtitles) at one of the local theaters on Saturday the 30th, the day after the film was released. There is a USAF base in our neck of the woods in western Tokyo, and from what I saw of the audience at our showing it seemed a third were from there. The US contingent aside, the Japanese audience spanned all ages and demographics, and there were some interesting conversations I picked up on in the lobby as we waited to enter the theater. One person was asking his friend about Donald Glover, and he excitedly told him that he was playing the young Lando. As typical with most major features in Japan, the concession/lobby area has stands set up selling all kinds of merchandise related to the film. I picked up the limited edition of the official Japanese guide, which was packed with great interviews with the cast, concept art for the film, and a special poster insert. There were also toys, books, and nice Solo design folders for holding A4 size sheets of paper (especially popular among students).
We all enjoyed the film immensely, with our oldest commenting that she felt Alden’s performance was quintessential Han Solo. It seemed the audience we viewed it with had a blast watching Solo as well. When people filed out of the theater, many were eager to snap a few selfies sitting in the Millennium Falcon cockpit prop that was set up right outside. Our youngest daughter (4 years) was quite enamored with the whole set, and kept wanting to go back for more pictures. That said, there was a few times where some of the humor in the dialogue only produced a laugh from among the non-Japanese factions of the audience. In addition, I found myself trying to keep up with the subtitles at times, which caused me to miss some of the things happening in the background. Our oldest say that she wanted to go see the film again, so for our second viewing we went to watch it in the Japanese dub.
We felt a different level of excitement than our initial viewing. Would the characters feel the same? Would the Japanese dub of Han match Alden’s performance? In short, the quality of the Japanese was on par with the dub for Rogue One. In fact, in almost every instance the Japanese spoken matched what I thought it would be. The translator not only conveyed the meaning imbued within the original English, but was able to create that same atmosphere and mood. The knockout-job that they did with this translation provided for a viewing experience even better than the first. We were able to really appreciate all the great banter between Han and Lando in the Sabaac, with the dub retaining the way Lando purposefully mispronounces Han’s name after he deliberately says Sabaac the wrong way in attempt to play the fool. Rio Durant sounded no different than he did in the original, with his witty comments effectively delivered in a manner that made me think that’s how Jon Favreau would sound in Japanese. Beckett did not speak with the distinctive drawl that comes with every Woody Harrelson role, but the delivery employed conveyed the character of a man steeped in experience but wore down by years of living the hard smuggler’s life. The exchange between him and Han at the end of the film felt just as poignant as it did in the subtitled version. Perhaps my favorite scene in the dub was the conversation between Qira and L-3 in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. While the dialogue is already loaded with nuance in the original English, the Japanese dub not only kept that nuance, but actually deepened it with the words employed by both characters. Younger audience members may not have caught it, but I’m pretty sure the adults in the theater appreciated the humor of that moment.
The Japanese dub featured not only a cast of seasoned voice actors, but also a number of celebrity guest appearances. One of these was Soichi Noguchi, an astronaut who enjoys the distinction of not only doing multiple missions on the International Space Station, but was also the first Japanese astronaut to work as a flight engineer on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Noguchi has been an ardent fan of the saga ever since he saw Episode 4 as an elementary school student, claiming that the original trilogy was one of his main inspirations for pursuing a career in outer space. He gave a glowing review of the film for the Japanese movie site Filmaga. He wrote “The true charm of the Star Wars saga is its ability to captivate our imaginations and inspire, and Solo chock full of elements which do just that. It’s a great ride for not only hard core fans of the saga, but also people who have never seen a Star Wars film. There’s so much in it that I need to verify for myself that I plan on seeing it at least two or three times more.” Noguchi was especially pleased with how they developed the relationship between Han and Chewie in the film. “Han’s initial encounter with Chewie was absolutely hilarious, but it was also incredibly convincing. The two didn’t get along right off the bat. Each had a different goal in mind, but they teamed up to tackle the mutual task at hand that they both faced. This created the bond between them that deepened as they fought side by side.” Another celebrity to make a guest appearance in the Japanese dub of Solo was Ebizo Ichikawa, the heir to Ichikawa clan of kabuki actors and the eleventh holder of the Ebizo name. A fan of the saga since he was a kid, Ebizo told director Ron Howard and Alden Ehrenreich how happy he was to be involved with the film at the Solo premier event held in Tokyo in mid-June. He lent his vocal talents to one of the Stormtroopers watching over the brawl between Chewbacca and Han at the beginning of the film.
All in all, there has been no real negative backlash to Solo in Japan that emanate from certain corners of fandom in the state. Most people have been happy to come along for the ride. I guess that’s why the Japanese TV spots have repeatedly used one of the film’s more iconic lines: “Ii yokan ga suru ze (I’ve got a really good feeling about this”). My daughter said it best after our initial viewing of the movie. “He (Alden) didn’t look like the original Han Solo, but he was Han Solo. That was a blast.” Considering that she had fairly little interest in Star Wars until The Last Jedi, I’d say that Lucasfilm and Disney have succeeded in making that galaxy far, far away accessible to a broader audience.