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Wednesday, Oct. 20, 1999

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Ghosts and goblins and kids, oh my!


Just after the ghosts and goblins of Halloween disappear, we will enter yet another spooky holiday: Nov. 3 -- Culture Day.

At least it's spooky in our house. Especially after one particular Culture Day 20 years ago. Here's the story:

The year was 1979 and the world was a gentler place. It was quieter, cleaner and more logical. In other words, this was before we had children.

In that pristine environment my newlywed wife and I would often "go out." These days, that phrase usually relates to some journey close to home -- for example, out to our clothesline and back -- but in the past the term had a much farther geographic reference. In fact, sometimes my wife and I would stroll all the way downtown -- mostly to see movies.

In those days, the silver screen was the best entertainment around. In comparison, rental video was still but a glint in some retailer's eye, and our ancient TV seemed to work only when NHK showed nature films. While this was often enough, it always left us wanting to pick through each other's hair for bugs. As for sports, beyond the Yomiuri Giants, nothing yet existed.

So movies were the perfect match. Particularly English films, since I could then comprehend the audio, while the subtitles filled in the hearing gaps for my wife.

True, we experienced occasional rough spots, like when a subtitle flashed a punchline before the character even spoke, with the resulting roar of laughter drowning out both the words and my ability to hear. Or (from my wife's view), worse yet were the cases when the translator didn't understand the English humor and played the subtitle straight. The entire audience would sit placidly, while I alone slobbered with laughter.

Movies, movies, movies -- we would pay to watch almost anything. Except . . .

Horror films. Neither my bride nor I could stand them.

Then one early November morning our doorbell rang. There stood a frail high school boy with puppy dog eyes already plump with tears.

The boy begged us. His school's cultural festival was the next day and he was in a terrible fix. His cinema club had planned to translate the dialogue of an 8 mm American film and then dub a cassette tape of Japanese over the English. This boy was in charge of getting the spoken English into written Japanese.

"But I can't understand what they're saying! Won't you please help me!?"

Well, how do you respond to a cute kid in need? Especially when you are a pair of sappy newlyweds with no children yet of your own? In our case, I rubbed my palms and asked how much per hour -- while my wife delivered me a loving-but-very-sharp elbow and told the boy, "Sure."

Giddy with joy, the lad set up a projector and screen in our living room and I broke out the pencils and paper. The idea was that I would scribble down the English and then pass the paper to my wife, who would jot down the Japanese.

She squinted at the title on the film canister. "I know what Texas is," she said, "But what's a chainsaw? And what's a massacre?"

"Sssh," I hushed her. "It's starting. Probably just some cowboy flick."

Of course, we soon learned there are no cowboys in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Basically it is one of those nincompoop-teens-get- chopped-up-by-a-maniac movies.

The boy would roll two minutes of film and then jam pause and shout, "Did you get it!?" Only to find my wife and me both covering our eyes.

So we would rewind and do it again. And again. Often because I found it tricky to scrawl dialogue with my wife digging her nails into my flesh. But there were other problems as well.

"Is he saying he's going to beat her brains or eat her brains! I can't catch it!"

"Does it matter!" my wife blubbered. Yet, with her face buried in my sweater her mumbled words sounded like, "Well, you better!" So we listened to the line 20 times.

She would stop the tape too. "Wait! How do I render, 'He's a bloodthirsty fruitcake!?' "

"I don't know. Just do it straight. The movie makes no sense anyway."

Fortunately for all concerned, the film soon degenerated into nothing but screams, which, by and large, translate easy. Especially when you are reproducing them yourself every time the heroine opens a door.

After four hours of repeated viewings and a cup of snapped pencils, at last those screams echoed away, along with the final, fatal rippings of the Texas chainsaw. The lights fluttered on and the boy perused the Japanese script.

"Cool! We'll have fun recording this!"

He thanked us profusely and dragged his machinery away. All the while my wife and I sat there still clutching each other in terror, our eyes bugged out like golf balls. We remained that way through the night.

The boy and his cohorts spent that same night shrieking diabolically into microphones. But by morning they at last had synched their cassette to the film. We were invited to watch the grand premier that afternoon on Culture Day.

A gala event we unfortunately missed. One can only absorb so much culture, especially when it involves chainsaws.

Our particular dose has lasted now for 20 years. A treatment we remember anew Nov. 3 each year.



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