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The art of translating a film like 'The Boy and the Heron'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"The Boy And The Heron" is the latest movie from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, who is now 82 years old. Set during World War II, it tells the story of a young boy named Mahito grieving the loss of his mother. One day, he's pulled into a quest in a mysterious supernatural world where he grapples with questions of life and death. The movie is out today in U.S. theaters, and its English-language cast is stacked - Gemma Chan, Christian Bale, Florence Pugh, plus one A-list actor whose performance renders him virtually unrecognizable. NPR's Vincent Acovino has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOY AND THE HERON")

ROBERT PATTINSON: (As the Gray Heron) Save me, Mahito.

VINCENT ACOVINO, BYLINE: What came out of Robert Pattinson's mouth when he stepped into the recording booth was a surprise to pretty much everyone...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOY AND THE HERON")

PATTINSON: (As the Gray Heron) The truth of the matter is you did not see your mother's dead body. Am I right? She's waiting for you to rescue her.

ACOVINO: ...Including Stephanie Sheh, who wrote the English-language script for "The Boy And The Heron."

STEPHANIE SHEH: We didn't know what he would sound like. I don't even think he knew what that sounded like, you know, until it came out of him.

ACOVINO: Pattinson plays a devious heron who wants Mahito to follow him into an unknown world.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOY AND THE HERON")

PATTINSON: (As the Gray Heron) I'll be your guide.

ACOVINO: But a performance like this doesn't just materialize out of thin air. It's a physical challenge.

SHEH: I was like, bringing him tea and, like, lozenges and then some, like, Chinese herbal Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, which is, like, this thick, syrupy cough syrup.

ACOVINO: It begins with a script, which is where Sheh comes in. First, she watches the original Japanese version of the movie with English subtitles.

SHEH: I try to kind of make note of, where do I feel things? Where did I have a reaction? Where did I laugh?

ACOVINO: Then she adapts those English subtitles into spoken dialogue, and a big part of the job is making sure that that dialogue matches the characters' mouths moving on-screen, characters who were originally speaking in Japanese.

SHEH: So I feel bad for the actors in the sense that they really had to - they had to alter their performances.

ACOVINO: So that means, like, changing your cadence or talking a little bit slower...

SHEH: Correct, correct.

ACOVINO: ...Or making sure you're filling out space in the right way.

SHEH: Right, but doing it in a way that is believable and doesn't just sound like you're talking slower.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOY AND THE HERON")

MARK HAMILL: (As Granduncle) This world I've created and all my power, every little bit of it, originates from this stone.

ACOVINO: That's Mark Hamill, a voice you probably do recognize. He's Luke Skywalker but also a big name in the voiceover world. In this movie, he plays a character known simply as Granduncle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOY AND THE HERON")

HAMILL: (As Granduncle) Worlds are living things, and they can be infected by mold and bugs. I have grown old. I seek someone to be my successor.

ACOVINO: It's heady stuff, and it's the kind of performance Hamill says is only possible in this medium.

HAMILL: One thing that's great about animation is you're not sort of self-conscious because you're not on camera. It liberates you to make choices that you wouldn't make if people could see you.

ACOVINO: Now, some fans feel that watching anime with the original Japanese voice actors is the most faithful way to experience these stories. It's a debate that writer Stephanie Sheh knows all too well because she is a lifelong anime fan. Even she used to feel this way, she says. She's since changed her tune a bit. Plus...

SHEH: "Boy And The Heron" transcends anime fandom. You know, the stuff that Miyazaki makes is appealing to everyone.

ACOVINO: This means they also have to be understandable to everyone, especially children. Miyazaki has said he makes movies for his third-grade self. Here's Karen Fukuhara. She plays the character of Lady Himi in the movie.

KAREN FUKUHARA: The appeal to dubbing is the audience can connect to the movie because it's in their mother tongue. It's sometimes just better than reading the subtitles down below. It hits you harder.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOY AND THE HERON")

LUCA PADOVAN: (As Mahito Maki) That looks just like the tower in my world.

FUKUHARA: (As Lady Himi) Well, sure. That's because it's the same one. That tower over there has the ability to straddle all kinds of different worlds.

ACOVINO: Ultimately, what's most important is that everyone can be transported to Miyazaki's world regardless of the language they speak. Vincent Acovino, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOE HISASHI'S "MAHITO AND HIMI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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