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Studio Ghibli’s Geoffrey Wexler Talks Dubbing Takahata’s Undubbable ‘Only Yesterday’

Studio Ghibli's Geoffrey Wexler Talks Dubbing Takahata's Undubbable 'Only Yesterday'

Serious Ghibli fans have been well aware for quite sometime
now that, in spite of the studio’s widespread recognition and devout following,
there are several films in their catalogue that have never been widely available for
Western viewers. Among those selected unlucky titles a couple belong to the
company’s co-founder Isao Takahata, whose artistic talent is on pair with that
of Miyazaki but is less of a household name, and have never enjoyed a proper
release in North America.

Trying to prevent these marvelous works from fading
into obscurity, independent animation distributor GKIDS, which has distributed Ghibli films such as Takahata’s
Oscar-nominated “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” “From Up on Poppy Hill,” and
current Academy Award-nominee  “When Marnie Was There,” has stepped in and
is opening Takahata’s 1991 masterpiece “Only Yesterday” theatrically for the
first time in the U.S with the first-ever English dub of the film starring “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” star Daisy Ridley and
Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”). This fantastic new version comes 25 years after its original Japanese release and
will probably be the first of many similar ventures. Lesser-known titles such as “Ocean Waves” and Takahata’s pre-Ghibli feature “Gauche the Cellist” still remain unavailable and undubbed – but hopefully not for long. 

Ahead of the film’s release across the U.S. on February 26, GKIDS,
appeal retailer Hot Topic and Ashley Eckstein‘s Her Universe, hosted a special screening of the film this week to celebrate the
team that made the new dubbed iteration of  this touching tale about growing up possible. Following the
film’s presentation, chief of the international division at Studio Ghibli and producer Geoffrey Wexler, David
, who was in charge of the English-language screenplay, and casting
director Jamie Simone, joined Eckstein for a lively Q&A where they discussed
the intricacies behind this project. Wexler, who is outspoken about his ardent
love for the film, had the most insightful anecdotes that evidently show his
passion for bringing “Only Yesterday” to a wider audience despite years of continuous

Here are some highlights from the animated conversation.

On his decision to specifically push for an English-dub of Takahata’s “Only Yesterday”

Geoffrey Wexler: I
joined the studio about four or five years ago, and this was one of my most
favorite films. I was taking stock of what the studio had done and I was
surprised to find that this film had never been dubbed. We were creating
Blu-ray discs for all the films and I was watching it with my colleagues. We were
checking the subtitles and we were updating some of them here and there. I think
the third or fourth time we watched it my colleagues and I all said the same
word in Japanese, “mottainai,” which means “what a shame “or “what a waste.”
This is a beautiful film, but if you don’t speak Japanese you can only read the
subtitles. A lot of people don’t want to do that and you really can’t watch
it. Every frame is hand-painted and every frame is hand-drawn. We don’t get
that much anymore. We decided to figure how to do it and I was told it was
“undubbable,” which I didn’t know was a word. I decided that it wasn’t a
word and I wasn’t going to accept it.

On the uphill battle he faced to make this new release a reality

Geoffrey Wexler: Through persistence, stubbornness, arrogance on my part and
even pride, I wasn’t going to give up. Three or four budgets later and three or
four rejections later, I gave up – but not really. I threw a fit and said, “I’m
never asking again.” I send a one-line email to my boss that said “Never!”  [Laughs]. Bu just as David, Jamie and I
had finished the dub for “When Marnie Was There,” we were sitting at dinner and
I said “I’m going to look at my phone,” which I never usually do at dinner. There was a note from my boss that said, “Make your dub.” I still don’t know
what the trigger was, but I think I just wore him down. 

The background of all that is that I saw a
beautiful film with a terrific story that would transcend borders, ages, and that doesn’t get old and doesn’t look old. It looks different than films that we are
used to today like Pixar or “Avengers” and obviously the
pacing is a little mellower and the action is slow-paced, but I still thought
it was a beautiful film so I wanted to give it a try. I test screened it a few
years ago after I had finished another dub at Skywalker sound in Marin County
and it got a good reception. That was really encouraging. We showed it to
our distributors, GKIDS, of course,  to our friends at StudioCanal in England,
and our friends at Madman in Australia, and they all said they would chip in.
Several budgets later we made it. I think it’s still relevant and I think it’s
still beautiful. It’s kind of my baby.

On “Only Yesterday” being undubbable and his guess on why Disney never released the film

me “undubbable” meant a litany of excuses that didn’t make
any sense. A different studio than GKIDS had the rights to distribute it
they never distributed it. When I joined Ghibli and I talked to them I
said, “Are you guys ever going to release this?” and they said, “We
can’t release it.” I
said, “Can it have it back then?” and they said, ”Yes.” I think the
discussion of the
girls having their periods may have been a problem. A lot of people
about that in North America, but in other countries they don’t. It
wasn’t a
problem in some countries. I think also the pacing was hard for North
America.  Also there were some
legal issues around some of the sound. The moment when she sings in
for the first time I was told, “You can’t do anything about that. It’s
going to
have to stay that way.” I said, “It’ll stay that way and then a few
later they’ll talk about the song.” One by one I just chipped away this
of it being “undubbable.”

On the process from translating the Japanese screenplay to bringing the cast together

Geoffrey Wexler: We had a Japanese script obviously and we had to work on the
subtitles, so there is a fellow in Tokyo who is one of my translators and he
translated the script from Japanese to English but straight across. At first we don’t
worry about how long the lines are, or if it’s going to be easy for people to
understand, or if it’s going to be a direct translation. We polish that up and
then I gave it to David.

is the fifth one I’ve done. These scripts sync so well that the only real
changes we are making is when the actor has a new take on it. If I’ve done my
job well I have very little to do in the studio by the time we get there. Not counting the four years to get the budget approved. We
started between February and March of last year, David got it in May, we started
working on the casting around June, we were in the studio in August and
then back in Tokyo in September to put it all together. Invariably there are
always some things you don’t anticipate. We finished at the end of September.

One of the hardest things is we had Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel, who are very busy, there are other actors in many places, and then we have lots of
actors who are here in L.A. Scheduling is really tough. If they are on a big
film, I don’t know like a space movie, they may go away for months and months
or perhaps and we only grab them for a few days. Actors always tell me how much they love doing this. No
hair, no make up, no light, no camera. They are in front of a mic acting and
that’s what they love to do.

On his personal connection to “Only Yesterday” and why it merits multiple viewings

Geoffrey: I
started watching it in the early 90s, and it’s changed for me as I watch it. So
if you watch it again in 10 years, and I hope you will, you’ll see a different
film because you’ll change. That’s really something the film is very much
about, about how Taeko’s changed. What it means to me is that it reminds me
that most people are presenting themselves quite honestly.

I’m always moved at how much what happens in your youth
affects you. We all have random moments when you are walking down the street and
you remember something that happened when you were young and you might even
physically cringe. A lot of things stick with us no matter how important they
are and then they affect us later. You don’t stop growing. She is talking about how at 27 she is going to have this other growth. It happens over and over.

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