Parasite’s Subtitles Didn’t Stop Its Success; Now It’s Anime’s Time to Shine


Like it or not, Bong Joon Ho‘s Parasite will go down in history as a winner. It became the first South Korean film to receive Academy Award nominations, the first non-English language film to win Best Picture, and the first non-English language film to win the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble, ie Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Impressive. And yet some folks are deriding the film and its success on a number of unfounded grounds, like it being a cause of “the destruction of America” (which is hilarious in a number of ways), or that it’s somehow less-than because “no one likes subtitles.”

That’s all silly nonsense. Preferably, I’ll side with multi-Oscar winner Bong Joon Ho instead. During Parasite‘s win for Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language at the Golden Globes, his comment was translated (perfectly, by interpreter / fellow filmmaker Sharon Choi) as follows:

“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films … I think we use only just one language: The cinema. Thank you.”

It’s amazing to me that so much stubbornness, laziness, and reluctance (at best; hatred, at worst) has been directed at what’s an otherwise eye-opening statement. Perhaps it’s the undeniable, ringing truth of Bong Joon Ho / Sharon Choi’s words here that have some people so ruffled; there’s simply no way around the fact that getting out of your comfort zone (whatever your native language may be) opens up a literal world of media to you! So rather than focus on those who prefer to be left behind, let’s take a look at what the success of Parasite means for those of us who would rather move forward.

Image via FUNimation Films

First, a few caveats: Subtitles aren’t solely for English-language audiences who don’t speak or understand foreign languages. They’re also for the deaf, the hard-of-hearing, and quite literally anyone who has difficulty either hearing or understanding spoken dialogue in any language. And here’s a fun fact: Using subtitles for TV shows and movies that are in your native language can actually reveal things you never caught before, even if you’ve watched something over and over. American audiences watching British, Irish, Australian, or New Zealand TV shows/films will undoubtedly follow along a lot better with the addition of subtitles, even though everything’s technically in English. Beyond that, turn the table for a moment and imagine if TV/movie fans around the world hadn’t become obsessed with American media, with or without dubbing or subtitles; we simply wouldn’t have the international demand that Hollywood has enjoyed for decades. And that’s because those audiences chose to elevate the language of cinema above all else.

Parasite managed what few foreign films have over the years: It generated enough buzz to push the film’s box office to $35.5 million in North America, plus $72 million in Bong Joon Ho’s home country of South Korea, totaling more than $167 million worldwide … all despite subtitles. That bodes well for future foreign films here in the States and around the world. Often, all that’s needed is one gateway title to open the eyes of TV viewers and moviegoers to seek out an ever more diverse selection of media. So what TV series and movies might benefit from the success of Parasite?

Image via GKIDS

While it’ll probably be a while before another foreign film wins Best Picture at the Oscars, this is a great time for anime titles and even foreign animation. The Academy also gave the impression that they were broadening their scope when it came to animated films, opting to give nominations to the painstakingly detailed stop-motion animation of LAIKA’s Missing Link and foreign productions like Netflix’s Klaus, from Sergio Pablos and his Madrid-based SPA Studios, and French animator/filmmaker Jérémy Clapin‘s incredible and unique tale, I Lost My Body. Ultimately, the win didn’t go to those deserving films, but the nomination at least brought their existence to the attention and awareness of a wider audience. That’s grand, because animation has long suffered the stereotype of being “for kids”, even though that’s never really been the case. So if Parasite can help to reduce the fear of subtitles and foreign films while Klaus and I Lost My Body puts international animation meant for a wide demographic on the big stage, that bodes very well for his year’s anime release calendar.

Two big obstacles preventing anime from becoming more mainstream in Western culture are the stigmas against animation itself (and the fact that, yeah, a lot of anime is downright weird and not meant for an all-ages audience) and against foreign, subtitled storytelling. But like Bong Joon Ho said, if you can get past those inherent biases, there’s a whole wide world of stories to experience out there. And never has there been more anime available than there is right now. The medium spans just as many categories, tones, and styles as “traditional” Western animation and live-action projects combined, making for a versatile catalog chock full of just about every type of story imaginable. All you have to do is go out there and look for it.

Luckily for those of us in the West, anime has become increasingly easy to experience without even leaving our homes. Us weebs used to have to keep an eye out for VHS copies of decades-old anime from overseas, taking the risk that it might be a bootleg copy or something altogether different from what we expected. Now, anime is piped over the internet the same day or time as it airs in Japan, usually with subtitles; folks who want to watch dubs instead don’t have to wait too long, relatively speaking. Companies like Netflix, Crunchyroll, and Funimation connect anime fans in the West with the source of it all in the East. Factor in those organizations’ theatrical distribution wings, along with GKIDS, Fathom Events, and the like, and anime fans also get to experience feature-length stories on the big screen, be they standalone stories, series’ movies, or franchise installments. It’s an embarrassment of riches, really, and hopefully future anime films will find similar success to that of the recent international hit Your Name in the wake of Parasite‘s success and renown.

Want to know where to start? The next big anime titles to arrive in theaters here in the West are:

  • Kyoto Animation’s Violet Evergarden I: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll, the first feature-length film release for the studio since the deadly arson. It arrives in select theaters in the U.S. from February 17th to 20th.
  • Acclaimed anime filmmaker Masaaki Yuasa‘s Ride Your Wave, a more mainstream seaside romantic drama than his previous whimsical tale, Lu Over the Wall. Look for it in theaters one night only on February 19th.
  • My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising, from Toho Co Ltd, will be released on February 26th in more than 1,000 theaters across the U.S., Canada, and U.K. as a limited theatrical engagement in both Japanese (English subtitles) and English dub. (See? You can still watch the dub if you want to!)
  • Image via Fathom Events

    Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna, a final adventure for the Digi-Destined with their Digimon. The 20th anniversary celebration will screen on March 25th as a special one-night-only theatrical event across the nation.

And that’s just the first quarter of 2020! So maybe make it a late New Year’s Resolution to broaden your horizons a little and check out both foreign films and anime features. And if it feels like that’s still too much of a stretch, at least go see Parasite this weekend; it’s back in theaters in a big way after those big Oscars wins. So go out and overcome that 1-inch barrier in whatever way you can.

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