The Odd Language Barriers in Marvel-Netflix Shows

I hope my readers can forgive the clickbait title – this is a minor gripe that I had in the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil, and I forgot how irritating it was until I started watching The Defenders. 

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In The Defenders, it was when Sigourney Weaver’s villain, Alexandra, speaks with one of her allies, Murakami. Alexandra is American, Murakami is Japanese. The shadowy organization they work for, the Hand, has global influence and it makes sense for them to be run by people of varying nationalities.

What doesn’t make sense is that Murakami speaks in Japanese, and Alexandra will respond in English. And they understand each other.

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It just doesn’t make sense – if you have two characters who both understand the same language, why have one speaking English and one responding in another language? That probably sounds fairly nativist, but I’m not demanding that my characters speak English; if they spoke Japanese, I’d be just as happy. But if you have the two characters who understand each other, why have them speak other languages in other first place?

You could get an actor who spoke English with a Japanese accent. Or you could get Sigourney Weaver to learn another language. Vincent D’Onofrio from Daredevil spoke Mandarin and Japanese for his role. It’s not abundantly apparent whether he learned these languages for the role or if he just learned the lines in another language. By all accounts, he seems to have done a good job. They should have done the same thing for The Defenders. 

My first inclination was that maybe the actor doesn’t speak English. The actor is named Yutaka Takeuchi, and his other film and television credits include Letters From Iwo Jima, CSI, True Blood, and Weeds. It would stand to reason that his involvement in various American TV shows would indicate that he has some understanding of English.

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I understand the use of having a language barrier. There are scenes, such as in Game of Thrones’ third season where one character speaks in a fictional language, High Valyrian, One character uses very sexist language about another, admiring her body and calling her stupid. After an episode or two of this, it is revealed – oh, the female character knew exactly what was being said about her the entire time. And that’s one of my favorite moments for that character.

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In the first season of Daredevil, there was an interesting moment where Madame Gao reveals to Fisk that she can in fact speak English. It’s an interesting little twist which momentarily throws the audience for a loop. But Daredevil has just as many moments where two characters refuse to speak the same language for apparently no good reason.

In hindsight, neither Weaver nor Takeuchi needs to learn the other’s respective language. They could just have a line in which Takeuchi’s Murakami says, “Why aren’t you responding in Japanese, if you understand it so well?” So Weaver’s Alexandra could say “Well, why don’t you just speak English?” And then we have an interesting struggle for superiority – which makes sense because for much of the series these two characters are at odds with one another for a good chunk of the series.

I think this would be a way to improve on this nonsensical scenario in which two characters can perfectly understand one another but refuse to speak the same language, which would make it easier to communicate. Again, this isn’t an absolute deal breaker and Daredevil and the Defenders aren’t bad shows. It’s just a consistent flaw that doesn’t need to be there. Every time I saw this happen, I would ask why they didn’t just both speak Japanese or both speak English, and it took me out of the moment.

(EDIT: For whatever reason, this is a post that a lot of people come back to this post, so I want to clarify some things that I wrote. As most people in the comments have pointed out, it’s fairly common for two people who slightly speak each other’s native languages, will often do just what these characters do – speak their own native language to each other rather than speaking one language to each other. I didn’t mean to deny that this kind of thing happens in real life, but it just doesn’t make sense in the context of a scripted television show.)

7 thoughts on “The Odd Language Barriers in Marvel-Netflix Shows

  1. My family spoke only Dutch until we moved to the States. As kids, we brought English home and eventually spoke to our parents in this language while they continued to respond in Dutch. So it didn’t bother me at all!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My ex would always speak in French and I would respond in English. I had no issues
    However, I think it rather sexy that Takeuchi only speaks in Japanese.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi there,

    I’m an English teacher in Japan. I speak Japanese pretty darned fluently. I work with some Japanese teachers of English, and they speak English quite fluently. There are often times where they will speak Japanese to me and I will speak in English to them. It’s not that their English is bad or my Japanese is bad… it’s just a matter of convenience! They understand me perfectly, and I understand them perfectly. It’s always easier to speak in your native language.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. maybe it was stubbornness on his part. like, he could speak English, he just didn’t want to because of his personality. and if everyone understands him, he doesn’t need to.

    Like

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