Mar 252012


Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost In Translation is a masterpiece of mood, ambiance, angst and entertainment. The film has a captivating aura rarely captured in 2D. Indeed, it is one of my favourite films. I have even ‘recruited’ others to the Coppola-written and directed movie that Bill Murray calls the best he has appeared in.
However, much to many people’s chagrin, the film seems to highlight situations that infer racism. Whether intended or not, and it is difficult to imagine how so many stereotypical references could be depicted merely coincidentally, they exist and exist in droves. Indeed, one self-appointed special interest group, called Asian American Journalists Association, AAJA MediaWatch, upon release tried to scuttle the film’s chances at Oscar time.
Lost In Translation is an emotional force, but it tugs at Japanese, and indeed East Asian, stereotypes. The film was shot in Japan, yet extended sequences with Japanese characters are scarce. This is due to how the film speaks to isolation and alienation. Where Japanese men and women are represented the scene is short, mocking, fleeting or secondary. Yet, despite all this one still comes away with an unbridled respect for the people and the country. Try as it might, the film cannot stamp indifference on the country. There is so much amazement and wonder in the characters’ peripheral vision in Japan, if only they would raise their heads to see; alas, they have no interest in the wonders of the country in which they find themselves. It is them that is at fault, however; not Japan.

Much of the lampooning is indeed the Japanese’ own fault. They have adapted and adopted so much westernization – after all, the movie is not lying that the Japanese import Western stars to do their commercials or have Western musicians performing. Murray has explained to The Observer that he was to some degree inspired by actual posters in Tokyo of Harrison Ford drinking Asahi beer – that the rest is consigned to a tourist brochure, but let’s nonetheless face the film’s stereotypical caricatures. Admittedly, looked at another way, one caricature is of Americans ignorant and confused amidst a foreign culture.
Once again, instead of writing a straightforward review of a movie, I have decided to do something different and watched the film; this time with an eye on listing the said situations.

  • Bob Harris conspicuously towers above every Japanese man in the elevator.
  • In the hotel bar the Japanese uniformly look uninteresting and lifeless as they smoke and drink.
  • The shower head in Bob’s room is too low for him even at its highest level. This is a high-end hotel in Central Tokyo, mind you.
  • The commercial director is unreasonable, demanding and angry. Contrast that with the docile female translator.
  • The subway commuter is openly looking at hentai as Charlotte watches on.
  • At the bar when Charlie Brown introduces Bob as “from United States” everyone exclaims in awe “woooooo!”
  • The Japanese are incapable of pronouncing their ‘r’s. ‘Rock & roll’ is ‘lock & loll,” while “rip” is “lip” and “rat pack” is pronounced “lat pack.”
  • The employer sends a Japanese prostitute to serve Bob who is unamused and uninterested. Bob makes fun of her.
  • Everything on TV is ridiculous. Murray even recoils at the talk show he is on when he catches it later. Incidentally, he originally derided the idea of appearing in it.
  • There are four or five people attending to Bob at every turn. He takes his time and is unappreciative. He eludes them.
  • Bob often makes fun of the Japanese. When the photographer asks for a Roger Moore pose, Bob declares that Sean Connery was better and then becomes sarcastic, “you didn’t get Sean Connery over here?” Some might remember that Sean Connery’s You Only Live Twice was partly filmed, and transpires, in Tokyo, Japan.
  • Suntory Corporation has paid $2 million to have an American promote a Japanese product to the domestic market. Interestingly, famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa had worked for and directed commercials for Suntory Whiskey during the period he was working on the film Kagemusha, a film whose co-executive producer was Francis Ford Coppola.
  • Men of all ilks are in an arcade playing video games. There is even a man in a suit in one.
  • The hotel instructor teaching water aerobics to the Japanese ladies is a Westerner.
  • Bob implies that Japan is a prison. He tells Charlotte that he is organizing a prison break to get out of the hotel, city and country.
  • At the sushi bar Bob suggests the chef would like Charlotte’s blackened toe (“brack toe”) and adds “in this country someone will order it.”
  • At a nabemono (hot pot) restaurant Charlotte cannot tell the difference between the dishes and thinks they all look the same. “I can’t tell the difference,” she observes!