I know it’s a bit late in the game to be talking about Lost in Translation, but it only arrived in Japan three weeks ago and is therefore firmly back on the local culture radar. At least this time around we have the actual movie to consider and not just the reviews of film critics and bloggers overseas who enjoyed its initial release.
We’ve been looking forward to the movie with much anticipation, of course, set as it is so close to home and the object of both rave reviews and sharp criticism. Add to that Sophia Coppola’s screenplay Oscar plus a slew of other awards and, well, you can just imagine our excitement when the film finally arrived in theatres here. (And if you can’t, well… pretty damn excited.)
So you know the story, right? Bob Harris (Bill Murray) comes to Tokyo to shoot a whisky commercial. Jet-lagged and adrift in all the foreignness he bides his time amid the comfortable familiarity of whisky and westerners in the hotel bar. There he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), also staying at the Park Hyatt and equally estranged from familiar life thanks to her photographer husband’s work schedule and the vast unknown that is Tokyo. They become friends, talk for hours, have fun, that sort of thing.
Now, if you read the reviews (I did, and many of them) chances are good that you respond to the film one of two ways. Either you call the film a masterpiece of subtly that evokes a broad range of emotions through the depiction of the two main characters as they find a special closeness and understanding of life through their shared immersion in the non-reality of Tokyo, OR you (as an Asian-American) hate the movie because it depicts the Japanese as buffoons or simple caricatures.
In my own case, however, I couldn’t help thinking that I had just watched a different movie. Although I was looking hard, I totally failed to find either those things praised as exceptional nor those denigrated as despicable. Instead, I felt as though I had just enjoyed a good but unremarkable movie whose most redeeming quality was Brian Reitzell’s excellent musical production and arrangement.
Although the acting is good, I thought the characters (”both of them,” you might say) were as ephemeral as must of the movie’s soundtrack. Bob Harris is no more three-dimensional than his whisky ads that grace the sides of buses and buildings, and while Bill Murray’s portrayal of him is certainly superb I felt no desire to connect with this walking, talking mid-life crisis of a man. It was as if his dissatisfaction with life rubbed off on me as a viewer, making me wish he was “doing a play somewhere” instead of bumming me out here.
Scarlett Johansson is similarly thin in her role as Charlotte. For all the time she spends staring out the hotel window (onto my old neighborhood, by the way) and at “traditional” Japanese settings she seems not to find anything there to pique her interest. I mean, is it so foreign that she is incapable of even the briefest sense of wonder? Interest? She cries on the phone to her friend that she went to a temple and “didn’t feel anything.” Was she expecting enlightenment to hit her then and there because she overheard some chanting? Hoping for some deep sense of awe as she stood amid the centuries-old monuments of Kyoto? Perhaps I wouldn’t have, either, but if she can manage to walk around the streets of Shinjuku or Shibuya without experiencing even a little of either–which I still manage to do after five years here–then I think she’s a character strongly in need of development.
Character development is one of the key complaints of the film’s detractors, who cite the stereotypical depiction of Japanese in the film as blatant racism. This review from the Asian American Revolutionary Movement Ezine complains that the film employs stereotypes for comic fodder. “They’re short! They’re wacky! They can’t pronounce their Rs!” The only problem with this type of complaint–never voiced by the Japanese I know, yet often expressed by Americans of Asian descent–is that it patently ignores the reality of the country in question: Japan. Fact is, Japanese are short(er). That elevator scene with Bill Murray surrounded by shorter Japanese? I can relate to it because (here in Tokyo) I experience it on a regular basis. Wacky? Of course the television personality Matthew (an actual performer, mind you, not some contrivation) is wacky. That’s his shtick. So are many other TV personalities here. Pronunciation? Sorry, folks, but that, too, is a fact of life here, and although it was exaggerated to ill-effect in the scene with the escort, it too falls squarely into the realm of Life in Tokyo.
In fact, putting aside that particular scene, I wasn’t able to see much of anything that denigrated the Japanese at all. Quite the contrary, when it comes to the clash of cultures, I think it was the two leads, especially Bob, that were depicted poorly. Typical “ugly American” abroad, Bob expects everyone to speak his language, know his culture, treat him like a big shot. And when they can’t or don’t, he responds with either derision or sarcasm. If Sophia was hoping to insult anyone with this film, it would have to be people like him.
Anyway, what did I like about the movie? Not much, actually, but that’s probably because it had been built up so much in my own mind that I was expecting something much better. I liked that the film was set so close to home, and presented a semi-accurate picture of what Tokyo looks like today. The music was also very good (Squarepusher! Death in Vegas!) and helped the movie maintain a very low-key feeling of being disconnected and set adrift.
Finally, I appreciated that the friendly relationship between Bob and Charlotte remained just that, and that Coppola didn’t bow to the formulaic pressure of having them end up in the sack. That final kiss and inaudible whisper I think kept the film true to it’s underlying idea that what Bob and Charlotte take away from their brief time together is exactly what they brought to it, plus some newfound understanding of what they as individuals really are. Well done, that.