File spoon-archives/postcolonial.archive/postcolonial_2004/postcolonial.0402, message 1

Date: Sun, 01 Feb 2004 11:20:53 +1100
Subject: Re: Lost in Translation

One of the things going against this film is its utter tedium. The further it went on the more I found myself unable to care about the characters. This probably added to the ethereal quality of the Japanese background. A film about dislocated Americans against an abstract oriental background - now where have I seen a film like that before?  Maybe she received a few handy tips from her father on how to make a successful film for the US market.

Dr Gary Pearce
Senior Liaison Librarian
RMIT University Library 
Bundoora Vic., 3083

phone (03) 9925 7426
fax +61 3 9925 7777
>>> 01/31/04 9:40 PM >>>
In response to the problematic nature of Coppola's film, see below
opinion piece in the Guardian (UK) and readers' letters in response to

Totally lost in translation

The anti-Japanese racism in Sofia Coppola's new film just isn't funny

Kiku Day
Saturday January 24, 2004
The Guardian

Film reviewers have hailed Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation as though
it were the cinematic equivalent of the second coming. One paper even
called it a masterpiece. Reading the praise, I couldn't help wondering not
only whether I had watched a different movie, but whether the plaudits had
come from a parallel universe of values. Lost in Translation is being
promoted as a romantic comedy, but there is only one type of humour in the
film that I could see: anti-Japanese racism, which is its very spine.
In the movie, Bill Murray plays the alienated Bob, a middle-aged actor
shooting whisky commercials in Tokyo. He meets the equally alienated
Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, a Yale graduate accompanying her
fashion photographer husband. The film is billed as exploring their
disconnection from the country they are visiting and from their spouses,
and how they find some comfort in one another through a series of
restrained encounters.

But it's the way Japanese characters are represented that gives the game
away. There is no scene where the Japanese are afforded a shred of
dignity. The viewer is sledgehammered into laughing at these small, yellow
people and their funny ways, desperately aping the western lifestyle
without knowledge of its real meaning. It is telling that the longest
vocal contribution any Japanese character makes is at a karaoke party,
singing a few lines of the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen.

The Japanese half of me is disturbed; the American half is too. The
Japanese are one-dimensional and dehumanised in the movie, serving as an
exotic background for Bob and Charlotte's story, like dirty wallpaper in a
cheap hotel. How funny is it to put the 6ft-plus Bill Murray in an
elevator with a number of overly small Japanese? To manufacture a joke,
the film has Murray contorting himself to have a shower because its head
isn't high enough for him - although he is supposed to be staying in a
five-star hotel. It's made up simply to give western audiences another
stereotype to laugh at. And haven't we had enough about the Japanese
confusing rs and ls when they speak English?

While shoe-horning every possible caricature of modern Japan into her
movie, Coppola is respectful of ancient Japan. It is depicted approvingly,
though ancient traditions have very little to do with the contemporary
Japanese. The good Japan, according to this director, is Buddhist monks
chanting, ancient temples, flower arrangement; meanwhile she portrays the
contemporary Japanese as ridiculous people who have lost contact with
their own culture.

Coppola follows in the footsteps of a host of American artists who became
very interested in the cultural appropriation of East Asia after the
second world war. The likes of Lou Harrison, Steve Reich and John Cage
took "eastern" philosophy, music and concepts to fit an image of the
mysterious east, which is always related to ancient civilisations.

Those not conforming to this never have a voice of their own. They simply
don't have a story to tell, or at least not one that interests "us". This
is the ignoble tradition into which Lost in Translation fits. It is
similar to the way white-dominated Hollywood used to depict
African-Americans - as crooks, pimps, or lacking self control compared
with white Americans.

The US is an empire, and from history we know that empires need to
demonise others to perpetuate their own sense of superiority. Hollywood,
so American mythology has it, is the factory of dreams. It is also the
handmaiden to perpetuating the belief of the superiority of US cultural
values over all others and, at times, to whitewashing history.

The caricatures play to longstanding American prejudice about Japan. The
US forced Japan to open up for trade with other countries in 1864, ending
400 years of isolationist policy by the Tokugawa regime. The US interned
thousands of Japanese during the second world war and dropped two nuclear
bombs on the country. After Japan's defeat, America became more
influential in East Asia; Japan was occupied, not only by the US forces
but, more important, politically and culturally.

Some have hailed the film's subtlety, but to me it is reminiscent of the
racist jokes about Asians and black people that comedians told in British
clubs in the 1970s. Yet instead of being shunned, the film this week
received eight Bafta nominations, and is a hot favourite for the Oscars.

Coppola's negative stereotyping of the Japanese makes her more the
thinking person's Sylvester Stallone than a cinematic genius. Good luck to
the director for getting away with it, but what on earth are people with
some semblance of taste doing saluting it?

 Kiku Day is a musician specialising in shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo
flute); she spent 10 years living in Japan


Mistranslating cultural differences

Tuesday January 27, 2004
The Guardian

As a 6ft 4in Englishman, I have felt quite uncomfortable in crowded lifts
or subway trains in Tokyo, finding myself almost a foot taller than
everyone else. That's a real thing that happens when someone tall goes to
Japan. (Totally lost in translation, January 24).
Another real thing that happens is you find the shower is too low. Maybe
in a five-star hotel this wouldn't be the case, but it's hardly a slur on
Japanese culture to show Bill Murray struggling with the shower. In
slightly cheaper hotels I have had the same experience. I could laugh
because of the film's truth. It doesn't mean the Japanese are stupid or
evil to design their showers around average Japanese body sizes.
Ed Upton

Being a native Welsh speaker, I am used to my compatriots being portrayed
as hymn-singing sheepshaggers. I could only cringe at the similarly
unimaginative, tasteless and outdated racial stereotyping in this film.
Annes Glynn
Bangor, Gwynedd

My gripe is with the film's soundtrack - a lost opportunity to showcase
some of the exceptional home-grown musical talent thriving in today's
Japan, that's not, contrary to popular belief, merely copying western
Garri Rayner

Kiku Day, along with many of my white middle-class friends, has completely
missed the point of Lost in Translation. What they fail to see is that
this film is a fictional story, not a social manifesto. And aren't the
Americans, with their belief that they are the norm, as caricatured as the
Anna Humphries

Just because the film is set in Tokyo, it doesn't have a responsibility to
depict all walks of life in Japan or take on Kiku Day's political agenda.
Sean O'Neil

Westerners do behave like the Americans in Lost in Translation. It may not
be very polite behaviour, and we must be a source of amusement in many
countries, but isn't it more honest to make a film that shows it like it
Irene Carragher

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