A Sampling of Japanese Comment on “Lost in Translation”

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“Lost in Translation” may have lost respect by Japanese viewers for its biased view on their foreign culture. Courtesy of Focus Features.

Is the general Japanese audience offended by the biased and negative portrayal of their people in Sophia Coppola's Oscar winning story?

Translation by Fumie Nakamura

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Sophia Coppola's second feature film, Lost in Translation, has won this year's Academy Award for Best Screenplay, nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Bill Murray), Best Director and Best Picture, snagged three Golden Globe Awards plus many, many more. Domestically, it has received rave reviews as an enchanting and cliché-breaking love story with illuminating performances by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Following its release in Japan in early April, however, Japanese critics and viewers questioned Coppola's cultural bias, depicting Japanese as stereotypical caricatures that can't pronounce their ‘l's and ‘r's correctly (i.e. “lip my stocking,” “You know Lat Pack?”).


On January 31st, a grassroots Asian American organization called Asia Media Watch sponsored and launched a nationwide campaign, lost-in-racism.org, “to petition motion picture industry groups, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Directors Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, and Writers Guild of America” to vote against the film in all Oscar-nominated categories but apparently did not succeed. The organization insisted that the film “dehumanizes the Japanese people by portraying them as a collection of shallow stereotypes who are treated with disregard and disdain.” The website further justifies their dissent with selected quotes from American reviews from TV Guide (“[The] humor is too often based in stereotypical perceptions of Asians…”), The Guardian (“...but there is only one type of humour in the film that I could see: anti-Japanese racism, which is its very spine”), The National Post (“Lost in Translation expresses a distasteful racism through romantic comedy. It says, as racists often do, that foreigners, in this case Japanese, are inherently comic and stupid”), Asian American Movement Ezine (“The film relies on stale stereotypes of the Japanese for laughs… replete with racial gags that draw from the same old Hollywood stereotypes”) and Color Lines Race Wire (“The Japanese are presented not as people, but as clowns… the hilarity is rooted entirely in the ‘otherness' of the Japanese people. We laugh at them, not with them”).


But before jumping the gun and using that potent word “racism,” the logical thing to do is delve into the mind of the director. Why Japan? Lost in Translation apparently infuses autobiographical elements and details based on Coppola's numerous trips to Tokyo in her early and mid-20's according to a Q&A interview with the director and her partner, Ross Katz, (posted on the movie's official website), one of which is the sense of wondrous displacement. She makes no mention of having a Japanese “advisor” on set although 90% of the crew was Japanese, which Coppola reveals prompted real-life incidents of the crew members losing each other in translation as well as spending twice as more time on shoots due to language barriers. Furthermore, the Japanese actors in the project were actually really Japanese-speaking natives (aside from a very few bilingual translators). Taka, the photographer who directs Bob's character during the Satori commercial shoot, really does mispronounce English names in real life and for some odd reason, Coppola wanted to capture the spontaneity of Taka and Bill Murray's dialogue of miscommunication. Now why would she want to do that?


It appears that Coppola's directive aim was to fully contextualize the love story revolving around the two main characters (Charlotte and Bob) who almost unwillingly travel to a city that is foreign to them in every sense of the word – the food, language, culture, humor, mannerisms and beauty. Yes, beauty – let's not forget Coppola's breathtaking shots of Tokyo's invigorating cityscapes and the gorgeous Japanese hotel garden that Charlotte admiringly observes. It seems her intention was to provoke a nostalgic sense of isolation in both Bob and Charlotte solely to enhance their incidental semi-romantic bond as two lost people finding solace in each other. The film could have taken place in any other country but Coppola's personal experiences guided her artistic vision. Plus, I cannot imagine why a “racist” would first fall in love with a foreign city and invest so much time and effort just to make a racist statement against Japanese. Or why a “racist” would enjoy the company of and entrust her Japanese friends like Fumihiro Hayashi, who Coppola affectionately calls Charlie Brown (the guy who sings “God Save the Queen” in the karaoke scene). Her artistic intention is clearly defined in her own words: “I can only say why I wanted to make the movie: to convey what I love about Tokyo and visiting the city. It's about moments in life that are great but don't last. They don't go on, but you always have the memory and they have an effect on you. That's what I was thinking about.”


It's simply a waste of time to lose your minds over racist issues in Lost in Translation. If you object to Coppola's inaccurate portrayal of Japanese culture, go watch a documentary about Tokyo instead – or better yet, experience it for yourself. I believe this issue deals more about understanding the language of film rather than stereotypes and outright racism, and if you're inclined to perceive it as the latter, I'm confident that even the director will tell you that you're simply missing the point. Unfortunately, that would mean you're missing out on a heartfelt, deeply contextualized story that everyone should be able to relate to.




Yomiuri Shinbun

April 19, 2004

By Yoshio Tsuchiya


Lost in Translation, the latest film by Sophia Coppola, was nominated for four Oscars and won for Best Screenplay at the 2004 Academy Awards. Born as daughter of director/producer Francis Ford Coppola, she does not cease to show every aspect of her innovative, creative talent, such as what she showed in her first directed film The Virgin Suicides, raising our expectation towards Lost in Translation.


The story takes place in a hotel in Shinjuku, the central business district of Tokyo, Japan, where all you see is skyscrapers and people scurrying along the busy streets. Newly-wed wife (Scarlett Johansson), who visits Japan with her photographer husband, encounters a middle-age actor (Bill Murray), who also travels to Japan to shoot a TV commercial. The film portrays a platonic relationship between the two isolated people in a foreign country, encouraging and comforting each other. 


Everyone will feel loneliness and isolation from the cultural and language differences when stepping out of one's own country. Right after graduating from college, this newly-wed wife is left in a hotel in Japan alone, totally neglected by her husband who is constantly busy with his job. The actor played by Murray, is isolated and rather disgruntled with his career, and only talks to his wife through international calls just to have some shallow conversations.


These themes in the film are nothing really new: miscommunication or a lack of communication and a puppy love story about two isolated and distressed people.


What really strikes the viewer is the way Coppola perceives Japan: very stereotypical and discriminative. The film makes fun of Japanese who cannot pronounce 'l' and 'r' correctly, depicts a stoic sushi chef that cannot understand English, and show characters complaining at a Sukiyaki place that no one cooks for them, though sukiyaki is something you cook by yourself at a table while servers only bring you ingredients. Moreover, all Japanese characters are submissive, showing a “phony” smile.  


You may be able to say that this film simply depicts how Coppola perceives Japan, yet there could have been a better sarcasm presented, and the entire film could have been a much better satirical work. Although it is unfair to ask a foreign film for a complete understanding towards Japanese culture, this film is nothing more than Coppola's personal visual image of it and is hardly a piece of cultural critique. 


The only thing that shines in the film is Scarlett Johansson and her sensitive acting, which reminds viewers of her recent work, Girl with a Pearl Earring.




Yomiuri Shinbun

By Yasuhisa Harada
April 16, 2004


Sophia Coppola's youthfulness made this film possible. As Francis F. Coppola's much loved daughter, it is the second film that Coppola, 32, directed, and her sensitivity shines in this film. 


Bob (Bill Murray) is a Hollywood star in a mid-life crisis who visits Japan to shoot a TV commercial for a Japanese company. Unfamiliar with the country, he lives in a hotel during his stay, and his interpreter is almost useless. He faces a cultural and language barrier and suffers from jet lag. Eventually, he feels lost and isolated. Situated in such loneliness, he encounters a younger girl who also stays at the same hotel, and they eventually build a relationship. 


Everyone experiences similar situations when traveling to an unfamiliar place. Those who do not carefully observe the little nuances in everyday life may miss out on such themes. In the film, ordinary scenery of Shinjuku starts to appear more indecent and peculiar, showing sharp and accurate directing skills. 


In the United States, some people were concerned that the film might appear as anti-Japanese.  Despite that fact, the film neither tries to dissolute Tokyo nor investigates it; the peculiarity and wonder of the city is accurately reflected. Tokyo was simply picked as the setting for Murray's lonely, wandering self who is at the brink of losing his entire perception on life. There is also a sense of fondness and attachment to the city in the story. 


Above all, there is wonderful humor and breath-taking acting from Bill Murray. We are not so narrow-minded to criticize such a great film.




Yahoo! Japan

May 13, 2004


Although this is only her second work, Sophia Coppola's film seems like something a close friend directed. Maybe it is because this film, in particular, seems very personal, reflecting what Coppola sees. Yet, it does not necessarily mean that she is merely projecting herself in the film; what happens in front of the camera and her aesthetic sense and sensitivity work in great harmony. This harmony does not disappear in a large city like Tokyo at all. Different from Paris and New York City, Tokyo generates an illusion of floating in the air as one passes by with millions of other people walking by so fast. The film also depicts the energy of materialism, ambition, and a sense if emptiness. The presentation of Japan in Lost in Translation differs from that of the Last Samurai and Kill Bill; Tokyo has life in this film. The film is not taken through the eyes of tourists or Japan maniacs who assume they know the culture very well; Tokyo is rather an unknown and foreign planet, filled with fragile beauty. Those who steps into this foreign planet are a Hollywood star, Bob, and Charlotte, the young neglected wife of a photographer. Bob feels isolated by the language barrier, where he only understands 10% of what is being communicated. Charlotte suffers from a sense of loneliness from being ignored by her workaholic husband. Feeling out of place and abandoned by loved ones, the two strangers become the aliens on this peculiar planet. The process in which these two strangers build their love-like friendship is very refreshing, and witnessing their growth of their relationship is a pleasant surprise. Bob and Charlotte share a thin line between the sense of freedom that a traveler feels and that of friendlessness, and their closeness is perfectly depicted by using silence at its fullest: their exchange of eyes at the hotel, when they sit at a Karaoke bar feeling desperate, and in the very last scene. Johansonn's “grumpy” face and her adorable lips all tell indescribable feelings and emotions to the audience. 


You do not have to have a personal experience to relate to the nostalgia within this film. There is something about this film that makes you long for such a “planet.”

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Published: Friday, June 11, 2004