by Satoshi Kawase
Nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay), winner of 3 Golden Globe Awards, and a box office success in America and Europe, the critically acclaimed second film by Sofia Coppola (daughter of Francis Ford Coppola) arrives in Japanese theaters. And you didn’t know?
Don’t feel too bad, you’re not the only one. As of press time, the distributor of the movie has decided not to launch any commercials, or print any ads or posters. You won’t see celebrities talking about it on the variety shows, and moreover, it’s been reported that only one medium-sized theater in the whole of Tokyo will be showing the film. The only place you’ll be able to see it here in Fukuoka is at the 60-seat indie theater Cineterie, pending a huge response in the meantime. Like a wandering visitor who has accidentally stepped into the wrong room, “Lost in Translation” enters Japan almost like a “whoops”, with a hasty departure thereafter.
But how can this be? In the movie year where Meiji-era epic “Last Samurai” and the manga-centric “Kill Bill” commanded star-studded Ginza openings with big budget ad campaigns and were hugely popular throughout Japan, how is it that the one Hollywood film set in Japan, the most critically acclaimed of them all, enters the country like a whisper?
The nature of the film has a lot to do with it. The other films mentioned conform a great deal to genres that Japanese people can relate to. Whereas the ﾒLast Samuraiﾓ is akin to a “Jidai Geki” (the equivalent of the Western in America) and ﾒKill Billﾓ is essentially a live action anime movie, “Lost in Translation” is a comedy, and humor often does not translate well across the two cultures (Unless of course it’s a teenager having sex with an apple pie. That’s funny everywhere).
What Japanese viewers are not going to understand about this film is perhaps the very thing that foreigners will find the most hilarious. For example, in one scene Bill Murray is seen shooting a whiskey commercial and the director gives a Fellini-esque prima-donna rant, completely in Japanese, which translates roughly to “This set is costing us a lot of money! I need you to focus! You need to look like the whisky is a long lost friend!” Bill Murray, who understands absolutely no Japanese, can only look in desperation as if all he heard was “Blah blah, blah, blah, focus! Blah blah, blah, blah, friend!”
In this moment, the English speaking audience, who see the film with no subtitles, cannot but feel resolvedly connected to this character because essentially they are as confused as he is. The culture gap between the Japanese and the Westerner generates this sense of confusion, which Sofia Coppola uses as the background for the movie. That said, it’s pretty obvious why its success in Japan is not expected – to a Japanese person there is no cultural gap.
Some have proclaimed the movie to be racist. Over-the-top Japanese caricatures with their slurred Rs and Ls abound in “Lost in Translation” and none have any meaningful roles other than to provide setting or act as a comic prop. Lost-in-racism.org, an Asian-American advocacy website, writes that the film portrays Japanese as a “collection of shallow stereotypes”, while a British-born Japanese reviewer of The Guardian has labeled the role of Japanese in the film as “dirty wallpaper in a cheap hotel”. However, foreigners living in Japan who have seen the film can attest that it echoes many of their personal experiences in this country. Sofia Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, experienced life as a foreigner in Japan, when she designed and launched a clothing brand in Tokyo. In rebuttal to those who argue that the film is racist, foreigners may very well claim that the leading characters and their complete obliviousness to their surroundings does more to mock them than their Japanese counterparts.
To be fair, if a Japanese movie company released their own version of “Lost in Translation”, featuring only fat-assed hamburger-eating Americans wearing cowboy hats and the only English speaking character was Hulk Hogan, we’d probably be a little angry too. On the other hand such a film may do well to mirror the perceptions that Japanese have of us. While ﾒLost in Translationﾓ obviously had a lot of success in the market it was intended for, the Japanese market-appeal is debatable, in fact the very essence of the film may be lost in translation.
Lost in Culture Gap
by Kine Mantaro, Local Film Critic
For many foreigners living in Japan, comical moments just seem to happen. Often they are simply the result of innocent cultural misunderstandings. For filmakers these cultural mishaps can be a source of humour or shame. Fukuoka veteran film crtitic, Kine Mantaro highlights some of his favorite scenes depicting cultural faux-pas and inaccuracies.
Whatﾕs customary and normal in one country is often comedic fodder in another. In the surprising smash hit ﾒMy Big Fat Greek Weddingﾓ, Tula, a woman of Greek heritage, falls in love with a non-Greek, Ian Miller. In her struggle to get her family to accept him, she comes to terms with her cultural identity. Along the way, the vegetarian Ian is faced with lamb on a spit and baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. He learns spitting wards off evil spirits, drinking ouzo strengthens family ties and Windex cures all. The movie concludes with Tulaﾕs father delivering a wedding toast. Explaining that his Greek last name means ﾒorangeﾓ, he informs the Miller family that in Greek their last name translates to mean ﾒappleﾓ. He declares ﾒHere tonight, we have apples and we have oranges. We may be different, but in the end, weﾕre all fruit.ﾓ Cultural gap comedies have shifted in tone. A medium that once served only to poke fun at foreign culture now works to embrace differences with plenty of laughs along the way.
Looking back at cultural gap comedies from the past highlights this shift. In the 1988 film ﾒRed Heatﾓ, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays an undercover Russian KGB agent tracking down a criminal who has fled to America. The elite Prussian soldier complete with the stereotypical buzz cut and stodgy suit finds himself in a cheap hotel on the dodgy side of town. The TV in the room showcases a grainy porno and Schwarzenegger mutters, ﾒCapitalistsﾓ. This low brow cultural satire might have been funny in the 80ﾕs. But 20 years later, audiences know that things are different out there, but not that different. In this world of globalization and internationalization, audiences arenﾕt watching your fatherﾕs cultural gap comedy. If youﾕre looking for real culture differences youﾕll have better luck finding them within a country. In director Moritaﾕs film ﾒThe Delicious Weddingﾓ, a Japanese couple argues over whether to put the egg in the okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) mix or cook it separately leading to laughs and a cultural clash within Japan.
However whether it is the past or the present, Hollywood likes to poke fun at Japanese food, namely sushi. In the opening of the 80ﾕs futuristic sci-fi masterpiece “Blade Runner”, Harrison Ford enters a yatai (Japanese food cart) where udon is typically served. Instead, the yatai serves as a quasi-sushi bar. Some vision of the future — they havenﾕt sold sushi at yatai since the Edo period. But maybe Ridly Scott was onto something. Arguably, he foresaw the popularity of sushi in the West; maybe he also sensed udon would one day be the submenu at sushi restaurants. Brilliant!
A similar cultural exaggeration occur in ﾒLost in Translationﾓ when we see Japanese businessmen lining up to formally present their business cards to Bill Murray. A little dramatic yes, but thatﾕs pretty much how card exchanging goes. Bowing your head when youﾕre on the phone and the other person canﾕt even see you? Yeah, yeah, weﾕve all done it. Many Japanese feel they are misrepresented in movies like “Rising Sun” where cultural inaccuracies are portrayed as the norm. In the film, guests are greeted by geisha at a reception. This is not precise portrayal of Japanese culture, it’s American culture with stereotypical ingredients of Japanese culture mixed in. It’s kind of like our Japanese English. We think it looks oddly-wonderful and exotic but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s really Japanese infused with often incorrect English words. Similarly, in the original “Godzilla” the monster lives off of nuclear energy but in the American Hollywood version Godzilla eats fish. Itﾕs a Japanese monster, so obviously it must eat fish.
Looking back at Mickey Rooneyﾕs portrayal of a Japanese man in ﾒBreakfast at Tiffanyﾕsﾓ, itﾕs obvious weﾕve come a long way. Newer films possess a more subtle humor. In ﾒKnotting Hillﾓ, Hugh Grant is overcome with joy and expresses himself by kissing a hotel employee. The befuddled Japanese man standing behind Grant does the same. Itﾕs just a joke, but itﾕs important to remember that heﾕs merely ﾒimpersonatingﾓ Grant. This works to play sensitively on a culture gap. So for those foreigners out there, pronounce McDonaldﾕs ﾒmakudonarudoﾓ. Also when the sign reads ﾒFree Drink, Free Foodﾓ, this doesnﾕt mean you donﾕt have to pay. Remember, itﾕs important to have a sense of humor and letﾕs enjoy cultural differences together.
Hollywood’s turning Japanese!
“Lost in Translation” wasn’t the only Japan-related film from Hollywood last year. Kine Mantaro shares his notes on two others, Kill Bill and Last Samurai.
While it’s obvious that ALL samurai tied their hair back in ponytails and carried swords on their hips, even most Japanese don’t know there was a government conspiracy to wipe them out. And wow, so many Japanese speaking English in the Meiji era! The Prime Ministerﾕs English was exquisite, but the samurai leader and the Emperor too? Early Nova or Geos students perhaps? Then as Tom Cruise’s ship enters Yokohama harbor, Mt. Fuji looms in the background. Now we know that Mt. Fuji is big but it’s impossible to see it from that harbor today. Maybe it was bigger back in Meji era or maybe erosion is a real problem?
Like “Lost In Translation” this film doesn’t give the audience the benefit of subtitles for the Japanese dialogue but I think they should, considering Uma Thurman’s Japanese sounds more like a rare Ukrainian dialect (to me). I sure as heck couldn’t figure out what she was saying. Also next time I board a plane in Japan I think I’ll follow Uma’s lead and pack my katana sword in my carry-on. Japan’s such a safe country – no guns, just swords.