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Lost in Translation

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I finally saw Lost in Translation today [official, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB]. It's only been in German cinemas for a few days so the use of 'finally' isn't really warranted. However, I saw the film's soundtrack at the record store several months ago – without buying it because I only liked a few songs, not the record as a whole – and had been looking forward to seeing the film since. Why? Well, not necessarily but probably in that order:

I think Sofia Coppola is doing her job as a director well and really enjoyed The Virgin Suicides a few years ago. Back then she had the book by Jeffrey Eugenides to go by and a soundtrack by Air to make things flow, which worked very well. This time Air also appear in the soundtrack but it is more diverse. (The bits I heard of their new Talkie Walkie album seemed disappointing to me – any opinions?)

And then there is Japan. You may have guessed that – despite never having been there – I am quite fond of Japanese things, just by the little exposure I got so far. And that's definitely not for the 'spiritual' things but rather for the amazing mix of reduced and outrageous styles as well as tradition and extremely modern life. I also admire the alphabet and enjoyed whatever I could sample of Japanese food so far. (Well, make that whatever minus that potato dish Chiho made for us. Not that it was bad – but it clashed with my dislike of potatoes. Heck, I didn't even know they do potatoes in Japan.)

So, yes, I'd really like to go. And I will when the occasion, time and money for it is there. I actually already have an invitation ever since I told Chiho's mum the (true) sentence we practiced beforehand: 知帆のお姉さんのじょうです。. And when I'm there I'll probably be a bit overwhelmed because suddenly I'll not only be a foreigner but also an analphabet. The kana-letters and the very few Kanji I have learned along with my sloooow reading speed won't be much help here. And that's not talking about my complete lack of vocabulary and grammar. Sadly, it seems to be hard to take classes in Japanese here that are less time-consuming than those for people studying the language at university.

And this being lost brings us straight into the film. Two strangers, Bob (Bill Murray, from Ghostbusters Groundhog Day fame and Charlies Angels 'fame' – sometimes reminding me of Jack Nicholson in As good as it gets.), an old actor shooting a whiskey Japanese commercial, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson, who's only 20), the young wife of a band photographer, meet in their hotel's bar in Tokyo suffering from jet lag and disorientation. They're not too happy, both with their respective marriages and their current situation in Tokyo. And while the next step seems obvious – it is, refreshingly, not taken in the film.

Colourful Screenshot from 'Bet Hit TV' Show scene Instead, the two just get closer and try to be less miserable in Tokyo. This involves going out with some freakish Japanese people, cool clubs, a booth in a karaoke bar which despite the quality of the singing did look quite cool thanks to the good filming, amazing Japanese game parlours (I mean really amazing; I'm not a game player but those looked so varied: with drums or with a guitar to play along with a song – and your girlfriend admiring you doing so –, rythmical stuff) and zillions of neon-lights all over the town.

While these things looked cool (those video games…), I did wonder whether this isn't a bit too close to your average stereotype. Thankfully there was no opportunity to draw on the good old 'used knickers from vending machines' story. Add to that the constant bowing of the Japanese hosts and business partners and the ridiculing thereof by the strangers as well as the language problems – and again the ridiculing of those – and I wonder whether the film can seem a bit insulting towards Japanese people.

While I know from both my own experience and what Chiho told me of her former job as an English teacher in Japan that many Japanese people find it very hard to speak English, even with a lot of effort going into it (theories being that if you don't hear sounds in your childhood, you won't be able to learn distinguishing, let alone using, them properly when you're grown up; and Japanese having fewer sounds than other languages – no 'r', say, to pick a famous example). So without wanting to be politically correct, I believe it's rather rude to go to another country whose language you don't speak but whose people try to speak yours and then not make an effort to understand what they're saying but rather sneer at them.

I guess, that's the aspect of the film I didn't like. I'll try to hear some Japanese opinions on that. And perhaps I'll learn that way everything the director says during the shoot at the beginning of the film.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

January 13, 2004, 2:31

Tagged as bill murray, country:jp, film, lost in translation, scarlett johansson, sofia coppola.

Comments

Comment by brian w: User icon

The NY Times actually had an article which was a full translation of that scene. It was called “What Else Was Lost in Translation” but it’s behind the gatekeeper now so you’d have to pay to read it.

Personally, I felt like Coppolla was trying to portray the weird, disjointed feeling Americans/foreigners have when visiting Japan as total outsiders; the film wasn’t meant to be racist at all.

January 13, 2004, 3:45

Comment by Bob Ippolito: User icon

The video games are not a stereotype.. I was in Tokyo for two and a half weeks in December. There are plenty of arcades and pachinko parlors. The arcades have a whole slew of fun rhythm games to play, stupid photo booths to take your picture in, and UFO Catchers (I have no idea why they are so p opular). I’m particularly fond of Taiko no Tatsujin (“drum master” .. I think they played it in the movie).

As far as knowing Japanese goes — it would’ve helped immensely, but I got along there without it (though I had help most of the time).

Actually, Japanese has no ‘l’ .. thats why we call it Engrish :) Technically the sound is more like halfway between ‘r’ and ‘l’, but it sounds more like ‘r’ to me (as a native English speaker).

January 13, 2004, 4:11

Comment by ssp: User icon

Brian: I think ‘racist’ would be a very strong word and I don’t think it was meant to insult people. Still, I thought this was overdone, particularly in the scene where Bob has shootings of some kind.

Bob: Right, the Japanese consider it ‘r’, to me it sounds more like ‘l’ - ‘r’s being usually harder in German. But basically both sounds seem to be the same for native Japanese speakers, even though they’re distinct for English speakers. The same seems to go for ‘b’ and ‘v’ – at least I had to settle for ???, suben, when Chiho transcribed my name. Of course we can play that game the other way round as well, in Thai they seem to have nine different intonations each vowel. My Thai flatmate once demonstrated this to me and I with a lot of concentration I could tell perhaps five of them apart - and that would probably less when people speak whole words or sentences.

What’s a UFO catcher, by the way?

January 13, 2004, 11:10

Comment by Bob Ippolito: User icon

A UFO Catcher is a joystick and a button used to control a “crane” that may or may not pick up some toy (seemed to be mostly stuffed animals and such). I forget what they’re called in the US, I haven’t been in an arcade here in years.

January 14, 2004, 0:08

Comment by ssp: User icon

Right, I have seem those. Just didn’t know their name. Then I’ll agree with you. I’ve always found them very boring. In particular as I have never seen anyone actually being able to grab one of the prizes.

January 15, 2004, 1:44

Comment by ssp: User icon

Read a Guardian comment on racism in Lost in Translation.

While I don’t see it quite as strongly, the comment makes the problems very clear.

January 24, 2004, 13:59

Comment by Mary: User icon

I’ve never been in Japan and I wonder if what I see in the movie is true to life. Anyway, I had a lot of fun… Mary

October 16, 2004, 18:34

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