Lost in Translation (2003)

Sharon Mizota and Oliver Wang

Lost in Translation one-ups its peers with better music, prettier shots, and a more charismatic lead, but its racism is all the more insidious for being wrapped in a pleasing package.

Lost in Translation

Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Anna Faris, Giovanni Ribisi
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Focus
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2004-02-10

The DVD of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation includes an extra titled "Matthew's Best Hit TV." It's a five-minute clip of Bob Harris (Bill Murray) on a Japanese talk show, where he is ambushed by the hyperbolically campy host. In the film, we see only a few moments of this sequence -- Bob looking wary of the host's wild gesticulations and rapid-fire Japanese -- but the unedited scene is far more awkward. Shot on video rather than 35mm, the scene resembles the sort of bad SNL skit that Murray might have suffered through in his early career. The only bit of charm comes at the end, when an exasperated Bob abandons decorum and stuffs a live eel down the host's suit jacket. This moment rescues a scene that is otherwise a series of cheap shots set against a mesmerizing, colorful background. That is, Lost in Translation in a nutshell.

While Murray is undeniably excellent as a slumping, has-been action star, and Lance Accord's cinematography infuses the film with a fetching, quiet beauty, the rest of Lost in Translation is as transparently thin as the pink panties that Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson) strips down to whenever she decides to stare wistfully out of her Park Hyatt window. (About those pink panties: one can't help but notice that Charlotte actually sheds clothes to take her perch. Is there an overactive heating vent beneath the window ledge? Or is her privileged quarter-life crisis so overwhelming that she has to strip in order to free her ennui? It is either one of the film's great existential enigmas or a shameless acknowledgement that Charlotte's gauze-wrapped bum makes a reliably eye-catching shot.)

Lost in Translation is awash in such arresting visual moments. A 20-story brontosaurus lumbers across the facade of a Shibuya office building. A neon kaleidoscope skates across Charlotte's taxi window. Rows of blinking red lights sigh across the Tokyo skyline. Accord portrays Japan's uber-metropolis as an enticing ocular playground where every shadow is inviting, every light a beacon, and the hues put a rainbow to shame.

But this vision of Tokyo is affecting because it's recognizable: since Japan's rise to economic power in the '80s, Hollywood movies have endlessly recycled Tokyo as high-tech dystopia. And Coppola's movie reads like a playlist of Tokyo's Greatest Hits: blinking pachinko machines? Check. Wood-paneled shabu shabu booth? Got that. Demure ikebana flower arrangers? Yup. Modernist girlie bar with contortionist strippers? Oh yeah.

It's all familiar background, made from postcards and stock extras who all stand 5'6", slur their "L's" into "R's," and chatter incomprehensibly like so many small children. True, it would undermine the whole "lost in translation" theme if Coppola provided subtitles for the monolingual, English-speaking audience, but in encouraging viewers to feel as stranded as Bob and Charlotte, she also has them adopt their troubling view of Tokyo as an exotic yet tiresome playground.

The common defense of the film's orientalism is that Tokyo is "just a backdrop," that Coppola is not trying to make a "statement" about Japan, its culture or its people. But this excuse fails to acknowledge the ways in which Japan (and Asia writ large) has long served as a stage set where white people play out their existential dilemmas. In the last six months alone, Tom Cruise traveled to feudal Japan to rediscover his honor in Dances with Shoguns, and Uma Thurman flew into Tokyo to avenge her stolen past in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. In Japanese Story, though Toni Collette finds herself in her native Australia, co-star Gotaro Tsunashima conveniently serves as a one-man distillation of Nippon's inscrutable mystery.

Lost in Translation one-ups its peers with better music, prettier shots, and a more charismatic lead, but its racism is all the more insidious for being wrapped in a pleasing package. It exchanges the Rising Sun/Black Rain/we-can't-trust-these-slant-eyed-Japanese-bastards racism for a racism of sheer laziness: trotting out one-dimensional caricatures of wacky Tokyo hipsters and cheap gags like the call girl who keeps commanding Bob to "rick my stockings!" long after the joke has gone from blandly humorous to disturbingly cruel.

That said, there is one scene that exhibits something approaching humanity. When Bob takes Charlotte to the hospital, he finds himself engaged in a futile, linguistically challenged conversation with an elderly Japanese woman in the waiting room. Their halting pantomimes and onomatopoeic utterances send two women seated behind them into a fit of giggles. By placing the laughter on screen, Coppola unseats the sense of superiority inherent in Bob's alienation. Rather than a bemused outsider, he becomes part of the joke; the Japanese are laughing at him, too. The DVD offers another version of the scene: Bob abandons any attempt to understand, putting his arm around his waiting room neighbor's shoulder in a silent gesture of camaraderie. In that moment, they're both lost in translation, and their connection, as they agree to misunderstand, is far more affecting than any other in the film, including Bob and Charlotte's.

The two leads do share some touching moments of tenderness, but their relationship hinges on the shaky premise that we are supposed to care about them. The film assumes we'll feel sympathy for Charlotte's "I don't know what I'm doing with my life/marriage!" laments and Bob's slow descent into faded glory and chilly family life. However, it's difficult to work up the requisite sympathy for a snotty Yale graduate and a wealthy movie star who spend their sleepless nights pouting in the hotel bar and taking midnight swims in the indoor pool.

Star-crossed and unconsummated lovers, Bob and Charlotte deserve each other, not just because they're lost and lonely, but also because they're both too self-centered to see the world around them. Wrapped in the myopia of whiteness and American cultural privilege, they fail to see the humanity of the city and people around them.

In one of the DVD's other deleted scenes, Charlotte walks into a random store off the main Tokyo strip. In it, she glances at some bondage photos of Japanese women, then walks over to where two robots, a "boy" and a "girl," roll over to her, briefly looking up at her with lifeless eyes. They "see" but don't recognize Charlotte in any meaningful way. She's merely an object they sense in front of them, worthy of a quick investigation but nothing more. It's an ironic allegory for Lost in Translation itself, a swirl of titillating yet fleeting postcard images and people who glance at one another but never connect.

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