Sophia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” is, at first blush, a modern take on a theme that has been hashed out ad nauseam by filmmakers and writers for centuries. Upon closer examination, though, “Lost In Translation” pursues a markedly different understanding of the concept of othering than similar works by portraying the westerners as the “other”. In this case “othering” is not a device by which the flaws and oddities of Asian culture are commented on, but rather a mirror that forces the western protagonists (and the western audience) to consider the implications of existence in a culture that is not their own. Because Coppola draws no moralistic conclusions, makes no assertions to superiority, and conveys a constant theme of alienation the audience is forced to construe their own concept of the identity of the other.
“Lost in Translation” tells the story of two Americans cast adrift in the world of modern Tokyo. They struggle with elements of their lives and identities while dealing with the immense culture shock of life in a society that they do not understand. Much of the film, both visually and through the dialogue is spent dealing with the gulf that separates the two protagonists from the society they now find themselves in. This over-arching theme of “otherness” is advanced by the cinematography, the language, the cultural context and the stereotypes employed by the directors to tell her story. A recurring theme is the titular inability of the characters to connect in a meaningful way to their environment due to their inability to understand Japanese. While this is used to comedic effect, the purpose is clear, it establishes language as the gate keeper to culture and without understanding of the former you will forever be the “other” in the latter. Compounded with the interactions of the protagonists with their environment and each other, this creates a powerful sense of not belonging that pervades the whole film giving voice to the idea that, in changed cultural context, we are all the other.
Section Author: Danny Otto
Stranger In a Strange Land:
Shooting the Environment of the “Other” In Lost In Translation
Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation is a stellar film, not just for its acting, but also for its cinematography and the environment it creates to further its central theme of isolation and a despondent sense of not belonging. This idea of loneliness is central to the over arching theme of “reverse othering” that is visible throughout.
The film centers around two Americans who are living briefly in Tokyo. Both protagonists are locked in unhappy marriages, suffer from insomnia, and are struggling to find meaning in their lives and careers. Bill Murray’s character, Bob, is a washed up actor whose star is slowly fading. He is in Japan shooting a whiskey commercial, and thus is virtually constantly attended (and in some cases, harassed) by an entourage of Japanese translators and facilitators. In spite of the near constant presence of people, it is obvious that Bob is ill at ease with the culture. Consistently, throughout the course of the movie, he struggles not just with hearing and understanding his Japanese counterparts, but also with being himself, heard.
Bob’s despair is poignantly captured in various visual metaphors for the cultural gulf he finds himself to be surrounded by. The most ubiquitous of these is are the stunning “extreme long shots” shot from inside the hotel. These shots serve the purpose of creating a dichotomy in which Bill Murray’s character is imprisoned. He lives in a gilded cage, surrounded by a stunning vibrant world that he neither understands, nor understands him. Furthermore Bob is painfully aware that he can never truly be a part of that world. The long shots vary throughout the course of the movie; some show iconic elements of the Tokyo skyline, while others show shots of common city streets and high rises that could have been taken in any major city on any continent. This is the first visual hint the audience is given of the theme of reverse othering. Unlike the othering evident in “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” and “The World of Suzie Wong”, this differentiation is not commentary on who the westerner is, but rather, who the westerner is not. There is no moralizing message, no claim by the director in the superiority of western culture; it is simply a vignette displaying the violent whiplash of culture shock. He is the outsider in a city that is simultaneously strikingly familiar and yet utterly foreign.
The scenes of his retreats to the gym, the bar, and his room are all dominated with a unifying color scheme. The décor is warmly appointed with rich reds and soft yellow lighting but is shot with a slightly blue cast. This technique is one commonly used to render an environment foreign and unsettling by creating a disparity between warm comforting colors and the cold, blue atmosphere that pervades. Unlike “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” where the mood was intended to be threatening, the environment here creates a bubble in which Bob is suspended. Life goes on around him, and he is caught in a cultural eddy.This “fish bowl” environment is linked to his world (the world of modern America) by his hotel phone and the fax machine in his room. These gadgets, which should provide solace, instead are ever-present reminders of the realities of his separation. This idea is manifested and underscored by middle of the night phone calls and faxes due to the time difference. Bob oscillates between desperately seeking out the company of others and fleeing into his own private world when he feels the discomforting isolation of being the “other” in an extraordinarily culturally and ethnically homogenous culture.
One of the most poignant shots of the movie occurs at the 43 minute mark. Bob, desperate for an escape seeks solace in the solitude of the golf links. The shot features a deep depth of field and frames Bob standing framed in the iconic profile of Mt. Fuji as the volcano looms in the distance. It is a two-layered visual metaphor, with the first layer being the inescapable fact that Murray’s character is a stranger in a strange land playing in the shadow of the most prominent symbol of the country whose culture he feels lost in. The second layer is the symbolic monolithic solitude of the mountain itself mirroring his own feelings of helpless isolation.
Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, lives in a world parallel to Bob. Though they are separated by many years in age, the feelings of desperate loneliness and not belonging are themes that transcend years. However, the ways Coppola elects to shoot Charlotte’s loneliness are unique to her and help establish Charlotte as an individual. Whereas Bob withdraws into himself upon feeling “othered”, Charlotte tries to get lost in her local environment. She is seen frequenting the same temples, parks, and arcades as the Japanese locals, but only as an observer. Similar to Bob, Charlotte seems to have an invisible bubble around her that pushes others away. Throughout the movie, it is uncommon to see people closer than three feet to her. To illustrate her lack of belonging, Coppola creates an iconic shot of Charlotte at a crosswalk. As the Japanese citizens swirl around her, she walks perpendicular to the stream of people. She is in the culture, but not of the culture.
These few examples exemplify the environment of otherness that Coppola endeavors to create. It is not the othering of “Bitter Tea” where culture and race are irreconcilable incongruencies, nor is it the otherness of “Suzie Wong” where cultural differences are barriers that are surmountable through assimilation. The othering of “Lost In Translation” is an observation that draws no conclusions. Western culture is not proven superior, there are no grand speeches about tolerance made. The movie simply shows that to another culture, each of us is the other.
(“City Girl” music video, property of Kevin Shield and Sophia Coppola)
The Function of Reverse Othering and Debating Orientalism
Section Author: Clayton Kenerson
Lost in Translation (2003) is an interesting film choice to conclude a brief but in depth study of Hollywood’s cinematic discourse of East Asia because the story inversely approaches the common theme of otherness and does not place Asians or Eastern ideals in a critical light like typical East Asian discourse from the interwar and Cold War periods in Hollywood. While there is an otherness, there is not a binary comparison where either the East or West is superior. The story is an account of two white Americans whose whimsical lives lead them to Tokyo, Japan where their destinies temporarily align only to eventually disentangle by the end of their stay in the foreign land. The film is largely intended for Western audiences and assumes the perspective of the two American protagonists, but their focus is mostly on one another, rather than the people or landscape of Japan. This emphasis casts the white leads as the “other,” which is the opposite perspective of the other films studied. In so doing, Japan becomes the backdrop that pushes the two leads together, rather than the target of social commentary. The environment is markedly different than what either protagonist or the viewer is accustomed to and the viewer is intended to share in the confusion that the pair endures. The only characterizations of Japan offered are anecdotal scenes of the traditional and the hyper-modern that are excessively overt but still innocuous.
Bob Harris, deftly portrayed by Bill Murray, is an American movie star evidently on the decline, who is using his fleeting celebrity to make a quick $2 million by endorsing a Japanese whiskey. A series of communications from his wife indicate that Bob is disconnected from his family and not just because of his stint in Japan. For example, Bob receives a fax from his wife minutes into the film reminding him about his son’s birthday which has now passed. The remainder of the film is peppered with communications from his wife and Bob’s own reflections that show how disassociated with his family he has become, presumably because of his stardom.
Similarly, recent college graduate Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, is disenchanted with her husband of two years. When Bob asks Charlotte what she is doing in Japan she meekly replies about her husband’s photography work and adds, “I wasn’t doing anything, so I came along.” Despite seeming very capable, Charlotte admits to Bob that she does not know what to do in life. Charlotte’s husband is pictured very infrequently and when he is present he quickly churns out declarations of love for Charlotte that seem to overcompensate for the absence of emotional love. Charlotte laments to a friend about her forlorn marriage but her cry falls upon deaf ears.
The protagonists’ disillusionment with their family lives as well as the uncertainty of their careers causes unease and confusion that is then exacerbated by the foreign environment they are placed in. Naturally, they gravitate towards each other as they spectate Japanese culture in an isolated fashion, never really interacting with the environment except for half-hearted excursions for ikebana and shabu shabu. For the purposes of the film, the star-crossed pair could have found themselves in any foreign land. Tokyo’s function as being a foreign backdrop, as opposed to an interactive setting strongly resonates in the trailer. (Youtube: Lost in Translation Trailer) There is no explicit reference to Japan in the trailer other than neon signs with Japanese characters and a flash of a woman in tradition wedding attire and makeup. The trailer reads, “he doesn’t speak the language” without placing Bob in a strongly Japanese context. Instead of featuring spoken Japanese, the only Japanese speakers are speaking “japish,” a combination of Japanese and English. The trailer fittingly asserts Japan as a dummy variable for any foreign land where a language barrier and cultural differences can create strong disparities with the protagonists’ normal environment. The trailer continues on to a scene where Bob wants to “get out of this bar, then the city, then the country.” This indistinct reference reiterates the alienation Bob feels in this foreign place but does not address Japan in particular.
The film does not exhibit the antagonizing orientalism described by Said, Klein, et al. that is rampant in other films we have studied such as Sayonara (1957) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960). The absence of meaningful Japanese characters is obvious. In the bedroom scenes below, taken from Sayonara and Lost in Translation (from left to right), one can see the drastic differences between the respective characters and the relationship dynamics. The film is not critical of Japan because of the ancillary role the setting plays in the drama, which is strictly between Bob and Charlotte. Also, Hollywood and western audiences are much more understanding and familiar with Japanese culture than they were decades ago so one should expect orientalism as discourse to have largely dissipated by the 21st century. The anecdotes of Japanese culture were neither critical, nor explicitly supportive, but seem to satisfy Bob and Charlotte’s exploration expectations (and by extension are intended to meet the viewer’s expectations).
However, some instances of Japanese modernity and progressivism seemed purposefully over the top such as the wildly flamboyant TV show host (below) and the maze of arcade game machines Bob and Charlotte run through. There are a few scenes that could be misinterpreted as insulting the Japanese such as when Bob stands a head taller than everyone in a crowded elevator, however Bob’s expression is enervated and apathetic and he is underdressed. The scene involving the Japanese prostitute that Bob rejects could also be offensive but Bob’s apparent moral superiority is then undermined by a one-night-stand with the American hotel performer. The cultural scenes serve to expose some differences and peculiarities of Japan but nothing more. Additionally, Bob and Charlotte’s relationship (both married and a generation apart) is morally questionable and the absence of any foil-like or antithetical Japanese characters indicates that the film is not advocating Western culture over Eastern or vice-versa. The purpose of the film to unfold a transient connection between two lost souls from their perspective in a foreign environment overpowers any undercurrents of orientalism.
Bob later watches himself on TV, confused and overwhelmed with a translator that provides little clarification as to what is happening:
All due property rights associated in anyway with Lost in Translation and Sayonara go to their respective owners.
The Translatable Message of Lost in Translation
Section author: Ryan Fliss
The film Lost in Translation puts at issue language’s translatability. In this film, Bill Murray’s character, American movie star Bob Harris, understands neither Japanese language nor Japanese culture, yet he has to endure both while in Japan to shoot a commercial. From this Westerner’s point of view, translation is impossible. Language is portrayed as inextricably linked to culture as the film problematizes the idea that words from one language can be translated into another and all the while maintain their meaning. Translation is made even more problematic by culture, as the Japanese culture attributes nuanced layers of meaning to words in a way that makes them very different from their English counterparts (and vice versa). One key scene demonstrates Harris’ “lost” condition. He finds that, even in translation, he does not understand Japanese language or culture at all. Through a close reading of this scene, this essay will demonstrate how Lost in Translation is a film about language and culture being intertwined, which makes translation nearly impossible.
Once he arrives in Japan and is situated in a luxurious Japanese hotel, Harris does not hesitate to get to business. After eight minutes, the film cuts to Harris in a studio surrounded by Japanese filming personnel and executives from the whiskey company. This scene portrays Murray’s character truly lost in translation. The commercial’s Japanese director fits the artist type with his blue-tinted glasses, shoulder-length hair, and leather jacket. His 25-second dialogue opens the scene, all of which is in Japanese and all of which is directed to Harris. The Japanese translator tells Harris: “He want you to tell, look in camera, OK?” This seems far too brief a translation, and Harris voices skepticism about the translation’s validity when he asks the translator, “That’s all he said?”
When Harris attempts to draw out elaboration, the sequence of events repeats itself. This time, however, his words must go through the translator, to the director, back through the translator, and then back to him, a process that takes almost 30 seconds. The response is just as confusing: “Right side [of his face] and with intensity.” Harris again is incredulous, persisting: “Is that everything? I mean it seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.” After such long dialogues in Japanese followed by disproportionately short translations, the translation’s validity cannot helped but be called into question. The fact that Harris voices this concern demonstrates that the translation is intentionally depicted as lacking, and to such an extent that it is humorous. Keep these ideas in mind when watching the clip from this scene below:
This analysis may still seem obvious given the film’s title Lost in Translation, however this scene also introduces the root cause of untranslatability: culture, and its undeniable affect on language. When the director calls for “intensity” in this scene, Harris adopts a persona that he thinks reflects intensity, a conception based on his American background. For the director, this is wrong. He again calls for “intensity,” and Harris again does not deliver what he has in mind. This is frustrating for both of them, but especially for Harris who experiences this problem throughout the film. They both have a basic understanding of ‘intensity’ as an emotion associated with whiskey, acting, and commercials, however their complex understanding of the word obviously differs.
Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski provides a valuable analysis about how culture makes words untranslatable in his work Coral Gardens and Their Magic (1935). Malinowski’s examples span a variety of languages, but to emphasize the untranslatable nature of language he confines the issue to linguistically-similar Europe:
Let us take the simplest example, the numeral ‘one,’ un, ein. They correspond closely in counting. But un homme, ein Mann is not ‘one man’ but ‘a man’. ‘One man one vote’ could not be translated by un homme un vote, nor is ein Mann ein Wort translatable into ‘one man one word’…As soon as we come to derived uses, to subsidiary meanings, to idiomatic handling of words, the equivalence [of ‘one’=un] breaks down. (1935, p. 13)
Malinowski relates these linguistic differences to differences in culture: “When we pass even from one European country to another we find that cultural arrangements, institutions, interests and systems of values change greatly. Translation in the correct sense must refer therefore not merely to different linguistic uses but often to the different cultural realities behind the words” (1935, p. 14). Thus, it makes sense given the difference in “cultural realities” that Harris’ American concept of “intensity” would be different from what the director Japanese translates as “intensity.” This somewhat simple term does not translate, and Malinowski does a good job of describing how language resists true translation:
The translatability of words or texts between two language systems is not a matter of mere readjustment of verbal symbols. It must always be based on a unification of cultural context. Even when two cultures have much in common, real understanding and the establishment of a community of linguistic implements is always a matter of difficult, laborious and delicate readjustment. (Malinowski, 1935, p. 14)
In this light, Lost in Translation is much more than just a film about one man’s struggle with the Japanese language; it is instead a film that depicts to an extreme how the English language and American culture do not translate easily into the Japanese language and culture, and vice versa.
Translation is not a direct correlation as some might believe, and in fact true translation that succeeds both linguistically and culturally is impossible. The film industry creates cultural discourses, texts that interact with and effect culture in their respective language, and thus it deals with this issue in each of its productions. Films and, by extension, language and culture do not translate directly, and it is the poignant treatment of this fact that makes Lost in Translation’s message resonate with viewers of any culture.
(References: Malinowski, B. (1935). Coral gardens and their magic; a study of the methods of tilling the soil and of agricultural rites in the Trobriand Islands. New York: American Book Co.)
Cultural Stereotypes in Lost in Translation
Section Author: Luke Nicastro
Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation is an examination of the budding relationship between two adrift Americans during a short stay in Tokyo, with their personal complexities, ambiguities, and intimacies forming the focus of the movie. Because of this, the specific setting is of secondary importance. What matters is not that Coppola’s protagonists come together in Tokyo, but that they meet in an alien metropolis shot through with strangeness and modernity. Beyond this, the actual details of setting are necessarily refracted by the introversion and alienation of Americans Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). Of course, Coppola did choose to set the film in Tokyo, making Japan the raw material to be processed through her characters’ psychological lenses. Lost in Translation’s presentation of Japanese culture as a series of incomprehensible, largely absurd stereotypes must therefore be read a reflection of the protagonists’ own relentlessly introspective and alienated natures, rather than an earnest attempt to portray Tokyo of the early 2000s. The use of Japanese cultural stereotypes functions as an examination of the intersection between Western attitudes toward Japan and the inner lives of Lost in Translation’s American characters.
One of the earliest examples of these stereotypes can be seen in the way in which Bob Harris is welcomed to Tokyo. Despite the lateness (or earliness) of his flight’s arrival, several Japanese businesspeople are waiting to greet Bob with gifts, bows, and business cards. The strange and curt formality of the affair is immediately striking – the Japanese representatives have been waiting all this time purely to make seemingly excessive gestures of respect to their American guest, after which they promptly depart. Rather than the simple exhibition of a stereotypical Japanese obsession with respect, though, this incident becomes an illustration of Bob Harris’s mixture of utter unfamiliarity and Orientalist preconceptions of the East. Bob has what scholar Homay King calls “an amalgam of jet lag and sarcasm” scrawled across his face, and remarks dryly that the whole thing is “very Japanese” (King 46). He is keenly aware of his own exclusion and ‘alien-ness’, but a deep-rooted and unconscious Orientalist perspective allows him an avenue for amusement rather than threatening discomfort. As Chrsitina Klein writes in the introduction of Cold War Orientalism, the prevailing Orientalist discourse has already labeled the East as “irrational, backward-looking, childish, and feminine” – conveniently neutering whatever threats a strange land might hold for a lonely Westerner (Klein 10). These views are of course not consciously held (neither protagonist can be fairly described as racist), but their pernicious endurance in Western conceptions of Asia provides quick and unconscious psychological resolutions to whatever threats the alien East may hold for Bob. It is important to note, too, that (contrary to King’s contention) the latent Orientalism of this scene is not an unfair marginalization of Japanese agency, but rather a necessary consequence of the film’s adoption of its protagonists’ perspectives.
This also holds true for the Suntori Whiskey photo-shoot, which showcases the stereotype that Japanese engagement with Western culture is usually naïvely uncomprehending. In this scene, the Japanese photographer repeatedly exhorts Bob to imitate famous Western personalities (notably the Rat Pack and Roger Moore’s James Bond), comically mispronouncing their names and requesting ludicrously exaggerated poses from an aging B-list actor. Bob again adopts a sarcastic and condescending attitude, more explicitly this time, and the Japanese invocation of Western popular culture is made to look ridiculous to the viewer. Just as in the hotel greeting scene, however, the dynamic here is much more complex than an exploitative construction of Japanese buffoonery. Bob is uncomfortable with the pretensions of the photo shoot for a number of deeper psychological reasons (unease about the slow dissolution of his former life, dissatisfaction with the emptiness of being a face on a product, etc.), but focusing on the absurdities resulting from an utter inability to understand even the aesthetic sensibilities (let alone the actual thoughts) of everyone else on the set allows him a way out.
These usages of Japanese cultural stereotypes are not confined to the character of Bob Harris. Charlotte, too, has her own cliché cultural encounters, although they tend to feature preconceived conceptions of the Far East as sympathetic tools of identification rather than ways of resolving psychological tension. For example, after listening to the banal ramblings of a hollow-eyed starlet, Charlotte stumbles into a room full of traditionally-garbed Japanese women artfully arranging flowers. Interrupted in an undeniably stereotypically ‘Japanese’ activity, the women encourage Charlotte to put flowers of her own into one of the vases, and then smilingly pronounce the results “hai, ok”. The contrast between the vapid, self-aggrandizing starlet (Kelly) and the quiet and graceful Japanese women a few rooms over makes use of stereotypical views of Asian women to make a point about Charlotte’s ideas of self-identity. Gina Marchetti notes in Romance and the Yellow Peril that Japanese women were often coded as “passive, dependent, and childlike”, delighting in domestic and traditional tasks and possessing a certain reserved and self-contained grace (Marchetti 134). The Japanese women Charlotte encounters in this scene, while not overtly characterized by the kind of subservience male Hollywood directors seemed to prize so much in the 1950s, nonetheless represent an image of femininity that she finds much more appealing than the empty-headed, but nonetheless empowered and modern, version of womanhood on offer from Kelly. Stereotypically depicted Japanese women thus serve to provide Charlotte with a kind of dichotomy (however fleetingly entertained) by which to evaluate her own uncertain sense of gender and self – a feminized, graceful, and quiet East against a loud and obnoxious West.
Lost in Translation features many more uses of Japanese cultural stereotypes to investigate character psychologies and views of the East, but a closer examination of three particular cases seems more illuminating to me than a laundry list of every such occurrence. Ultimately, though, Japanese culture in Lost in Translation is not a means of understanding or representing Japan as it actually is. It’s a way of examining post-millennial isolation and intimacy, and how that connects to essential perceptions of the Other.
Sources: King, Homay. Lost in Translation. Film Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Fall 2005), pp. 45-48
Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the “Yellow Peril”. University of California Press, 1993.
Klein, Christina. Cold War Orientalism.