The movie depicts the lives of Bob Harris, a middle-aged movie star, and Charlotte, a recent college graduate, and their struggle within current relationships as they dwell in the unknown, confusing world of Tokyo, Japan. Written by Sofia Coppola, the film stars Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson, and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director, ultimately winning Best Original Screenplay. The major themes in this film, as it relates to East Asian cinema, are: the portrayals of old and new Asian culture, Orientalism and the exotic location, the feminine ideal, the role of the ‘white knight,’ and the presence of a male identity crisis.
What does it mean to be ‘lost in translation’?
The idea of being lost in Japan, this exotic, unknown world to the couple, provides a stage for a romantic love story to take place. It seems that Japan did not need to be the center of this desire, but the culture represented throughout the film provides a necessary support and background for the plot to unfold.
Charlotte is unsure of her future and place in life, just as Bob is stuck in the middle of an identity crisis, each of them lost on their own life path. Furthermore, both Charlotte and Bob are unsatisfied in their current partnerships, seemingly ‘lost’ in love as well as in life.
Being lost in translation, in particular, indicates progress, an attempt to communicate and understand in spite of the difficulties. For Bob and Charlotte, this attempt to translate their problems into something more manageable is successful: in each other they find a outlet to share themselves. In terms of Tokyo itself, this translation is never fully realized: neither the movie itself, nor the characters it depicts, are ever able to fully understand Japan and its culture.
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Japanese Culture as Depicted in “Lost in Translation” by Shig Konishi
In Sofia Coppola’s film, Lost in Translation, the viewer gets to see a glimpse of both the traditional and modern culture of Japan. The movie depicts the lives of Bob Harris, a middle-aged movie star, and Charlotte, a recent college graduate, and their struggle within their current relationships as they dwell in the unknown, confusing world of Tokyo, Japan. While the traditional Japanese culture is depicted as beautiful, modern Japanese culture is depicted as bizarre. Throughout the film, the director allows the viewer to observe the interaction between the two main characters and the surrounding Japanese culture. Coppola appears to bash modernization in Japan through intentionally noticeable stereotyping and discrimination within the film.
Initially, Bob and Charlotte were unwelcoming of the unknown Japanese culture and its natives. For example, Bob first encounters money-hungry Japanese corporate leaders and professionals, whom with he has had numerous bitter encounters, upon arriving in
Japan. The Suntory whiskey photograph session exemplifies Bob’s condition in Japan at that time as the language barrier accentuates Bob’s frustration with the bizarre, crazy Japanese photographer, yelling at him and Bob’s complete obliviousness to what is expected of him. Amidst the chaos and confusion Bob experiences while working in Japan, his alienation is compounded by his dissatisfaction with his family life in America. Meanwhile, Charlotte is primarily seen remaining in her hotel room and staring outside the window, reminiscent of a bird entrapped in a cage, rather than acclimating to the society surrounding her. Not dissimilarly to Bob, Charlotte is having relationship problems with her husband as well. Despite outward affection, her husband seems to have interests in an American model—whom he has previously photographed—and often isolates Charlotte in favor of his work; Charlotte reveals, “I don’t even know who I married anymore”.
One of the few times that Charlotte is seen outside of the hotel is when she travels to Shibuya, considered the most modern, teenage city which is overflowing with pop culture. In this scene, the viewer is able to observe the interaction between traditional and modern Japanese culture. She is seen crossing “scramble kousaten”, or scramble crossing, which is considered a symbol of modern Japan as it resembles Times Square of New York, surrounded by billboards and big screens. Immediately after being engulfed by modern culture at the “scramble kousaten,” Charlotte visits a traditional Japanese graveyard and temple. This immediate transition from modern to traditional culture is very accurate and commonplace in Tokyo; Tokyo is a city which fosters heavy modernization while attempting to maintain the traditional culture of Japan. Charlotte then enters the temple and watches the monks chant. After returning to her hotel room, Charlotte tells her mother that she didn’t “feel anything” from this trip to Shibuya, demonstrating the disconnection of Charlotte from the Japanese culture and its people.
The film shifts as the depressing isolation and inaction of Charlotte and Bob ends after they meet one another. When carefully observed, it is apparent that Charlotte and Bob’s perception and interest of Japanese culture is highly correlated to the level of
interaction and feelings between each other. As they get to know each other better, they become more active and engaged with the Japanese culture that is surrounding them. Bob is seen playing golf among the beautiful, green nature of Japan, while Charlotte engages herself in “ikebana”, a traditional art of flower arrangement. Charlotte even goes as far to make a trip all the way to Kyoto, using the bullet train. Charlotte completely immerses herself in Japanese culture when in Kyoto, finding a deeper understanding and connection with Japan. She smiles as she sees the groom and bride dressed in traditional Japanese wedding gowns, signifying her approval of traditional Japanese culture. The director includes this highly correlated relationship between Bob and Charlotte, and Japanese culture, in order to portray the message that true happiness is only found by returning to traditional ways.
While traditional Japanese culture is being depicted as beautiful and profound in the film, the depiction of modern Japanese culture as bizarre and odd in many of the scene often serves as highly stereotypical and discriminatory towards Japanese people. This idea is portrayed through modern hotels, neon colors, crazy multicolored hair, high energy arcades and karaoke, and odd Japanese television shows. This bizarre, modern culture of Japan is easily seen when Bob and Charlotte spend the night out together exploring the night life of Tokyo. Although the director may have made modern Japanese culture appear so odd intentionally in order to promote the idea that Japan is a foreign and exotic world for Americans and to set the stage for Bob and Charlotte’s relationship, it is easy for the viewer to receive it as a form of insult towards Japanese culture. Some Orientalism can be interpreted in the film when Bob is seen towering over the “short” Japanese people. This scenario can be carried further as a metaphor to the viewer as the director’s idea that America towers over Japan in all of its superiority. Furthermore, throughout the film, while the Caucasians in the film are depicted as peaceful and sophisticated, the Japanese are shown as barbaric and unintelligent.
Finally, Japan is depicted as a foreign, alien world where Americans get lost within its odd, modern culture. Through Lost in Translation, Coppola opposes the heavy modernization of Japan by expressing the difficulties of maintaining a stable relationship within the environment.
Connections in an Exotic Location by Rory Park
Upon release, many critics of Lost in Translation (2003) discussed how the Western portrayal of Japanese culture seemed backwards and regressive. The two main characters, played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, fly into the colorful and vibrant Tokyo and leave without ever attempting to assimilate into the Japanese culture. Based on their attitudes, Tokyo is painted as a vacation city: beautiful in its aesthetics but not a permanent residence. Without this real connection between them and Tokyo, the film is able to strongly emphasize the connection between the two protagonists. A film about loneliness, Lost in Translation capitalizes on the idea that Japan is another world apart from ours and filling the void of isolation through an unexpected relationship.
Bob and Charlotte aren’t tourists well versed in Japanese society; they arrive in the city with little knowledge of the culture and only a set of preconceived Western stereotypes. Based on their attitudes throughout the film, Tokyo is a tourist location to observe yet never truly understand. Within first scene of the film, the viewer is able to understand Bob’s feelings towards the city. He is amazed by the bright lights and even has to rub his eyes a few times to ensure he’s absorbing all he can. The ambient yet euphoric accompanying track further highlights the magic of the city, but as beautiful as the city may look, it is clear that Bob cannot understand what any of these neon signs actually mean. Bob seems fine with this, though.
The depictions throughout the film don’t advance the idea of Japanese culture beyond the stereotypes. Included below, one of the most iconic scenes in the film is the scene where a Japanese hooker asks for Bob to “rip” her stockings only for the pronunciation to sound like she is asking him to “lip” her stockings. Instead of going along with her act, Bob criticizes her by saying, “Hey, hey. Lip them? What?” The film also includes a sushi chef who doesn’t speak English and our leads criticizing the Japanese tradition of shabu shabu where you cook raw meat in a broth yourself. These misunderstood attitudes not only create confusion between the Eastern and Western characters but also distance the respective cultures. There are no real criticisms. The film just highlights the cultural differences.
Words and ideas are not the only things that are “lost in translation” – relationships are as well. There are no serious friendships formed between an Asian character and an American character, and there is no connection between Japanese culture and either Bob or Charlotte, but this only strengthens the mood of the film. Not much happens in the film. It’s all about the love story between Charlotte and Bob as well as them being lost both in the city and in their life direction. However, without this intense feeling of isolation, the film would not be considered the classic it is. From the food to the sense of humor, the entire culture is foreign to them. Bob fails to mirror the over-the-top excitement of the Japanese talk show host and ends up looking foolish on TV. Coppola’s goal is to capture Bob and Charlotte’s isolation by throwing them into such an unfamiliar place that they can’t connect with anyone.
It may seem like Lost in Translation goes against all of the points that both Said and Klein talk about in Cold War Orientalism by failing to represent Eastern and Western culture as a coherent, assimilated body. There may seem to be an us versus them mentality; however, Coppola makes no real claims on Japan itself. As viewers, we are just as lost as Bob and Charlotte are. The characters never adopt a superior mentality; the locals can’t understand our leads and vice-versa. Even though the film is about Americans in the context of a foreign and unfamiliar culture, Tokyo is only a setting to show how truly lost we can become. There would be differences anywhere, and the film makes no remarks on the West’s view of Asian culture. Our leads leave the film affected only by the emotional connection they made not by the differences they encountered.
Despite the increasingly narrow-minded portrayals of the people, the aim of the film is not to criticize and mock Japanese culture. In contrast to the opening scene where Bill Murray’s character is amazed by Tokyo’s neon lights shining through the car window, the next time he is in the car alone at night, he is no longer focused on the city. Instead, a picture of Charlotte mesmerizes him. Overall, the film is not about Western disdain towards Eastern culture but rather about Charlotte and Bob’s relationship. Tokyo is merely a context, and the portrayals of Japanese culture are not scathing ridicules; they highlight Bob and Charlotte’s strengthening interest in each other. By using such an exotic location like Tokyo, the desire between the two leads is heightened, and the final scene of the film doesn’t reflect on Bob leaving Tokyo. It reflects on Bob leaving Charlotte.
After the Camera Stops Rolling: The Feminine Ideal by Grace Mendenhall
According to Marchetti, the typical characterization of the Asian woman, considered a feminine ideal, is “passive, childlike, and servile,” yet, in many cases, is represented as a sexual object, an exotic seductress. To the same end, women in melodramas, more generally, serve “as deeroticized maternal figures, naïve and childlike….” Charlotte, though a Caucasian woman, is represented by the same traits, particularly: passivity, childlike behavior, and a sexual, yet matronly disposition. As such, she is considered a feminine ideal by both Bob and the viewer, thereby revealing the presence of the same gender-centered discourse present in films featuring an Asian female lead.
At her current state, Charlotte’s entire life is a picture of passivity: she has no career of her own, following her husband around and unsure of what to pursue on her own, simply lounging around instead. Clearly unhappy with the situation, she still refrains from ever addressing these concerns to her husband, passively going along with his plans.
Charlotte, even more so than she is passive, is represented as being incredibly child-like, Bob being her fatherly care-taker. At one point, he carries her into her hotel room in his arms and buys Charlotte a stuffed owl, as one would a child. When the two say goodbye, the camera pans back to show Charlotte standing on her toes in order to hug Bob, highlighting her child-like physicality. Supporting these actions, the dialogue between Bob and Charlotte emphasizes this child, parent relationship. Bob, particularly when the two are lying in bed together talking, gives her advice about growing older. At one point he states, “I’m not worried about you,” conveying a respect Charlotte has for his advice, Charlotte’s own innocence, and his acknowledgement that it is his role to worry about her, as a mentor would a young student.
In terms of her sexual, yet matronly disposition, we need only look at our introduction to Charlotte: in this title scene, she is seen lying down in her underwear, which are slightly transparent but also matronly in their full-coverage. Similarly, the clothes she wears are dull in color and loose in fit, casting her in a matronly light, but she is also clearly an attractive woman who holds allure, as Bob is constantly staring at her whenever they are in the same space.
All of Charlotte’s defining characteristics are brought to the forefront of the film when we are introduced to the anti-Charlotte, Kelly. Kelly, when first met by John and Charlotte in the hotel, is boisterous, wearing bright colors and tight clothing. Charlotte, oppositely, is silent and clothed in loose greys; she stands with her hands in her pockets, completely ignored as the two talk excitedly over her. This parallels the distinction made between Katsumi and Eileen in Sayonara, which is well-summarized by Marchetti, who states: “Unlike Eileen, Katsumi is not openly sexual but passive, dependent, and childlike. Gruver clearly envies Kelly his bride.” Like Charlotte, Katsumi is quiet and demure and, like Kelly, Eileen is vocal and flamboyantly dressed; and, ultimately, like Gruver, Bob envies John his bride, but never Kelly.
After all, Bob and Charlotte are seen at the bar sympathizing with each other over their respective conditions, Charlotte having just left a conversation with Kelly. Bob, with a knowing gesture and look, acknowledges that he finds Kelly just as annoying as she does. This solidifies Charlotte’s status as the feminine ideal – the white knight chooses her.
We wonder what happens between Hana Ogi and Lloyd and Suzie and Robert after they are married and have completed this seemingly idyllic love story. Charlotte, filling in as this Asian feminine ideal, lives this scenario – the life of the bride after the cameras have stopped rolling. Clearly once in love, Charlotte is now unsatisfied: John blatantly ignores her and is rarely around, while she has no pursuits of her own. Charlotte is made more lonely by Tokyo itself: we frequently see her looking out of the hotel window, her own reflection pasted over the cityscape – she is isolated in the exotic location. It quickly becomes clear that what Charlotte craves is attention: during her lunch with Bob after she has discovered him with the lounge singer, he states, “Wasn’t there anyone else there to lavish you with attention.” Seemingly, Hana Ogi and Suzie might suffer the same fate – they each have husbands devoted to work, are forced to give up their own pursuits, and, as such, may not get the attention they once had and may still desire.
In Bob, Charlotte attempts to satisfy her romantic needs, thereby beginning again the same cycle of love that put her in her current condition. That is, of course, until the end: Bob leaves happy to have kissed her, going back to his life in America, while Charlotte leaves looking unsure and still unsatisfied, soon surrounded by a human mass of Japanese faces – she must remain lost in Tokyo, and lost in her marriage. The couple, having failed to realize their potential romantic destiny, break the cycle and Charlotte sees the process for what it is: a path into unhappiness.
As it is clear that Charlotte fills the role of the typical Asian feminine ideal, we can now explore what it means that Charlotte is, in fact, Caucasian. Though there are few examples, the Japanese women depicted smile frequently and are pleasant, quiet, succinct, and polite. Bob, however, feels as though this politeness is deceptive, thinking his translator, in particular, is misleading him. This sense of deceptiveness intensifies when the prostitute sent to Bob’s room: she tells him what to do at first, then dramatically throws herself on the ground submissively – an act that we understand as fake. Furthermore, she is the only overtly sexualized character in the film, but in a comically ridiculous way, as though a parody of the stereotypical exotic Asian seductress. The woman is also heard telling Bob to both ‘let me go’ and ‘don’t let me go.’ In this example, we see the suggestion of a rape fantasy, except here the roles are reversed and there exists no real desire to be fulfilled. This extends the parody, seemingly mocking the seductress and the desire inherent in a rape fantasy, making the woman appear undesirable and foolish, and establishing the entire interaction as deceit. This is supported by the scene in the strip club, where Bob and Charlotte scoff at the naked, dancing Japanese women. Not only does the film perpetuate this ‘seductress’ role, it parodies it, forcing the female character to look foolish, as well as sexual and deceptive. It is telling that these female Japanese characters are negatively cast, while Charlotte, a Caucasian woman, fits into the considerably more positive female Asian stereotype of the submissive ‘ideal woman.’
The White Knight by Jake Prest
Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is the king of subtle power. He is dashing, he is contemplative, he is caring, and he is spontaneous. He cries with his smile and he kills with his silence. He does not explicitly take advantage of others, but he has the ability to if he so desired. In the film Lost In Translation, he is shown as both physically and socially superior to the Japanese people that surround him. Not only is Bob Harris is presented as a character to be looked up to from an American male’s perspective, but he is also shown to be a savoir for the lost and confused Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson).
Bob Harris is a large man. He is tall and strong. He swims to stay in shape and towers over the Japanese men and women in the elevator. The fact that he takes up more space than the average Japanese man already gives him a certain amount of power. He is driven everywhere that he goes, we rarely see him open his wallet to pay for something, he drinks often and never appears too drunk, and he has no desire to engage in conversation about his fame. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu separated class and power dynamics into three types of capital – economic, social, and cultural capital. Economic capital deals with one’s command of economic resources and economic stability. We can see that Bob Harris is being paid two-million dollars for a single commercial and a single photo shoot. Social capital deals with the network one operates in and the people that he knows. It is undeniable that Bob Harris maintains very powerful friends and associates due to the business that he is involved in. If he were to desire anything at all, it would only require a few phone calls to accomplish what he wants. Lastly, there is cultural capital. This specific type of capital deals with skills, education, clothing, and the way that one presents himself to those who do not know him. Bob Harris dresses very well, but never seems to overdo it. He can sit at a bar completely alone and yet never appear too lonely. He can flirt with a woman across the room with only his eyes, and always has something clever to say. He goes to a strikingly beautiful golf course on what seems like a whim. The clip below shows that Bob is highly confident in his own abilities and would not soon think that someone else knows more than he does.
Bob Harris is surely a powerful man, but how does that make him a White Knight on his trip to Japan? The romantic love story between Bob and Charlotte has many themes such as gender relations and exploration in a new world, but the strongest theme is that both man and woman are lost in their current lives. They are not happy and require a change in their life to become revitalized. Bob Harris arrives with his charisma, his fame, and his affection and throws a ripple in each of their lives. It seems natural that Charlotte should fall for Bob, why wouldn’t she? Charlotte is expected to be interested in a man like Bob. The fact that Bob is interested in her should come as a surprise to the audience. He is arriving in this foreign country and saving the damsel in distress from her deteriorating relationship and lack of self-awareness. We can see two examples of how Bob is saving Charlotte throughout the film. After a night out of drinking and socializing, when the two finally arrive home, Bob literally carries her home and gently puts her to bed. He holds her high up in the air and takes complete care of her, where she
is completely submissive to his will and requires his aid. We can see the same caretaker characteristics from the scene where Bob makes Charlotte go to the hospital for her bruised toe. In this scene, he does not only make sure that she is taken care of physically, but also mentally when he buys her a stuffed animal. This entire scene, he is highly flirtatious as well, covering multiple basic human needs: physical needs, compassionate needs, and pleasurable needs.
Bob is not a young man, and Charlotte is a very young woman. He is attracted to her youth of mind and beauty, while she is attracted to his experience and his silver charm. This juxtaposition of ages is exactly what an American audience would expect for its White Knight. If Charlotte were any younger, then Bob would appear to be rocking the cradle. If she were older and closer to Bob’s age.
The Male Identity Crisis by Lauren Su
Sofia Coppola’s second feature film is a movie that, on the most basiclevel is a film about loneliness, isolation, and the human need for connection, no matter how ephemeral. However, this movie also has more subtle implications of a male identity crisis, primarily in the main character of Bob Harris. Coppola uses various themes and motifs to indicate this male identity crisis, such as one’s assimilation into foreign culture, modernity manifested in Tokyo, loneliness, and external embodiments of internal reflections. In Harris’ development throughout the film, we see these various themes as manifestations of his male identity crisis.
When the film begins, Bob Harris is a middle-aged, fading American actor on a business trip to Tokyo, Japan to shoot a whiskey commercial. As he navigates the city, he is clearly disengaged and uninterested, with sleepy disinterest. What Harris, and the viewer, sees of modern Tokyo is clearly disconcerting; it is an overwhelming display of consumerism, lights, and urban lifestyles. In his first encounters with native Japanese speakers, the Japanese are presented in an over-the-top, almost farcical fashion. Complete with unfamiliar customs and exaggerated accents, the Japanese that are sent to greet Harris are so jarring from what he expects we as viewers are thrown off too. Later on, what only can be described as a high class escort comes to visit Harris in his hotel room. She begins to try and seduce him, but fails when the mood and tension are broken due to her heavy accent. In a last ditch effort to pleasure him, she falls to the ground, writhing, all the while Harris is sitting on his bed in discomfort unsure of how to react. These encounters all portray the Japanese in a racist, negative light using characteristics prevalent in older works depicting the Yellow Peril – exaggerated accents, farcically submissive attitudes, and personalities that seem to be copies of each other. However, these interactions are the beginning manifestations of Harris’ male identity crisis. It is as if he is expected to act as a “White Knight,” where he is aware of the power of his image but in reality has no idea how to interact with the people of a foreign land he has just been thrown into.
Another aspect of Tokyo that feeds into Harris’ feelings of being lonely and lost and therefore contributes to his identity crisis, is the portrayal of Tokyo’s overwhelming modernity. Whenever Coppola shows modern Japan, she purposefully depicts it in a rather unflattering light; modern Japan is shown to be cold, industrial, impersonal, and almost dehumanizing. Interestingly enough, Lost in Translation has themes of Orientalism because it is a film about two Americans’ experience in Japan and not of Japan itself, but the interactions Harris has with the modern Japan could barely be considered interactions at all. There is one scene in particular in which this incompatible interaction between the modernity of Tokyo and Bob Harris is apparent. We see Harris by himself on an elliptical machine. Through the full wall windows we the tightly clustered, brightly lit cityscape of Tokyo. It is clearly a lonely and isolating scene; Harris is by himself in a darkened room by himself trying to navigate an elliptical in a language he does not know. The scene takes a humiliating turn as Harris is unable to stop the elliptical and practically falls off. This symbolic incompatibility and impenetrability of modern Japan is a privately humiliating experience for Harris, further perpetuating the breakdown of his perceived stoicism and adding to his identity crisis.
The idea of Harris’ identity crisis is also supported by external manifestations of his internal crisis and male figures that also challenge his own masculinity. At the beginning of the film, Harris sees himself in an advertisement for Suntory whiskey. Instead of being excited, or even mildly so, Harris practically rolls his eyes, and immediately we become aware of a disconnect in his self-perception and his outward appearance. Later, we are introduced to two blatant challenges to his masculinity – the commercial director and the talk show host, both are representative of the modern, foreign, and inaccessible Japan. On one hand, the commercial director is symbolic of what might be described as Japanese machismo, with an impeccable outfit, perfectly coiffed hair, and an artistic authority that is lost in translation. This is a glaring difference from Harris, who is passive and unadorned in his costume, simply trying to carry out the directions of the unintelligible director. On the other hand, the “Japanese Johnny Carson,” is flamboyant and peppy, and to a certain degree “feminine.” Harris reluctantly agrees to appear on his show, and the moment he steps on set is overwhelmed by the girliness of the host and the garishness of the set. Both the director and talk show hosts are affronts to Harris’ personality and male identity, with both being on the opposite sides of Japanese masculinity.
Finally, in a particularly poignant scene, Harris is talking to Charlotte while the classic Italian film La Dolce Vita is playing in the background. Coppola’s inclusion of this film allusion is incredibly smart but more importantly symbolic of Harris’ character. Much like Harris, the character of Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita is an apathetic journalistwho is undergoing an identity crisis as he travels through Rome looking for love and happiness. Harris’ struggles with identity is not a particularly new, but is given new venues for expression through Coppola’s Tokyo, where modernity is overwhelming, loneliness is pervasive, and the cultural norms of masculinity are so drastically different in comparison to ours through the eyes of Bob Harris.