before Sofia Coppola's Oscar winning “Lost in Translation” opens in Tokyo
where it was shot on location, a mini-controversy has erupted here over the
film's alleged racism; a charge that at least one local observer has already
leveled against the filmmaker in an editorial on the Japan Today website.
The now widely circulated article has generated a mudslinging match between the
film's defenders and its outraged critics who condemn it for its apparent
portrayal of Japanese people as little more than buffoonish backdrops in yet
another unwelcome Hollywood incursion onto these shores. It should be
noted, though, that very few on either side of this particular internet
debate have actually seen the film as it isn't due for release here until
the end of April.
The director herself was on hand recently at a private screening for a
select audience made up almost entirely of the Japanese cast and crew
(including yours truly) at Cinema Rise, a basement theatre in Tokyo's
fashionably high-octane Shibuya district. Jetlagged, but appearing
otherwise unruffled, Ms. Coppola made a low-key entrance, mingling among the
200 or so champagne swilling guests which included underground superstar,
Hiromix -- Japan's girl wonder Warhol of the disposable camera who appears
in the film as herself. If anyone sums up “LIT's” pitch perfect pop
sensibility, it's the flamboyantly shy Hiromix, who catapulted into fame in
the late '80s when she was still in her teens, bringing a hard-edged and
defiantly low-tech innocence to the male dominated world of photography.
Similarly, Sofia Coppola has defied the odds of success by soft-focusing her
sights on character driven, low budget projects which she is loathe to
publicly analyze, or otherwise explain. At a recent press conference at the
Shinjuku Park Hyatt Hotel where much of the film was shot, Ms. Coppola with
characteristic simplicity described her film as "... a personal expression
of my feelings and the impressions I got when I first came to Tokyo. I've
just told it from the point of view of two foreigners. All my favorite
experiences in Tokyo, places I liked to hang out, some of my friends here
... they are all in the film," emphasizing there was nothing more to it than
However unintended it may be as a strategy, her non-acknowledgement of the
brewing controversy is perhaps, a smart move. Words, like landmines, have a
way of blowing up in one's face and Ms. Coppola wisely keeps a cool distance
from the media. She appears to have perfected an intricately choreographed
balancing act between graciousness and aloofness, downplaying her obvious
intelligence to divert unwelcome scrutiny into her life and work. In
Hollywood's high colonic culture, she stands conspicuously at a distance
from the clamorously confessional fray. Her somewhat detached and non-verbal
air plays better here than the usual bubble headed gushings of visiting
Hollywood royalty. In Japan, her greatest attribute is an ability to blend
Since launching “Milk Fed”; her ironically girly clothing line for the
fashionably savvy twenty-something set who make up a large demographic of
Shibuya's adrenaline charged shopping hordes, Sophia Coppola has long been
Japan's reigning Empress of understated indie chic. The crowd for the most
part reflected the retail sensibilities of the diminutive director who has
long had her finger on the nation's hard to locate fashion pulse -- no small
feat since Tokyoites notoriously discard trends at a rate the rest of us
change underwear. In a country where visual communication conveys more
meaning than the verbal variety, she has mastered the local language without
even having to open her mouth; a point that may ultimately prove to be her
best defense against her detractors’ charges of cultural miscalculation.
Like all publicity, the dubious nature of even this kind will likely
increase the film's chances at the box-office despite its limited screening
to only one theatre when it's released. In a nation struggling to preserve
its identity amid the cancerous encroachment of American culture into every
facet of life, anthropological self-examination is a national preoccupation.
To an outsider, Japan appears to be a nation on permanent damage control
alert, keenly and overly aware of how it's perceived to the outside world.
The squeamish reaction to the voyeuristic gawkings of outsiders is mostly
justifiable. The Japanese have long considered themselves sitting duck
targets for hit and run observers of the local scene who view them as either
robotic wind up toys with the emotional depth of a Hello Kitty change purse,
or worse, reverential objects of sexually charged exoticism. Think of “Snow
Falling on a Stiff White Penis” and you get the idea of the more odious
No stranger to Japan, or unprovoked, below the belt critical lashings for
that matter, (remember “Godfather 3”) Sofia Coppola was likely aware that
the title of her film could prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the
simple reason that she chose to make it here. Whether or not she
anticipated any backlash from such an undertaking, she made a laudable
choice for not attempting to defuse the fall-out by resorting to that old
Hollywood standby of inserting a sagely sexless Pat Morita/Morgan Freeman
type into the script to deflect accusations of negatively representing
minorities. Ironically enough, it was her refusal to stoop to a time worn
cliché which has brought charges of stereotyping against her. To her credit,
Sofia Coppola allows her Japanese characters to exist on their own terms, in
their own language. The locals who the film's protagonists encounter in
everyday life are, ultimately, indifferent to the presence of these American
visitors -- a refreshing and radical departure from the typical Eurocentric
view which places Westerners at the centre of everyone else's universe.
In a wonderful ironic twist, Coppola's film reveals America, and not Japan,
as a materialistic, straightjacketed society. In the puzzling and “alien”
environment of Tokyo, Charlotte and Bob find themselves outsiders in their
own culture, estranged and disconnected from other Americans, particularly
their own spouses. If Charlotte has learned anything about what it means to
be married (and perhaps even American), it's that one must be relentlessly
optimistic at all times and submit to the tyranny of all that good cheer.
The survival of her marriage depends on her ability to conceal her cynicism
beneath a placid armor of acceptance that all is good and perfect with the
world. Her photographer husband is the embodiment of the American “smile
nazi,” constantly rebuking his languishing spouse for being “too negative”
and both of them tossing out "I love you" with cringe-inducing regularity to
signal that communication between them is over. Charlotte places bright
plastic blossoms in all the hotel room's light fixtures as if to reassure
herself that all this optimism she isn't feeling is at least on display.
Bob's wife is a disembodied telephone voice, as sinister as HAL's, reminding
him that love is a monetarily determined thing. After all, who else is
going to pay for all those home improvement projects? For Bob, staying
married is contingent upon his ability to bankroll someone else's boredom.
Having provided the requisite children, there's little else for him to do.
Ultimately, it's his marriage that forces him to serve out the term of his
midlife crisis in Tokyo, paying for the loss of his dignity at a
humiliatingly high asking price.
Charlotte is similarly condemned to being a third wheel appendage in someone
else's life but without the benefit of a career to fall back on. Dipping
her toe into the murky waters of her own creative possibilities, she
literally stubs it and later has it checked out in a hospital, where the
verdict of no real damage done is aimed more at her bruised self-confidence.
At this point, Bob and Charlotte's blossoming friendship opens up the
realization for both of them of Tokyo's liberating qualities -- a point
almost always overlooked by Western observers who lack the imagination to
appreciate the robust individuality of the people who live here. The film
contrasts the city's delirious wonderland qualities against the austere calm
of Kyoto's temple gardens whose beauty only heightens Charlotte's sense that
she is trespassing, not only on this property, but in her own life as well.
The luxury hotel they both confine themselves to during much of their stay
provides a kind of oasis in the beginning, a floating fortress buttressing
them against the baffling sprawl below. As the film unfolds, Coppola subtly
shifts the perspective to show the plate glass windows as barriers and
Tokyo's apparent absurdities are gradually revealed as a positive and
regenerative force. By contrast, American society seems as dim and
confining as the hotel's cocktail lounge where Bob and Charlotte plan their
In Japan, Bob and Charlotte are linguistically at a loss but are eventually
able to “read the signs,” embarking on a journey not unlike Roland Barthes'
in 1970 when the French philosopher made his semiotic journey to the “Empire
of Signs” -- a fictive and fabricated utopia he referred to as “Japan”.
Once the emptiness of speech is revealed to them, communication is finally
possible. The subtle interplay of glance and gesture makes Coppola's film a
tribute to great Japanese filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu (often referred to as
“the most Japanese filmmaker”) whose meticulously crafted films about
seemingly little things make “Lost in Translation” more a Japanese film
than a film about Japan -- a point her detractors here seemed to have
overlooked. Perhaps they've gotten so used to American movies that they are
unable to recognize a Japanese one when they see it.
is a freelance writer living in Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at:
Articles by Leilla Matsui
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