Sofia's Critics Lose it in Translation
by Leilla Matsui
March 15, 2004

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Even 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 that.    

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 right in.

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 latter.

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 first “jailbreak”.  

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.  

Leilla Matsui is a freelance writer living in Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at: catcat@s3.ocv.ne.jp

Other DV Articles by Leilla Matsui

* Dances With Crucifixes
* Das Kanibal
* The Patriarch Act: Who Wants to Marry a Welfare Queen? 
* Planet Lunch Attacks Mars
* Sex, Lies, Murder, and Videotape
Presidential Placebos: Sugar-Coated Alternatives to Empire-as-Usual

* Give a Hand to the Governor E(r)ect
Incubator Babies Bite Back: The Ballad of Uday and Qusay

* Regime Change Begins at Home … Literally



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