She then speaks in English: “Welcome to New Tokyo International Airport.” Bob Harris (Bill Murray) rests his head against a taxi window, through which Tokyo’s bright lights illuminate his face. A static voice comes muffled through the driver’s radio. Bob opens his eyes and gazes out to the unfamiliar world welcoming him. Soft dreamy vocals queue the dream-like sequence: the camera gazes at the outside world unsteadily, everything passing by in a haze, captured in a blur of novelty. Arriving at Park Hyatt, muted grey professionalism replaces the erotic mystique of the Tokyo landscape. After being greeted by the Japanese staff assisting him with his stay, Bob speaks with feigned enthusiasm: “Short and sweet. Very Japanese.” Bob preoccupies himself with Japan’s ‘shortness,’ its perceived strangeness and implied inferiority. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), Bob’s equally lost American counterpart, preoccupies herself with Japan’s ‘sweetness,’ it’s traditional flavor of tranquility. Alice Lovejoy writes in her positive review of Coppola’s film:
“Japan, to [Bob], is a country of short people over whom he towers in crowded elevators, people who mispronounced pop-culture references are aggravating. To Charlotte, the country is precious, fragile: women in kimonos arranging flowers, traditional wedding ceremonies, paper cranes, Buddhist temples. Lost in Translation’s Japan is not Japan itself but rather a canvas onto which these American’s emotions are mapped.”
Ironically, Lovejoy describes precisely the way the film represents a fantasy Japan. Both protagonists Bob and Charlotte are tourists, so it may seem natural, even necessary, for such a superficial glance at Japan. Indeed, as best captured in the opening sequence, Lost in Translation “does not claim to represent Tokyo authentically, objectively, or thoroughly; rather, every image has the fresh quality and provisional status of a first impression (King, 45).” But the film’s humor is Bob’s humor, and his Orientalist complex becomes the strategy for articulating his disorientation, transforming Japan and its people into a tool with which he––and Charlotte––can fulfill their psychological needs.
Director Coppola has called Lost in Translation, her “valentine to Tokyo.” She attests to her experience being in Japan, saying “I really want to do a movie [in Tokyo] someday. I just loved the way visually it looks and the mood.” The way Tokyo feels to Coppola is sheer fascination, an infatuation with its otherworldliness; a microcosm of hyper-modern oddity in her white Western eyes. The appearance of this Japan––a trifecta of superficiality, inappropriate eroticism, and incomprehensibility––may be true to Coppola’s vision, but her vision chews up and regurgitates Japan in a familiar Orientalist narrative.
Koichi Iwabuchi argues that Orientalist critiques assume wrongly that Lost in Translation “should deal with international or intercultural encounters between Japan and the United States and that, thus Americans must strive to understand cultural differences and to look at themselves self-reflexively.” Iwabuchi believes that Coppola’s fascination doesn’t testify to ethnocentric Orientalism, but rather to a “transnational economy of self-absorbed indifference.” Iwabuchi suggests Japanese critics dislike Lost in Translation for it reveals that Tokyo is no longer spectacular in the Western imagination––Tokyo is easily replaceable with other spaces that share its consumerist ‘common difference,’ that is, its consumable otherness. Iwabuchi takes the “comical representation of complete unintelligibility that Bob experiences” as indifference, and certifies that the film is concerned with a “transnational dislocation” in which Japan’s strangeness merely exacerbates the protagonists’ emotional disorientation.
Iwabuchi’s argument holds some truth in that traditional Orientalism––as constructed by Edward Said––may not have much hold here. However, Coppola’s film surely can’t be indifferent. Homay King articulates the film’s Orientalist strategy:
“At no point, it is true, do we securely occupy the confident position of the superior Western gaze upon the non-Western. But the film ends up containing the Orient and ‘speaking on its behalf’ in another way: by representing it as a space where an American may get lost, but without being significantly changed or unmoored by the experience. As Scarlett Johansson’s character puts it, she ‘doesn’t feel anything’ when she encounters her cultural others.”
In classic Orientalism, Said fixes binaries––Self/Other, subject/object, colonizer/colonized––which speak to the West’s manner of hegemony through cultural expressions, articulating their own superiority and the represented’s inferiority. This is complicated when applied to Japan, itself a former colonizer, and in its own ways complicit in Orientalization of the self and of others. While Japan has not experienced colonialism by the West (though attempts were made), the country is and has been subject to the othering Western gaze. Orientalism reconfigured in the context of Japan then might lack the implications of neo-colonialism but aims to maintain cultural hegemony––Self/Other still withstanding. Lost in Translation represents the Other––wacky Japan and traditional Japan––with all its connotations of inferiority.
Iwabuchi believes films don’t need to represent self-reflexive characters, and I agree. But I would argue that filmmakers do have a responsibility to evaluate falsehoods; by the very nature of film consumption, representation matters. Coppola spoke against the film’s criticism:
“Even on our daily call sheets, [Japanese people] would mix up the R’s and L’s––all that was from experience, it’s not made up. I guess someone has misunderstood my intentions. It bugs me, because I know I’m not racist.”
Her classic “I’m not racist” defensiveness attests to the film’s stereotypes. Through Coppola’s limited, tourist-like lens, Japan is its stereotype because she sees it as she expects to. Bob asserts the superiority of his American standards on this ‘wacky’ Japan. He jokes about Japanese people’s inability to differentiate between English Ls and Rs; his inability to understand them never reflects poorly on him (if it does, it does so endearingly), but on those who can’t speak his language. At a photoshoot he is instructed by a Japanese crew to capture Hollywood masculinity––dated references to James Bond, Dean Martin, Rat Pack, etc. thrown at him. The humor of the scene circulates around the precipice of translation: Bob’s failure to fit their idealized image of American masculinity. Bob is emasculated but “this emasculation doesn’t stick to [him]. It is returned to sender: attributed to Japanese naïveté rather than to its American source (King, 46).” Lost in Translation instructs the audience to read this incident, and all others that follow, not as images of a rude American in unfamiliar territory but as a Japanese people that are lesser than: both “primitive, feminized, eroticized,” and modern, systematic, conformist. The audience does not laugh at Bob but with him––the movie is supposed to be a comedy after all.
Why Tokyo? Iwabuchi suggests that Lost in Translation could have been easily transplanted outside of the Japanese metropolis. But does it really matter if it could have been? If the film took place in another non-Western non-white metropolis––say to emphasize the white character’s emotional disorientation––then this seems to only speak to a larger Orientalist strategy. Regardless, the film’s humor is Japan-specific. Lost in Translation needs fantasy Japan as a backdrop; the prototype of Japanese superficiality, eroticism and incomprehensibility enable Bob (and Charlotte’s) privileged daze. In Japan, they can condescend with no consequences––they exist above their surroundings. Furthermore, the film’s imagery reflects a continued fascination with the urban space of Tokyo in the Western imagination. Recent Hollywood films like Lost Girls and Love Hotels (dir. William Olsson, 2020) and Earthquake Bird (dir. Wash Westmoreland, 2019) reiterate––with slightly differing strategies––Orientalist versions of Japan. Letterboxd reviews for Coppola’s film are littered with suggestions that the film truly transports one to Japan and that it fills one with a desire to see this Japan for themselves. Such testaments of audience experience surely demonstrate that Lost in Translation isn’t indifferent to its surroundings. Tokyo lives and breathes, itself a fictional character.
Can film capture a place from a tourist’s perspective without casting it in generalities? Perhaps not. But Coppola looks at Japan with haughty ethnocentrism, not self-absorbed indifference. Lost in Translation’s humor derives from intentional cultural evaluation. A Japanese call-girl is sent to Bob’s room, where she insistently asks him to “Lip my stockings!” She pulls up her dress and mimics such a gesture, attempting to make him understand. Bob sits confused, incapable of understanding despite the obviousness of her request. If you’re Coppola, this is hilarious. She can’t seem to stomach suggestions that such humor reveals her own racism––she was only showing her truth, right? But maybe her truth is nothing more than lazy filmmaking.