May 22, 2008

The Inevitable Post About Lost in Translation

Before I left for Japan, I watched Lost in Translation and loved it. After a year and a half of living in Japan and six months in the Tokyo area, I decided to give the movie another viewing. It's still good. What follows is a live blogging of sorts of me pausing the movie, writing something, and then unpausing:

-The film opens with Bob Harris (Bill Murray) staring in awe at Tokyo as he rides in the back of a cab. The cramped, huge neon walls are overpowering to him, and they are meant to be overpowering to us as viewers, as well. I can relate. When I first came to Tokyo, I shared that feeling of awe. I'm still in awe at it, really. But it's not alien. Murray sees it all as an alien landscape and it's shot as such. Even for many Japanese, Tokyo is an alien landscape. But it's amusing to see the place where I hang out presented in such a way.

-Murray in the elevator with the bored, tired, gray-suited salarymen is perfect in it's iconic-ness. There are plenty of times where I've been surrounded by gray-faced guys, all wearing suits, who are shorter than me.

-From her faxes, Bob's wife seems fairly passive-aggressive. I can't really blame him too much for cheating on her.

-Scarlett Johansson is cute as hell. Makes me wish she was in more good movies.

-Their hotel rooms are bigger than my apartment.

-Bill Murray's shower is short. When I first saw the movie, I thought that was exaggeration for comic effect. Now, I know that it's not.

-Oh, the infamous director/translator scene. I thought that knowing a bit of Japanese would make this scene more grating. Just the opposite, in fact. I've been told that what the director is actually telling Bob is that he wants him to imagine that he's in his house, he's with a good friend, and they're up very late. It's been a long day, they're having a quiet drink, and are letting all of the tension of the day go. At least that's what a friend of mine told me. The translator in this scene sort of comes across as a sadist, since she's obviously frustrating both the director and actor. Now I sort of want to try Suntory whiskey.

-Johansson is looking bewildered at the Tokyo train map. I've been there. There's a guy looking at pervy comics on the train! Happens every day.

-Charlotte (Johansson) says on the phone that she went to a shrine. She didn't. In the previous scene she's at a Buddhist temple. Shrines are Shinto.

-I forgot about the "Lip my stockings!" bit. I wouldn't have thought it funny two years ago, but now that Japan has turned me into a hollibre lascist, I can't help but laugh at L&R jokes.

-Charlotte is in Shibuya. Again, it's weird but fun to see my weekend meeting grounds portrayed as a psychedelic existential wonderground. Sure, Shibuya is precisely that, but it's sort of thrilling to think I hang out there! The crazy place with overabunance of overstimulation! That's where I do stuff!

-Bob comes across like kind of an ass with the photographer, and not too good at talking to people who have limited English skill. But, talking with folks who know only a bit of English is a skill in and of itself, and has to be learned. I remember learning how to do it, and the my own frustration at the process. I can summon up a little sympathy for Murray here, even amidst his ass-ness.

-The photographer tells Murray to act like 007 for the ad shoot, and says that prefers Roger Moore to Sean Connery. Didn't he like You Only Live Twice? It was the Bond in Japan movie, and it was a Connery film.

-It's sort of grating that the film goes out of its way to portray Charlotte's husband as whiny and stupid. He doesn't seem like a bad guy, per se, but his mispronounced and inappropriate "mushi-mushi" is hard to take. (Johansson kind of acts like a bitch to him, though, and in the next scene the self-help book she's listening to sounds like so much pablum, so she's not exactly a blameless wronged woman.) Same thing with the actress, Johansson's husband's friend, in the next scene. Coppola might as well have painted "This Character Is Stupid" on their foreheads and been done with it.

-I liked the ikebana scene. I've had plenty of moments where I literally didn't know how to talk to someone, yet they were friendly, helped me out, and showed me how to do something. The brief moment where the middle aged lady hands Johansson a flower stalk was really sweet, and reminded me of those moments where nothing is lost in translation, because you don't need translation.

-The taiko game that Johansson sees in the noisy arcade is actually a lot of fun. You get to bang on shit while listening to music, and I've honestly worked up a sweat and gotten blisters on that thing. The guitar game is less fun, I think. It's frustrating because actual guitar skills don't seem to play into it at all. The guy in the background with the light gun is overdoing it a little- his gun is recoiling. I've played plenty of shooter games, and none of the guns have kick to them, what with not being real guns and all.

-Are people really as dumb as Charlotte's husband and his friends? Please tell me no. Johansson, though, continues to appear on camera without pants. This pleases me.

-What does she want? What on earth does Charlotte want from her husband? Sure, he's kind of dumb, but where on earth does her dissatisfaction come from? Does she even know? Probably not. Painful to watch, really.

-Once Murray and Johansson get to the club with all of its attendant pyrotechnics and people, the movie does nicely convey the wonderful feeling that is an escape from ennui. Murray and Johansson have been puttering around their hotel for most of the movie, and Tokyo has, for the most part, been viewed from through their windows. They've been surrounded by the biggest city on earth, yet they've not done much with it.

-When I've felt depressed or whatever, it's remarkable how something as simple as going out can help out. Or, simply taking advantage of what's been there all the time. In the club, the characters discover that their ennui has been self-imposed, that escape has been available and outside their windows the whole time, and that they are allowed to be free of their unease. At least that's my reading on it. They cease grasping at their negativity and grasp the world around them instead. I'd call that a healthy and informed existential decision.

-I've never gotten chased out of a place and been pursued by a guy with a toy gun, but it looks like a lot of fun.

-I want the soundtrack to this movie. Especially if it has Bill Murray's karaoke rendition of What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding? The karaoke room they have looks ridiculously nice and expensive- I'd love to belt out some Elvis Costello in there.

-Tokyo Tower! Rainbow Bridge! Woo! Tokyo's neon lights are beautiful. They are hectic, chaotic, and consummeristic, yes, but flares of beauty nonetheless.

-Bob's call to his wife is painful. He obviously found joy in his new environment, found something with a spark of life, and wants to share it with the woman he loves. She could care less. Poor guy.

-The old guy (and the two ladies cracking up) in the hospital scene are obviously having fun at Murray's expense. Bob seems to be a good sport about it, and take it in stride. The old guy, by the way, is simply asking him how long he's been in Japan. Yes, stuff like this has happened to me. It's unlikely that the hospital wouldn't have an English speaking doctor for Charlotte, though. That part seemed a bit contrived.

-Cant' speak to the veracity of the strip club scene. I also can't say I'm not curious about them.

-Large, obnoxious trucks that roll through Shibuya carrying billboards and yelling ads- Yes, those are real.

-"The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you." Bob says this after Charlotte asks if "it gets easier." I appreciate this comment.

-I may be reading too much into this, but the two character's positions on the bed while they talk mirror their personalities and needs. Charlotte clings to a pillow, curls up, and looks for definition and safety. Bob splays out and turns his head away slightly, emphasizing that he wishes to know and care for himself, his body language mirroring his comment from a few moments ago.

-Fuji! For the second time in the movie, actually. It has to be damn clear to see it that well. Kyoto seems to be unusually empty when Charlotte visits, especially with the wide shot of the Heian shrine. But, I can appreciate what Coppola is trying to do, letting her character be alone and find herself amidst things of beauty. I regularly visit the normally busy Naritasan at night, so I can understand the feeling that she's going for, that feeling of discovery when you happen upon something larger than yourself, yet you are alone with it.

-Bob continues to suck at using simple English, but I can continue to relate. He also happens upon an obnoxious speaker truck for a Japanese politician. Yes, they are really like that and yes, they are annoying. Even Japanese people find them sort of insufferable.

-The TV program that Murray appears on is a real one, hosted by a real Japanese comedian who supposedly based his schtick and character on flamboyantly gay westerners. The same comedian, Takashi Fujii, is also something of a J-Pop star and appears in other shows, according to the ever-helpful Wikipedia. Yeah, Japanese TV is pretty much like this.

-It's interesting that Coppola paints the hotel singer, also, as sort of obnoxious. Bob again talks with his wife and fails to make an connection, and his morning with the singer seems to be somewhat empty and even irritating. Coupled with the "lip my stockings" woman from earlier, as well as the unsatisfying pieces of meat that are the strippers, all of the women that Bob interacts with come up profoundly short. Except for Charlotte. It seems that Coppola is saying that a truly good partner is one with whom you can share existential dilemmas with.

-Okay, I got a bit choked up at the end. Murray passes by the Tokyo cityscape, and we know that in a very real way the city has been good to him, and he's leaving it behind. When he says "okay," to the cab driver, we know that he's doing something difficult. He's leaving behind Charlotte and Japan, leaving behind an experience that has profoundly changed him. He's going to miss the place, and miss it badly, when he leaves. I got choked up in a sort of recognition, because I'm going to feel the same way whenever I leave. I don't know when that's going to be yet, but leaving behind a place of insight, leaving behind Japan, is going to hurt. It will be good, yes, but the ending of the movie just drove home how damn much I'm going to miss this place.

I didn't really expect it, but I actually liked the movie far more after I watched it the second time. I say this because the whole movie is about culture shock, the pain and awkwardness of adaptation, and the thrill and weirdness of being in a foreign environment. Sure, it's odd to see one's own neighborhood presented as that foreign environment, but I was able to relate extraordinarily well to the two characters. Their experience of otherness is something that had me thinking "Wow! That's totally me! Woo!" throughout the movie.

Something else that I thought about the movie, though, was what it says about relationships. I got a very strong message from the film that love relationships, for all their wonderfulness, are not existential panaceas. In so much pop culture and and whatnot, the appearance of beginning of a loving relationship is seen as, well, a "happy ending." The two lovers confess their love, kiss, and that's it. The end. Life is complete. It's the Disney princess view of the universe.

Lost in Translation acts as a rebuttal to that view. As apparently childish as the abovementioned Disney princess view of life and love is, it's a perniciously common outlook, and needs to be smacked around a bit.

Bob and Charlotte are not solutions for each other. They don't "complete" each other, and their encounter does not act as a cessation of personal struggles. They do help ease each others pain, but their departure at the end of the movie, particularly Bob's reflectiveness in the taxi, establishes that their issues are still individual issues, that they must still work on things internally. What I loved about the movie, is that Bob and Charlotte are excellent partners for each other because they walk along side each other, they each attempt to understand the other and make each other better as individuals. This is a very different view of loving relationships than the Disney princess view- instead, a relationship is composed of two already complete units who aide and struggle alongside each other.

Lastly, any discussion of the film would be incomplete without addressing the movie's supposed racism. As someone who lives in Japan, I can say that Lost in Translation is pretty spot-on for the most part. Yes, the director scene is over the top, but if a Japanese director were to make a movie about, say, two Japanese people experiencing New York as a foreign environment, and New York in that movie was portrayed as Tokyo is in Lost in Translation, I'd be fine with that. In fact, I want to see a movie like that. Japan and the Japanese are portrayed specifically as foreign, but they're not portrayed negatively. As I already mentioned, the experience of foreignness is a very real and important one, and in my own life I've come to see interaction with the unfamiliar as something of real value.

Anyway, I'm hoping Coppola makes another good movie. The Virgin Suicides was also quite good, but I heard that Marie Antoinette left something to be desired. Here's hoping she can pull it off again.


Sydney said...

I think that a lot of the movie is filtered through Charlotte or Bob's perception. I don't think that her husband or the actress are really that stupid; I think Charlotte just feels like she's that much smarter because they're not interested in her existential crisis. I think she's jealous: they're both happy without thinking about it and all she can do is think, which isn't making her happy. They're all the same age and two of them have found some kind of happiness, a place for themselves in the world where they fit, and one hasn't. I think Coppola is using the feeling of alienation in a foreign landscape as a stand in for the feeling of alienation within one's own skin. And I totally agree: Bob and Charlotte fit because they're sharing the same feeling of otherness. And both are trying to connect with their spouses. I was touched by the rare moments when she and her husband interact kindly, thoughtfully with each other. You can see how it was that they fell and love and married. He loves how smart she is even if she doesn't always see it. And in fact, it's when she's trying to prove how smart she is to herself that she acts like an asshole. And Bob, poor Bob. The impression I got was that Coppola really felt it's unreasonable to expect passion to last in a marriage, that it comes and goes in waves, and it's the other stuff that gets you through. He's looking for the passion, the connection again. Where are his friends? Why doesn't he call anyone he knows? He's totally alienated from his own life, so much so that his only meaningful interactions (until he meets Charlotte) are with his wife, by fax, about carpet samples. And I think she's passive aggressive because he's so goddamn selfish. He wants her to be everything, so instead he feels nothing.

Actually, now that I think about it, "Lost in Translation" is as much about the need for platonic friendship as it is for physical love. We've all had the experience of falling totally head over heels in love with a new friend. You don't want to sleep with them, you just want to hang out all the time. This new person totally meets some need in your life, some missing piece of your personality.

And that's all the coherence I have this evening. I'm off to misspell things on other blogs. Or bed. You know, whatever.

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

umm, had to skip down to the bottom to elucidate the no Sean Connery point. Apparently, Connery turned down Suntory to do an ad.

Sydney said...

Kori, when I first read your comment, I totally misinterpreted and thought you were saying that Sean Connery had turned down a glass of Suntory so that he could pose for an ad and the Suntory people somehow magically knew about this and their feelings were hurt. I think, in my mind, even extended this little tableau to mean that's why Roger Moore was the director's favorite Bond.

Also, I thought about this movie all night and I think that another part of why Bob was so sad at the end is because he knows that Charlotte isn't a solution to his problems. Yes, she made him happy right now, but that only exists in this very particular environment at this very specific time.

I think that's why I loved the end of the movie so much. Maybe he's wise, maybe he's lucky, but he ends the relationship at its sweetest moment and doesn't drag it out into something prosaic and tawdry, full of lies within their primary relationships and clandestine meetings. Did he cheat on his wife? Yes. At the time, I thought it was weird that he slept with the singer, like it just didn't make sense when he had this thing with Charlotte going. But I think now that Coppola wanted no ambiguity about where Bob was emotionally. Yes, he cheats on his wife. No, his relationship with Charlotte isn't just about how cute she is. My question is, why does it then also take sex out of the question for Charlotte? I doubt Sofia Coppola would ever argue that women need/want less sex than men as a matter of course. I think it's important that their connection is on a different level. But I also think it's interesting that the director didn't feel it necessary to give Charlotte a similar physical outlet for her dissatisfaction. Maybe she didn't need to because her husband is there?

Okay, dude, there is a wanted guy on the local Fox affiliate right now called "Rambo Sickles." And with that, I bid you adieu!

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

It's been a few years since I watched Lost in Translation, so I can't really comment on all the point by points, but what always impresses me about the movie is how quiet it is at times. For me, being in a foreign country, not knowing the language and being so overwhelmed by the newness, is kind of ... quiet. sort of... in my head.

It's hard to explain but I think where you learn the most about yourself is when you find a place in your head that's quiet. sometimes a place that is so alien creates that space where you can see and hear yourself clearly. and it can bring on an existential crisis too. which is not always a bad thing.

-R said...

thank you SO much for being kind enough to translate the Old Japanese guy in the Hospital scene. It was difficult to find online, and I watched the movie on the web so i had no options for subtitles. It was driving me nuts.

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