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Books and Films “Lost” In Translation


Even though it is set in Tokyo, Sophia Coppola’s fine film Lost in Translation (2003) has little to say about the cultural gap dividing Americans and Japanese. And what it does say about that subject is mostly banal and sometimes offensive. I‘ll recommend a very engaging novel that does a much better job of closing that cultural divide, but first let me explain why Coppola’s film deserves the considerable praise it received from critics and viewers.

“Lost in Translation”

Lost in Translation finds Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in the Tokyo Hyatt; he’s an American movie star in Japan to film a whiskey commercial, she’s accompanying her photographer husband on assignment. Jet-lagged, they meet in the hotel’s luxury bar and strike up a friendship. Later, they venture outside the hotel and encounter a Tokyo that is crowded, confusing, and claustrophobic. Neither one speaks Japanese or seems to know much about the country, and while neither is willfully offensive—in fact, they are both sympathetic and empathetic characters—they aren’t very curious to learn more about Japan.

Several scenes underline what’s lost in translation between the two cultures. Bob appears as a guest on one of the hyper-kinetic TV talk shows that seem truly odd to Americans (and probably as odd to many Japanese). And there’s a wonderful scene in which the auteur-director of Bob’s commercial rattles off a couple hundred words about what mood or pose he wants Bob to adopt as he says his one line. When the translator explains to Bob what the director has said, it’s usually only a word or two. She has every confidence that nothing is lost in the translation; while Bob is dubious, I suspect she is probably telling the truth.

The best filmic moment comes well into the film after it has established the pervasive alienation Bob and Charlotte are experiencing, and not just from Tokyo. After an evening when they’ve dragged us through a loud, low-ceilinged nightclub, Bob and Charlotte spend the day apart and venture out of the claustrophobic Tokyo interiors.

Coppola captures their quest for some tranquility and peace with two very brief yet beautiful shots. Bob, alone on a golf course, fluidly strikes a shot as he’s (almost perfectly) centered against a backdrop of Mount Fuji looming in the distance. The ingenuity of the scene made me forget for a moment that one of Bill Murray’s best-known movies happens to be set on a golf course.

Then Coppola cuts to another very brief scene, framed in long shot, of Charlotte walking up the steps—alone—to the entrance of a very large shrine. No words are necessary, in either Japanese or English, to convey that she, like Bob, has found some space and solitude—and maybe even some solace—in this foreign country.

The more important gaps in understanding in the film are not between Japanese and American culture and language but between Bob and Charlotte and their respective spouses. Charlotte is newly married to a boy—not a man, though he is a twentysomething college graduate—who is either a workaholic or a callous solipsist. Bob is trying to manage his marriage via intercontinental phone calls, and it’s not at all clear that he and his wife are going to make it to their next anniversary. Out of their burgeoning friendship, Charlotte gains some insight into one side of a marriage that may have run out of steam while Bob gets a peek at one half of a couple who haven’t really got started—or at least not started off on the right foot.

A lot is lost in translation, but they share a valuable experience. And despite their alienation on so many fronts, they find they are not alone.

On the offensive note in the film: in one scene a prostitute visits Bob’s hotel room and hilarity is meant to ensue when she asks him to “lip off” her stockings. Obviously she means “rip,” but Bob doesn’t get it. The encounter is not gratuitously offensive—like, say, casting Mickey Rooney as Audrey Hepburn’s caricature-of-an-Asian upstairs neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—because it’s meant to underscore the chasm in Bob’s marriage as well as in his understanding of Japanese. But it is offensive as well as incredible: ordinarily rich Americans in Asia apparently don’t have communication problems when prostitutes visit their rooms.

A fine treatment of what is lost in translation when Japanese and Americans encounter one another in Japan, can be found in Alan Brown’s debut novel Audrey Hepburn’s Neck (1996). It’s a wonderful read that will make you (a little) smarter about Japan.

The story opens with Toshiyuki (“Toshi”) Okamoto falling under the sexual sway of Jane, his seductive but emotionally unstable teacher at the Very Romantic English Academy. Toshi’s attraction to Western women stretches back to a childhood birthday when his mother took him to see Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. (Audrey Hepburn’s following is probably larger and more intense in Japan than in the United States.)

“Audrey Hepburns Neck”

Toshi grew up in the country and has moved to Tokyo to pursue his career as a cartoon illustrator. There he encounters a wide variety of American behavior. In addition to Jane, Toshi spends considerable time with a gay advertising copywriter named Paul, his close friend and confidante, and with Lucy, with whom Toshi falls in love. Lucy is a composer who is not only saner than Jane but more lovely as well.

And maybe Lucy even likes him back–it is Lucy’s enchanting neck that reminds Toshi of Audrey Hepburn—but he’s not sure if he’s properly reading her signals.

After all, after his first meeting with the Jane but before their crazy affair begins, she leaves Toshi “out of breath. He staggers like a drunken salary man on a midnight commuter train out of Tokyo Station. This is what he likes best yet dreads most about American women: You can never tell, even with the ones you think you know, what they’re going to do next.”

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