'Lost in Translation' doesn't translate well in Japan

The Oscar-winning film by Sofia Coppola opened to a lukewarm reception in Tokyo this past week . Critics say it draws on 'unpleasant' stereotypes.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Japan's self-image is a subject so sensitive that it rarely gets raised among gaijin, or foreigners. An exception came last week when statesman Yasuhiro Nakasone, speaking minutes after Vice President Richard Cheney, insisted it is time for Japan to be a "normal nation," and shed its postwar image of US dependence.

Even the Japanese hostages in Iraq last week unveiled the different approach here. E-mail postings were actually critical of the three hostages for disrupting Japanese foreign affairs. Their family members apologized publicly for damaging Japan's image.

Now, in a small but significant way, Sofia Coppola's film, Lost in Translation, is also coming under the gun. The Oscar winner is described by Ms. Coppola as a "valentine to Tokyo." The lushly filmed and bittersweet story of two bewildered and lonely Americans who discover each other half a planet away in the Shinjuku Park Hyatt, has been a conversation piece for months. At the Hong Kong Literary Festival in March, authors spontaneously took up the film's themes of relationships, alienation, and globalization.

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But the film is under attack for cultural bias, and for maximizing its humor by depicting Japanese as robotic and cartoon-like. The question is: to what degree is the film insensitive - and to what extent is this the kind of "poking fun" that some ethnic groups now ignore?

Until now, none of these voices or questions has come from Japan. Indeed, while "Lost in Translation" opened all over the world last fall, it opened in image-conscious Tokyo only last weekend. Some sources say this is deliberate. Japanese decorum on culturally sensitive matters precludes angry protest or high-volume misgivings about images that might be considered unfair or "unpleasant," to use a local reviewer's term. But it is telling that the Academy-award-winning "valentine" can be seen here only in a small 300-seat theater in Shibuya, and critics warn that the film may hurt the feelings of ordinary Japanese.

Ms. Coppola, for her part, told journalists at a recent press conference here that her film focuses on the relationship between an aging actor (Bill Murray) and a 25-year-old Yale philosophy graduate who reads self-help books for her troubled marriage (Scarlett Johansson) as they battle loneliness amid the neon wilderness of digitalized Tokyo.

Yet questions to Coppola were pointed: Did she consult any Japanese in determining whether her actors might be bad caricatures? A journalist asked, "There are lonely people all over the world. Why did you choose Tokyo to set your story in?"

Even at the swanky Park Hyatt, where some 20 staff play bit parts, there's an edge. A waiter at the 52nd-story New York Bar and Grill, who plays himself in the movie: "Do foreigners really have that stereotype about Japanese? I thought the story was good. It was quite deep, not simple. But it will give people in other countries the wrong impression about us?"

Several stereotypes seem designed to bring Western yuks. Murray is shot in a hotel elevator looking like a jet-lagged big bird amid dwarf Japanese businessmen. There is a shower head Murray can't bend low enough for. Some comic dialogue takes advantage of Japanese difficulty in pronouncing L's and Rs. A Japanese director comically asks for more "intensity" from a confused Murray, who is in town to lend his fading fame to a whisky commercial. Squads of overly polite Tokyo attendants and hosts seem unable to connect with any of the American characters.

One famous critic, Osugi, said, "The core story is cute and not bad; however, the depiction of Japanese people is terrible!"

The Australian chef at the Hyatt opined that "Lost in Translation" captures what Tokyo is like to first time visitors. "But now that I've lived here for two years, I think it isn't fair to Japanese."

Actor Bill Murray did single-handedly break a set of cultural barriers in his own unorthodox style at a very stressful point in the hotel shoot, according to Midori Ochiai, a hotel official. She was charged with enforcing the Hyatt's strict house rules, which included filming times only between midnight and 6 am.

"I would tell them, please go now, don't do this, don't do that. I was very much like a schoolteacher," the diminutive Ms. Ochiai says.

One morning during a high pressure shoot at the hotel pool, she told the crew, "Please go out now!" Bill Murray suddenly picked up Ochiai, swung her over his shoulder with comic flair, and said, "Will you marry me?" Ochiai was very surprised, she remembers, and said, "Please put me down!" But Murray spun her around and said, "If you don't marry me, I won't put you down." Ochiai said the mood changed and became more relaxed on the set after that. "We all laughed."

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