GrumpyGirl at Invisible Shoebox wonders about the claims that Sophia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation is racist (entry on Wednesday, January 14, 2004 – bloggered permalink). Though she didn’t think so at first, she came across an article by E. Koohan Paik that has her thinking twice.

The article claims: “The inaccessibility of Japan functions as an extension of the alienation and loneliness Bob and Charlotte feel in their personal lives, thus laying the perfect conditions for romance to germinate” – which is, I think, exactly the opposite of how I would read the film. Part of the point, it seems to me, is that despite the language barrier, despite some very different cultural norms, Bob and Charlotte are able to feel less “alienated” in an “alien” environment. Their isolation is soothed by, rather than extended by, immersion in a foreign culture, even if it is awkward and difficult.

The paragraph quoted above ends: “Take away the cartooniness of the Japanese and the humor falls flat, the main characters’ intense yearning is neutralized and the plot evaporates.”

Sure, there are caricatures in the film, but these are not limited to the Asian characters. When I first blogged about LiT, I talked about Kelly – the one dimensional movie actress who represents one extreme of the ‘obnoxious American.’ A stereotype? Yes. An incorrect one? Hardly. All countries have their fair share of flat, snobbish, boorish, ignorant, or ridiculous folk – is it more or less disingenuous to pretend otherwise? And, I would argue, the American characters, especially Bob, don’t exactly come across as model citizens or, given Bill Murray’s acting, any less clownish than many of their Japanese counterparts. Overall, the only characters with a great deal of complexity are the two protagonists; that the remaining characters, from any culture, have little substance beyond their ‘snapshot’ utility is less surprising to me and is more an indication of focused filmmaking that racist (intentional or not) exclusion.

I’m not sure I agree with the article writer’s claims that LiT simply perpetuates arrogant Western attitudes in a foreign culture. To claim that the humor found in the difficulty in language between cultures is a criticism of the Japanese characters is a bit of a stretch – the comedy of Bob’s interactions with Japanese characters is juxtaposed to that same inability to communicate with his own wife. The embarrassment of culture isn’t an excuse in his family situations, so instead of a comedy of situation (the complexity of traveling in an unfamiliar place), you get a tragedy of circumstance. The tragedy of the American family isn’t a new theme for Sophia Coppola, whose film adaptation of The Virgin Suicides offered a dark vision of 1970s suburban life.

All that being said, the scene that many seem to highlight as racist – where a prostitute is sent to Bob’s room and chases him around asking him to “lip my stocking” – struck me as the most uncomfortable in the film. Yet the awkwardness in communication from other scenes allow for more positive results: quiet reflection, (dis)harmonic cultural exchange (I’m thinking of the karaoke scene), and perhaps more importantly, a patient, repeated effort to listen until some measure of understanding occurs (something that just doesn’t happen in either of the main characters’ marriage). While Paik’s article seems to miss the nuances present throughout the film (and tends towards the reactionary as it progresses), the question of race, place, and translation is, ultimately, an interesting conundrum in film in a globalized age – at what point does representation of race become racism? Given LiT’s dependence on Tokyo, at what point is it a discussion of place, alongside or in lieu of race? Like GrumpyGirl, I think this merits further thought and at least another viewing of the film, which I only saw once in the theatre.


11 Responses to Race in Translation

  1. mcb says:

    Good post. You raise some excellent points. I’d forgotten about the vacuous Kelly, who Bob and Charlotte laugh at in exactly the same way that they laugh at other things going on around them in Toyko. It’s part of the overall sense of oddness, and dislocation that permeates the whole film. And you are right that Bob is hardly held up as the paragon of all things good. It’s not like they are faultless people casting judgement on everyone around them.

    The reason I was so surprised to hear the racist claims was that I came away from the film thinking “My God the Japanese are so hip.” The scene where they go out with Charlie Brown was just great. The people were fun and interesting and charismatic. And the ad director. He made Bob look so stodgy.

    So my current feeling is “not racist”. But now I’m starting to wonder what racism is, actually. Is it thinking your race is superior to another? Or is it being aware of cultural differences? Otherness? I dunno.

  2. Jason says:

    Agreed on the ‘hip’ factor. I think the article that you originally pointed to, quite frankly, is hindered by an extreme view of what racism might be (and, I think, doesn’t really do justice to Said’s work when it references him).

    That being said, I think that Lost in Translation actually serves as a fascinating example of race, culture, and globalization in the 21st century, so the questions you brought out have a lot of merit. Less “is it racist?” and more “how does race and culture operate in this complex film?” Makes me think that LiT would be fun to teach …

  3. George says:

    I just read the article, and while I’m still thinking it over, my initial response is, “I guess when you can’t make logos work for your argument, you can always go with pathos.”

  4. chuck says:

    You’re right, Jason. I think that’s a really poor reading of Edward Said. I don’t know “Culture and Imperalism” as well, but I’ve read “Orientalism” a few times, and Said’s point is not at all about “brainwashing” Asian people into subjugation.

    I haven’t seen the film in several months, but isn’t one of teh key sequences in the film a night when Charlotte and Bob go out with her local friends and have a lovely, nonstereotypical time? I do agree that the “call girl” sequence made me uncomfortable, but in general, the isolation of the characters is often based simply on having their mental clocks out of joint (the insomnia, sleeping during the day, etc) or on the disorienting hyperspace of the hotel or any unfamilar city.

    I’ve thought a lot about these charges of “racism,” a word choice I find too strong in this context in the first place (several of my colleagues made similar arguments), and I think the film is much more subtle than that.

  5. Ever strike anyone that the scenes are translatable? The marriage party on the temple grounds… The happy face fax… The motor car view of city lights… The quiet meditative pan of the cityscape from the hotel window… The phone call in the bath…

    The viewer is lost in translation… Turn the sound off, even more so….

    How do the charges of racism stack up with a viewing that doesn’t hear? Or close your eyes through a sequence and listen?

    This is a film that works against establishing an omniscient point of view and furthermore it offers the viewer many occasions to realign scopic sympathies. The film actually inscribes occasions for the viewer to adopt a point of view akin to that of the hosts looking at, being puzzled by, the guests (that is the protagonists). I wonder if the critics that charge the film of being racist have not worked through their own internalized racism and are reacting in fear to the implicit invitation to move between the points of view that coincidently are also crossing gender lines.

    It really is an interesting exercise to take a segment of the film and count the number of depictions of people looking and the number of incomplete reverse shot sequences that connect the direction of the gaze with and object of attention. Careful consideration of the cuts between the pans of the cityscape and the shots of the figure looking out will reveal a subtle de-phasing. A certain classic Hollywood montage way of telling stories is lost, lost in translation.

  6. Tanya says:

    Yet, while it’s a movie about race, it’s always a movie about race in translation or from the viewpoint of personal perspective. And, so, as I think you’re pointing out, we are bound to realize that representaton of race is the definition of racism–one representative for a whole race.

    I’m left to also wonder what the last scene says about the whole movie’s focus on the power of translation. How many viewers were left upset because they couldn’t hear what Bob whispered in Charlotte’s ear? It was untranslatable and therefore open to any translation. How much do we, then, depend a movies to give us one representation? A truth to pick from among many?

  7. Jason says:

    In reverse order:

    Tanya: I actually LOVED the fact that Bob’s message was muffled (a happy on-set accident, I’ve heard), so that didn’t bother me at all. And I didn’t feel that there was only “one” representation of Japenese culture … which is different from representation in general, is it not? Maybe you can clarify the distinction in your definition for me – I’m not sure I’m reading it correctly.

    Francois: Some interesting points – I want to revisit the film with an eye less towards narrative and more towards formal technique. As far as sound – that’s something I really appreciated in this film, as I emphasized in my previous review.

    Chuck: I was thinking of that scene as well, which culminates in the karaoke experience.

    George: yep.

  8. chuck says:

    I’ll agree with Jason on the final scene. I like the fact that we don’t hear what Bob whispers at the end of the film.

    I’m still thinking about the “representation” question, and while the film certainly trades on the fact that some things (both Japanese and American) aren’t quite accessible to translation, it also shows the extent to which both US and Japanese cultures have “translated” aspects of each other’s cultures for their own use. I’d also second Jason’s observation that there really isn’t a singular image of “authentic” Japanese life (I don’t know that the karaoke and temple scenes qualify because they are mediated by American experiences of them).

    In fact Bob–as an image–translates to something completely different in Tokyo than he might in the US. I’m trying to shape an observation here, and right now it’s not working….Imagine something brilliant about global capitalism and a global media culture here.

  9. mcb says:

    Oh yes, the muffled line is perfect. If we’d heard it, it would have sounded trite, or obvious, or unsatisfactory. It’s so much better that we just know he’s said exactly the right thing to reassure her.

  10. Tanya says:

    I also loved the last line, but then again we are people that love open questions. Lots of people do not.

    What I meant by one representative (or representation) was that by choosing one movie with particular scenes, the director or writer (or actor for that matter) is choosing a fairly singular representation (even if that representation has multiple voices, etc.). Something will always be left out and therefore not representative of the complexities of the whole. This was really just my thought, not an interpretation of yours–sorry for the miscommunication! Hopefully this makes more sense.

  11. Beth says:

    People like to raise questions too much if you see what I mean. I think it’s just a good, funny movie – I don’t see any racism in it. That’s my opinion.

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