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Review: Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation
movie: | DVD:
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola.
Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

Remember how with back in the olden days of videotapes you had to fast forward through the trailers to get to the movie? Well, those days are back with the Lost in Translation DVD, a textbook example of annoying DVD authoring. You get a self-promo ad for Focus Features (the production company), trailers for 21 Grams, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Swimming Pool — five and a half minutes in all, if you choose to watch it all. I wouldn’t have minded much if you could skip it easily, but the Menu buttons on your DVD player are disabled; the Track/Skip buttons are disabled, too; hell, even if you wanted to hit Pause (to check out Kirsten Dunst … er, I mean, read the credits in the Eternal Sunshine trailer, perhaps) — that’s disabled, too. You can Fast Forward past the trailers, but I thought that never having to do that again was part of the charm of the DVD format.

Once you get to the movie, it’s brilliant, of course. For those who haven’t seen it yet (shame on you, it was in theaters forever), Lost in Translation is about two Americans, aging has-been movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and aimless photographer’s wife Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who meet in Tokyo and find a strange, deep connection with each other that is beautifully romantic yet almost totally platonic. Some will argue that Lost in Translation is all atmosphere and no plot, but so what? The fact that they don’t profess their undying love for each other and cheat on their spouses doesn’t make for very good melodrama, but under Ms. Coppola’s guiding hand, Bill Murray and the far-too-talented-for-being-only-19-years-old Scarlett Johansson communicate volumes with just a glance or a gesture; sometimes, in both movies and relationships, words just get in the way.

Lost in Translation has been accused of being racist, which makes me wonder if I happened to see an entirely different movie, because quite to the contrary, I felt that Lost was about Bob and Charlotte, and if anything, that the bits “about” Japan were rather affectionately humorous. Although I found other examples, the only even marginally intelligent one was at, whose press release had this to say:

The humor and lampooning of the Japanese in the film has a distinctly racial element. The film portrays the Japanese people as a collection of shallow stereotypes. The audience laughs AT the Japanese people and not with them. Japanese characters in the film include the weird prostitute and other Japanese who mispronounce their R’s and L’s; an ineffectual film director, strippers, and doctors who assault you with the Japanese language; the stoic arrogant sushi chef; and an emasculate colorful talk show host and partygoers.

The main characters’ callous treatment towards these stereotyped Japanese is unfair and offensive. The main characters are portrayed as normal people while the Japanese are bizarre. The main characters prey on the Japanese and their inability to understand English. Particularly offensive are the hackneyed stereotypical jokes such as the overdone juxtaposition of L’s and R’s, mocking them because they bow and are short, and references to their disgusting food. The main characters visibly express disdain, and make insulting remarks and jokes in the direct presence of Japanese characters. There are no redeeming Japanese roles in the film, nor is there any significant dialogue between the main characters and the Japanese characters. They merely serve as buffoons for the main characters to ridicule.

Real-life Japanse talk show host Matthew Minami would probably find it amusing to learn that he is an offensive stereotype, but that’s beside the point. While I will grant that the “lip my stocking” call girl was definitely bizarre, nothing in the film indicated to me that her character was some kind of commentary on Japanese women, much less Japanese society in general. Similarly, at no point in the movie did I feel that Kelly, the pathetic Cameron Diaz clone played note-perfectly by Anna Faris (Scary Movie), was any kind of commentary on white women.

Bob and Charlotte’s “callous” treatment of other people was quite equal opportunity: it’s directed at the other white characters and each other every bit as often as it is at the Japanese characters. Kelly and the white lounge singer are portrayed as far more lame than the vast majority of the Japanese characters, for instance the completely not-bizarre Santori reps and hotel employees that the press release neglects to mention, who all spoke English quite well — at least as well as my Japanese professors in college and better than many Japanese people I’ve met in America who have not the excuse of living in a Japanese-speaking society to account for their inability to speak English fluently and without an accent. The “doctors,” for instance — one doctor, actually, who had one line — acted as any doctor would trying to communicate “your toe is not broken” to someone who didn’t speak their language: nodding and smiling and pointing at an X-ray. Another scene where Bob tells his wife that he would like to start eating healthier food (“like Japanese food”) was conveniently forgotten about when they composed the line about “references to their disgusting food,” too.

But that’s how these things go: people with no sense of humor who are out looking for something to get offended by will find something and conveniently ignore everything that doesn’t support their agenda. For the most part, Japan was simply depicted, appropriately, from the perspective of outsiders who did not speak the language: very different, a little strange (relatively speaking, especially Japanese TV), and at times overwhelming (they are in a city of well over 25 million people, after all). Japanese culture, to those who are entirely unfamiliar with it, is strange, compared to the pre-processed, mass-produced excuse for culture we have in America; but what I see in Lost in Translation is a strange kind of beauty, not the ugliness that wants so badly to find.

Beyond the movie, the extras on the DVD are hit and miss: a few deleted scenes (mostly overlong and adding nothing to the story), a mildly amusing “conversation” with Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray, a mostly uninteresting behind-the-scenes documentary (partly shot by Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola’s then-husband), a music video for Kevin Shields’ wonderful “City Girl,” and Lost in Translation’s theatrical trailer, of course. But the most interesting extra was the excerpt of Matthew’s Best Hit TV, the previously-mentioned TV show that Bob Harris appears on in the film.

All told, this first edition of Lost in Translation is a decidedly barebones affair. Unless you think you’ll watch the movie often enough in the next six months or so, the absence of a director’s commentary and the annoying Focus Features stuff that automatically plays every time you insert the disc are enough for me to advise anyone in love with Lost in Translation to wait for the inevitable Criterion Collection or Platinum Series release.

Lost in Translation is available on video and DVD at stores everywhere.

(Originally published at Gapers Block on March 24, 2004.)

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