Now, I realize that the film Lost in Translation
is, fundamentally, not about Japan
. It is a movie about the relationship between two people and their feelings of isolation
from the world, which just happens to be set in Tokyo. Even so, I have some problems with the movie and its relationship to its setting.
I've lived in Tokyo and it certainly can be huge and overwhelming, but it's doesn't have to be the dehumanizing "concrete jungle" that everyone always says. It's just a big city in another country. But real life Tokyo isn't where this movie is set. It's set in the idea of a huge city, made even more incomprehensible by the fact that it's a Japanese city and the characters know nothing of Japan and speak no Japanese. So, that's all right.
What bothers me are the reactions I've heard from many people who've seen this movie. They think they're getting a glimpse of the real Tokyo. The film happened to come out while I was living there and I got a lot of people telling me, "Oh, I saw this movie and I feel like I've been there! Is it like that?" The film takes on a weird staged feeling if when you watch it you can understand what all the Japanese people are saying and recognize where they're shooting half the shots.
Japanese culture is a lot more popular in the US lately, with a big boom of anime and manga, but I think Japan is still often seen as a place where "those wacky Japanese" do quirky, insane things. Lost in Translation only makes this idea of Japan worse. It presents the Japanese as shrill incomprehensible automatons and Tokyo as an isolating impenetrable maze. The movie isn't trying to be a statement about Japan, but nonetheless it makes one. The fact that Sofia Coppola knows no Japanese and only spent time there on vacation and to make the movie indicates to me that she has only interacted with Japan and its people on a very surface level, yet somehow the film has now become this standard of what life in Tokyo must really be like.
On a personal level, it drove me nuts to see the two main characters sit in their hotel the whole time, not even mustering the wherewithal to buy a guidebook, and then feel sorry for themselves that they felt isolated. But I understand that they were isolated from all of their lives and that their culture shock was a metaphor for the rest of it. However, even though the movie isn't directly about Japan, I think it could have been improved with a less stereotypical depiction of the Japanese. For such a potentially thought provoking movie, I found it remarkably shallow.