Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Some Thoughts on “Lost in Translation” and Tokyo

©2005 Zoetrope

Bob Harris: Can you keep a secret? I’m trying to organize a prison break. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out?
Charlotte: I’m in.

I recently re-watched “Lost in Translation” on DVD. Watching the movie again, I was reminded of the first time I saw it in Tokyo and the Japanese reaction to the film. It was in a small, overheated theater in Shibuya last spring. It had taken close to seven months for the movie, which had been shot entirely in Japan, to finally open here.

The theater was packed with Japanese, and boy were they upset! At the end of the movie they began to attack the few gaijin (foreigners) in the theater.

Actually, the Japanese audience seemed to really enjoy the movie. I heard a lot of laughter. I don’t know why there was so much controversy when it was first released in the States. In time the movie became popular enough among Japanese to be shown in quite a few movie theaters (with better heating systems) throughout Japan.

Many Japanese I talked to liked the film. There were a few things they thought were a little too much, such as the interpreter for Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray) for a Suntory Whiskey commercial who translated only the barest amount of the director’s comments, and often inaccurately.

“Lost in Translation,” in my opinion, is not “anti-Japanese,” as a few people apparently think it is. It is rather “anti-Tokyo,” and subsequently, “anti-big city.”

Tokyo is a huge city even for the Japanese, more megalopolis than metropolis. One of the main complaints from residents is that the city has very little in the way of nature. At times it can seem as though every square meter of Tokyo has been covered in concrete and has a convenience store placed upon it.

A train pushes through the urban chaos of Tokyo.

For a culture whose roots lie in the nature-based spirituality of Shintoism, places like Tokyo can be difficult even for the Japanese to bear. However, what is not shown in the film, and is often overlooked by visitors and foreign residents alike, is the way in which many Tokyoites have brought nature, albeit on a small scale, into the big city. Countless small but elegant gardens dot Tokyo. Flowers are everywhere, from temples to train tracks. The city may be crammed with buildings, but it does possess parks where city dwellers can completely lose themselves and forget they are in one of the largest cities in the world.

Some Tokyo parks are virtually a forest within a city.

A good deal of “Lost in Translation” focuses on the urban loneliness that can affect both visitors and residents in Tokyo or any big city. At times Tokyo can feel like it is crushing one’s senses with all its buildings, neon, noise, confusion, oddness, traffic, and massive amount of people. Tokyo is definitely a city people have to come to terms with on their own.

Tokyo is a busy city for busy people with busy plans. For those who are in a transition or a stagnant period of life, such busy-ness can be overwhelming. The “Lost in Translation” effect is the alienation that anyone stuck in a rut can feel, not only in Tokyo, but in any place that is new and strange.

The main characters of the film are only in Tokyo for a week or so and much of the time they seem to spend in their hotel. The few times they venture out, they generally seem to have some fun, such as when they go to karaoke.

Their animosity towards Tokyo and the Japanese seems to stem more from the underlying loathing they have for their own lives and their lack of direction. By the end of the movie, however, we see they don’t really hate Tokyo, as Scarlett Johansson’s character, Charlotte, jokingly suggests to Bill Murray they could start up a jazz band and never leave.

Panicking on an overcrowded train

Overall, I thought the movie did a good job in its portrayal of two lost souls in the urban chaos of Tokyo. Murray gave a fine performance by simply not going overboard and giving us the “Bill Murray” from the movies and “Saturday Night Live.” He was funny in a low-key, genuine way.

Johansson never gave into dramatic displays of despair or soul-wrenching monologues that scream “I’d like to thank the Academy…” Both actors gave earnest performances that were stronger for their restraint. In a time where over-acting melodramatics abound in cinema, it was nice to see a movie that didn’t seem like a movie. It felt like the kind of bittersweet story that either has happened or could happen to any of us in our lives.

Now, from the point of view of a foreigner living in Tokyo, I thought “Lost in Translation” was quite accurate, though I have never stayed in a five-star hotel in Japan, had a high-priced prostitute sent to my room, or gone to any of those ritzy strip clubs depicted in the film. Had they filmed more scenes in izakaya (Hub Pubs), cheap noodle places, and sleazy meat-market dance clubs in Roppongi, I could have related more to the movie.

One of the myriad of drink machines that inhabit Tokyo.

A few extra things I feel the film needed to make it even more representative of Tokyo:

  • Elevator doors that squash you.
  • Revolving doors that kill you.
    Japanese goth girls
  • Drunk salarymen vomiting everywhere, especially on the platforms while they are trying to catch the last trains — I have seen more vomit on an average Friday night in Tokyo than I ever saw at Oktoberfest.
  • Drink vending machines everywhere.
  • The seemingly prerecorded programmed speech of “irrashaimase” you hear from service staff every time you enter a convenience store, restaurant, department store, brothel, etc…
  • Tissue-packet people who make it impossible to get by without taking a packet.
  • Those lovely, photogenic Sunday Harajuku Goth freaks in front of Yoyogi Park.
  • The orange-skin girls with Day-Glo make-up.
  • Massage girls in the street harassing men saying, “Massagee? Massagee?”
  • Pampered, neurotic little dogs.
  • Asking fast-food staff to hold an ingredient like mayo from a sandwich/burger and receiving a look of severe confusion.
  • Monstrous crows — the governor of the Tokyo area has made it his personal crusade to rid Tokyo of these winged pests after two crows viciously attacked him on a golf course.
    One of Tokyo’s large crows enjoying the cherry blossoms
  • People walking and e-mailing on their phones all the time, oblivious to everything around them.
  • Drunk, embittered English teachers in tacky blue shirts and badly knotted ties — I’m convinced the jazz band at the hotel had day jobs as English teachers.
  • Neurotic expats that make such a point not to look at you that you are very aware that they are making a point not to look at you. (There is a certain breed of expats in Japan who have adopted the xenophobia of right-wing Japanese and pretend to be Japanese at all costs.)
  • Road construction crews and the guy whose only job is to wave people through with a flashlight.
  • Oppressive cuteness.
  • Trains so overcrowded at rush hour that people have to be squished into the car by white-gloved train attendants.
  • Convenience stores on nearly every block. There must be a law that states there have to be at least 10 convenience stores in one square kilometer around any major station.
  • The little animation of women on ATM and train-ticket machines that bow to you after you make your transaction.
  • Annoying department store music that repeats itself over and over again.
  • The knee-high boots and short-skirts fashion in the winter — a personal favorite of mine.
    Passengers pack themselves in
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    September 18, 2006 Posted by | Bill Murray, Blogroll, Goth Girls, Harajuku, japan, Lost in Translation, media, Scarlett Johansson, sofia coppola, tokyo, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

    Japan’s Nebuta Matsuri – Giant Floats Frighten and Delight

    Fujin the Japanese God of Wind

    “Dragons, griffins, reptiles, fishes, birds there are, all dancing, waving fans, shouting, howling, singing, noising, in one form or another, in chorus perfectly bewildering.”
    – Amy Michael-Carmichael, American Missionary to Japan, 1895.

    Every summer, Aomori City’s Nebuta Festival brings in flocks of tourists from all over to gaze and wonder at the festival’s huge illuminated floats. Nebuta’s giant floats are the stuff of fantasy and nightmare depicting historical and legendary characters some of whom were of demonic origins.

    A samurai fights the Shuten Doji devil who once troubled Kyoto

    Visages of snarling faces of humans, animals, monsters, and demons of enormous proportions locked in grisly combat assail the eyes of visitors in a seemingly pagan-like splendor. If a 19th century Christian missionary had ever witnessed the Nebuta Matsuri, they would have probably thought that they had stumbled upon the heart of darkest heathendom. But Nebuta is not about worshipping the forces of darkness or warding away evil spirits. The festival is yet another creative and elaborate way for Japanese to ward away the sleepiness brought on by the summer’s heat through massive quantities of alcohol and gigantically terrifying floats.

    Aomori City is the capital of Aomori Prefecture. It is a port city which was founded in the early part of the Edo Period (1603-1867) by the second lord of the Tsugaru clan. The city’s history had been rather quiet over the centuries until WWII when the Americans bombed it practically flat. Aomori rebuilt itself and in recent years discovered buried in its outskirts an ancient city inhabited over 7,000 years ago.

    While the city has had a relatively uneventful existence – save for WWII bombings and one earlier fire – it hosts one of the most spectacular and unique festivals in all of Japan: the Nebuta Matsuri.

    The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
    Ancient Chinese Story A Favorite Nebuta Theme
    Chinese Hero Zhang Fei fighting one of his countless foes

    The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a popular re-occurring theme at Nebuta. The Three Kingdoms is ancient Chinese story based on historical events of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries when the Han Empire collapsed. China fell into three separate kingdoms that warred continuously with one another. Lui Bei is one of the prinicipal heroes of the Romance. He and his two brothers fought to restore the Han Dynasty but were unsuccessful. Instead they established the short-lived Shu-Han Dynasty, one of the three kingdoms in the Romance. Zhang Fei was not Lui Bei’s brother through blood but through the swearing of an oath of loyalty. He was great general but sometimes given over to strong drink which affected his judgment at times.

    The origin of the festival is one that invites debate among those who care to debate such things rather than spending their time simply gawking at the enormous floats and dancing the nebuta odori dance in an inebriated haze. One theory is that the festival goes far, far back long when much of Tohoku represented a kind of Wild West frontier of hardy settlers and indignant natives.

    Nitta Yoshisada a 14th Century Samurai Leader who fought for the Emperor Go-Daigo

    In the 8th Century Shogun Sakanoue no Tamuramaro,* led an expedition into the northern regions of Tohoku to subdue the indigenous Emishi inhabitants and increase the territory of imperial Japan. According to legend – but not fact – Tamuramaro built nebuta floats to lure the Emishi into an ambush. Legend states that this occurred in the area that is now Aomori City but in reality Tamuramaro’s campaign only reached as far as modern day Iwate Prefecture.

    Suikoden – Outlaws of the Marsh
    Another Chinese Classic – Another Popular Nebuta Theme
    Heroes of Suikoden

    The Outlaws of the Marsh or Suikoden in Japanese is another Chinese classic (Shuihu Zhuan in Chinese) that has received widespread popularity in Japan. Suikoden is a story based on historical outlaws during the Song Dynasty of the 12th Century who resisted corrupt government leaders. The story was set down officially in writing in the 14th century by Shi Nai-an. The story was later translated and adapted into Japanese in the early 19th Century. It became a huge sensation. The story was particularly popular with the lower class who admired the heroes of Suikoden for their defiance of the authorities. Tattoo art based on Suikoden became immensely popular as well.

    Another theory is that Nebuta is an adaptation of the Chinese Tanabata festival. Tanabata comes from an ancient Chinese legend about two starred-crossed lovers forever destined to be apart save for a brief time every summer. The custom was to set a toro – a candle placed on a wooden plate covered with Japanese paper – adrift on the water. Nebuta’s floats grew in size and shape over time till they became the unique hulking structures they are today.

    Tsugaru Tamenobu – First Lord of the Tsugaru clan

    The third theory is a bit more mundane. Nebuta was believed to have come about as a way of warding off the drowsiness that comes with the summer heat. Some servants of the Tsugura lord began walking about in the summer evenings with lanterns. Others began to copy their habit. The word “nebuta” is thought to have been derived from the world “Nenpute” which means sleepy in the local dialect.

    The giant decorative floats of today grew out of those lanterns used during the early beginnings of the festival. The making of the Nebuta floats is a community project. Many people will labor to create new floats every year. The principle artwork and design is handled by professional Nebuta artist known as Nebuta-Shi. Some of them have been designing Nebuta floats for decades.

    The floats are made of tough Japanese paper placed over a framework of wood and metal. The floats can be up to 9 meters wide, 5 meters high, and can weigh up to 4 tons. They take about three months to construct though the whole process from design to last-minute touches can stretch from the end of one festival to the beginning of the next years. The cost of some of these floats can run upwards to $200,000.

    Despite their ponderous weight and size, the Nebuta floats are not “floated” about by motorized vehicles. Good old fashion manual labor is employed to push and pull these massive floats through the city’s streets for nearly two hours. The float handlers will occasionally rush at the crowd as though they planned to ram them. Seemingly at the last moment the reckless advance is halted to the relief of those in the front. The handlers will then show off their skills by twirling their huge burden around. After the parade, the handlers celebrate their release from festive drudgery by feasting and drinking – lots of drinking.

    11th Century Samurai Hero Minamoto-no-Yorimasa with retainer killing the Nue, a mythical beast, which had been troubling the Emperor

    In the past the Nebuta Matsuri was a wilder affair attracting a rough crowd looking to drink and fight. Men of various districts of Aomori City and Prefecture would gang together and get into fights with other groups. All of them would wear black clothing generally of traditional wear. They were dubbed the Karasu Hanto – crow dancers. When travel to Aomori became more available to the rest of Japan, the number of tourists to Nebuta grew as did fears that the Karasu Hanto would be detrimental to tourism. Nowadays, the police are out in force to keep a tight rein on things. For adventurous types this may take some of the fun out of it.

    The Nebuta Matsuri runs through the first week of August for a nearly a full week. At the end of the festival, all the large floats are taken out to bay and “floated” along like their tiny cousin, the toro lantern. However, the Nebuta Floats are not allowed to simply drift off out to sea. They’re brought back and later either taken apart or sent around to other cities and countries for display. Those chosen as the best floats of the festival will reside in the Nebuta Matsuri Museum for the next few years before they eventually deteriorate.

    Don’t Just Watch – Join In!
    At Nebuta visitors can dress up and join in
    Nebuta Dave and friend

    Visitors to Nebuta have the option of actually becoming a part of the festival procession if they wish. Fortunately, they won’t be made to push one of those massive floats but they can join in with the groups of dancers. Some dancing groups allow visitors to dance with them. Willing visitors need to rent or buy a Nebuta Odori costume in order to participate.

    The Nebuta costume is not an easy thing to put on as I found out. I didn’t realize how bloody complicated it was to put on so the shop staff led me to a small ryokan (hotel) where someone would assist me. Before I knew it, I was down to only my boxers and socks in some strange woman’s living room. I was wondering if I was going to have to pay extra for this.

    As she was getting close to grandma years, I relaxed my concern and my beer gut. With the robe, I got an underskirt in a very masculine shade of pink, a yellow sash, a red bow tied on the back, a polka dot head band, and it also came with bells – oh, yes! I removed most of them shortly afterwards as they started to get really annoying very quickly. 

    The end of Nebuta can bring a sad sigh to the citizens of Aomori with the promise of coming Winter – it sometimes snows as early as late September. And yet with each festival’s ending there lies the hope of another Nebuta Matsuri just as grand and magnificent as the last.

    *At this time the office of Shogun was temporary and was bestowed by the Emperor. Shogun means “Eastern-barbarian queller” referring to the original inhabitants of Northeastern Japan. From the late 12th Century to 1867, the office of shogun became a permant one which the emperor had little say in the matter.

    September 18, 2006 Posted by | aomori, Blogroll, festival, japan, matsuri, nebuta, samurai, travel | 5 Comments