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
  • September 18, 2006 - Posted by | Bill Murray, Blogroll, Goth Girls, Harajuku, japan, Lost in Translation, media, Scarlett Johansson, sofia coppola, tokyo, Uncategorized

    8 Comments »

    1. well i cant really remember the film that well………but i do recall that i found it extremely irritating.anti japanese maybe not , but a bit like hey arent these Japanese really weird etc etc..tedios after the first 15 minutes.

      Comment by martinbrownart | October 10, 2006 | Reply

    2. tedious

      Comment by martinbrownart | October 10, 2006 | Reply

    3. Found your blog doing a search on the reaction to Lost in Translation. I enjoy your writing and having been a foreigner in Japan as well, I too could relate to the settings and agree that it’s less about the Japanese culture, and more about the feeling of being lost. Tokyo being what it is, makes it just makes it much more obvious. Tokyo is so much different than any other big city in the world. There’s a sense of organized chaos and everyone in the city is in on how this organized chaos works – except for you.

      Great pictures by the way. I don’t know if you look Japanese at all, but I don’t, so I would have added to your list “having your picture taken by people with camera phones on the train and in restaurants.”

      Despite how different that world was, now that I am back home, it’s the only place I’ve ever traveled that I now desperately miss.

      Comment by Loli | June 21, 2007 | Reply

    4. Amazing photography. The Goth fashion in Harajuku is fascinating, isn’t it? If you’re interested, you can find information and photos on Tokyo Gothic Lolita fashion on my website, http://www.lacarmina.com

      Comment by La Carmina | January 18, 2008 | Reply

    5. I hated Tokyo with a vengence even though it is my hometown, I much preferred Fukuoka, Tateyama or even Nara over Tokyo.

      Comment by Abe | June 3, 2008 | Reply

    6. If they had included all of those things I think it would have never been allowed to be released in Japan. You know how the government loves to paint a pic of Tokyo as bring a wonderland or something.

      Comment by freedomwv | July 8, 2009 | Reply

    7. […] with portraying cityscapes and the hyper-real) as an undergraduate. But, I also recently enjoyed this private bloggers comments on the film. This entry was written by codybaldwin, posted on August 17, 2012 at 4:03 […]

      Pingback by Cities make everyone your doormat – cody baldwin | September 18, 2012 | Reply

    8. Really interesting insights into the culture and the film. I also live in Japan and found the article via a “japanese responses…” search on Google like Loli.

      In terms of Japanese representation I took note of the contrasting scene of life in Kyoto. I think there was almost mystical reverence for the culture, even if viewed as an Other, in the “Alone in Kyoto” scene. I think this scene really drills in those criticisms of city life you mentioned (I think in general, not just of Tokyo as other commenters have suggested), and the barriers of entry to meaningful relationships that the characters experience as a result of the lives they lead and are so clearly dissatisfied with. To me the film is about actors, Japan is a backdrop. And, this is not the only example of Sofia Coppola making a movie ostensibly about the lives of people who make movies–something she’s an expert at, being the child of Francis Ford.

      Comment by codybaldwin | September 18, 2012 | Reply


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