I watched Lost In Translation last night, and it made me feel all funny in my special place. Well, not really, but I can’t figure out if it really was a Fine Filmic Experience or not.

DIRECTOR (in Japanese to the interpreter): The translation is very important, O.K.? The translation.
INTERPRETER: Yes, of course. I understand.
DIRECTOR: Mr. Bob-san. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whiskey on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in “Casablanca,” saying, “Cheers to you guys,” Suntory time!
INTERPRETER: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?
BOB: That’s all he said?
INTERPRETER: Yes, turn to camera.
BOB: Does he want me to, to turn from the right or turn from the left?
INTERPRETER (in very formal Japanese to the director): He has prepared and is ready. And he wants to know, when the camera rolls, would you prefer that he turn to the left, or would you prefer that he turn to the right? And that is the kind of thing he would like to know, if you don’t mind.
DIRECTOR (very brusquely, and in much more colloquial Japanese): Either way is fine. That kind of thing doesn’t matter. We don’t have time, Bob-san, O.K.? You need to hurry. Raise the tension. Look at the camera. Slowly, with passion. It’s passion that we want. Do you understand?
INTERPRETER (In English, to Bob): Right side. And, uh, with intensity.
BOB: Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.
DIRECTOR: What you are talking about is not just whiskey, you know. Do you understand? It’s like you are meeting old friends. Softly, tenderly. Gently. Let your feelings boil up. Tension is important!
Don’t forget.
INTERPRETER (in English, to Bob): Like an old friend, and into the camera.
DIRECTOR: You understand? You love whiskey. It’s Suntory time! O.K.?
DIRECTOR: O.K.? O.K., let’s roll. Start.
BOB: For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.
DIRECTOR: Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! (Then in a very male form of Japanese, like a father speaking to a wayward child) Don’t try to fool me. Don’t pretend you don’t understand. Do you even understand what we are trying to do? Suntory is very exclusive. The sound of the words is important. It’s an expensive drink. This is No. 1. Now do it again, and you have to feel that this is exclusive. O.K.? This is not an everyday whiskey you know.
INTERPRETER: Could you do it slower and… ?
DIRECTOR: With more ecstatic emotion.
INTERPRETER: More intensity.
DIRECTOR (in English): Suntory time! Roll.
BOB: For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.
DIRECTOR: Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! God, I’m begging you.

What do you reckon? I’d like to hear from you, dear reader, what you thought about the movie. I know precisely jack sh-t about film, and place myself firmly in the ‘I dunno much about art, but I knows what I likes’ camp. Bill Murray, as everyone hastens to say, was pretty damn good, I thought, but was the movie all that, really, or just Japanophile pandering?
Inquiring wonderchickens want to know. Great movie, or just goodish?

Trippy Visuals, Man

Join the conversation! 23 Comments

  1. Thanks for the translation, Stav. We U.S. monoglots didn’t get subtitles for that scene here in the States, but, even on its face, I thought the film resorted too much to stereotypes. What I have noticed (if it helps) is that the people who seem to love this movie here are bourgeois types. I guess the idea of having unlimited amounts of cash and being the center of attention in a strange land strikes a chord with them. Meanwhile, your self-respecting blue-collar film geeks are underwhelmed. Me? I thought the film was okay, Murray was good, but that the film got away too easy for its superficial immersion in Japanese culture.

  2. Quickies

    The Guardian has an excerpt of Carol Shield’s unfinished novel, Segue, which she was working on at the time of her death. Terry Gross interviews Stephen King. Hearing Terry Gross describe the beginning of Gerald’s Game in such clinical intellectual…

  3. I actually quite enjoyed the film myself due to the nature of the two main characters and how “lost in translation” they were being in japan and essentially being away from their loves ones in any proper capacity (Murray’s wife on the phone and Johannson and her there, not there husband). I thought the relationship itself was quite dynamic between the two characters and ended for all intents and purposes in a satisfying way. In fact it had more emotional umph for me than Return of the King (watching these two movies have made me realize that I have come to love smaller reflective films like this over the spectacle of high fantasy.) Murray was great and played restrained quite well considering past works and Johannson was just mesmorizing in her own little way.
    Gonna get this as soon as it comes out on DVD.

  4. Oh and I have to respectfully disagree with the statement regarding “blue collar” geeks. being a middle class student of 22 years of age who has long grown up studying cinema. I don’t care if you are rich or not we all as human beings undergo many of the same emotions and if anything this movies gets the point across quite well that money and all that it brings means absolutely nothing if one does not have fulfillment elsewhere in life.
    As for stereotypes…I’d say that it remained rather respectful to Japanese culture or at least pop-culture. I could be sorely wrong here but I don;t think the movie paints a picture saying THIS is how the Japanese are.

  5. That “Lick my stocking” scene was respectful? Turning an Asian woman into a simpering sex object, the geisha prototype? Not to me, man. And not to a few Asian friends of mine. The film seems to function as a shameful agitprop for superficial cultural perspective. The two characters are less interested in understanding the culture (or even the pop cultural artifices) and more interested in being worshipped by the culture: whether through bus signs, starry-eyed PR people ushering them through croweds, and the like.
    And you are one deluded dude if you honestly believe that middle-class and blue-collar types aren’t dramatically changed by money. Money, or the lack of it, has major ramifications on life decisions. There are personal sacrifices out there that you could never possibly know about, there is hunger, pain, violence, dysfunction, and all sorts of terrible emotions going down. Trust me, man. I’ve been there. And those who manage to escape these situations through hard effort and firm resolve have earned their keep far more than some spoiled brat complaining about some easily patched up triviality. Go see Mike Leigh’s “All or Nothing,” which is one of the finest recent films to deal with this world, far more interesting and compelling than ten minutes of “Lost in Translation.”
    But, yeah, I’d say my reaction to “Lost in Translation” has more to do with me. 🙂

  6. Turning an Asian woman into a simpering sex object, the geisha prototype?
    Actually, I thought this was a painfully funny reductio ad absurdum. The logical if ridiculous culmination of what the Japanese woman perceives to be the westerner’s source of his ‘yellow fever’, and how little it actually conforms to the desires of everyman (ie good ol’ good-hearted Bill), while playing right into the unapologetic fetishizing of every aspect of sexuality, it seems, by Japanese men.
    Lost in Translation, indeed. Have to disagree with you there, ed….

  7. Also, this, which is Not Safe For Anyone (seriously, very nasty Japanese violence-fetish toys ahoy), but goes to make my point. It’s not the gaijin filmmakers that are the big offenders here.

  8. And that is my point Stav. You hit on it right there. It’s not a matter of the filmmaker coming up with this stuff out of nowhere. It exists and this just sheds a light upon it. This movie does the same thing a movie like Bounce Ko Gal does. Shows a seedy side of a culture that is there. Just like an S&M here in America. These things exist and there is no reason to deny it is there. Just because it is a “white” person showing this part of the culture doesn’t make it any less impactful or without merit. There is a reason why the movie is called Lost In Translation.
    Frankly the characters are not supposed to neccesairly try and understand the culture like Tom Cruise in Last Samurai. Murray is there because it is his only source of money for a not so washed up actor as himself. Johansson is there because this is where her husband went. These people are fish out of water and just as much as they cannot understand the Japanese culture it is the same for those Japanese who put Murray in a stereotypical light.
    And I must respectfully ask where I went over blue collar people coming into money. My post was merely saying that though money may very well change a great many aspects of people and their character that doesn’t mean core emotions are not the same whether you are Donald Trump or the man sleeping on the street. Basically the movie I feel boils down to two people, longing for a real sustained love and belonging that happen to find themselves and begin to grow while experiencing (at least) a superficial portion of Japanese culture. That’s it. If you want to look at it as some spoiled rich people foundering when they shouldn’t be with the money and life they have, so be it. It’s film and it’s open to interpretation.

  9. Good angle, Stav. But since the film is told from the perspective of Murray and Johansson, it didn’t play that way for me. Murray didn’t come across as necessarily good-hearted (at least not at first), more inert and impassive than anything else. Moping his way through the gig. Killing time, tormented by furniture choices and faxes and fans and singers to waste time with. And besides, even if it was partially about nutty philias, why hinge it upon a caricature? Why not go further and put Murray in a position where he’s forced to respond with something more than just leaving the room? Or reveal something about the guy that doesn’t keep him an overly one-note character?
    The other “seedy side” moment is when Bill Murray’s waiting for the gang to show up in the strip joint, and that Peaches song is playing. Hey, I like that Peaches song as much as anyone else. But the joke in that scene relies almost completely on the song (Western culture?) for its delivery, which suggests to me that Japanese culture is of peripheral concern (if any) and that the film’s more into a Carrot Top approach to humor. (Carrot Top has props, Sofia’s got the hep music.)
    And, as a side note, isn’t it interesting that most of the Japanese culture presented is Westernized? (Johansson only responds emotionally, early on, to the ritual she observes.) Despite these obvious efforts at emphasis, I still think the culture angle came off as unexpectedly self-defeating from Sofia Coppola’s end.

  10. Murray didn’t come across as necessarily good-hearted
    I think that might be where (and thus why) we part ways a bit on that scene. I identified heavily with that weary, drunken, befuddled and benumbed ‘where-the-hell-am-I’ thing he had going from the get-go, so I was predisposed by my identification with the character to see him as basically good. Still, small things from the start, compounded as the story unwound, confirmed it in my mind. Lost, rudderless, but not a bad man.
    And so his reactions to the excesses with which he’s faced and the quiet (in the centre of chaos) he finds with whatserface seemed accurate, and pulled the Japan stuff back, for me, from the brink of broad-brush parody.
    Hell, I’m gettin’ good at this! 😉

  11. But the joke in that scene relies almost completely on the song
    It has happened a number of times that we’ll be wandering around in some upscale department store or something here in Korea and that, er, fem-rap ‘song’ (that was extremely popular here in Korea, and amused me immensely because nobody had a clue what it was about, honestly) that goes ‘you gotta lick it, before you stick it, you gotta make it soft and wet so we can kick it’ will play, and all the fur-coat clad old ladies will be standing at a clothes rack tapping their fingers, unaware.
    I dunno if you’ve spent time in Asia, Ed, but honest, crazy-irony shit like that scene (well, you know, except the boobies) happens all the damn time!

  12. I’ll skip my opinion, but I did hear a few days ago from a friend (who’ll be going to Seoul in March for a teaching job):
    “the three americans in it were simply agoraphobes with pseudo-culture shock to excuse their ridiculous laziness and cowardice.”
    So I guess that would be a vote for “goodish” rather than “great”?

  13. How do you tell pseudo-culture shock from the real thing, is an interesting question to me, before my first coffee this morning. Does culture shock mean anything like the same thing we’ve always taken it to be, when we’re so bored and jaded by exposure to other people’s shit? On the ground it’s still a bitch, I know, but it’s not quite as…existential as it once was, maybe.
    Anway, Ray, I’d ask your friend after he or she’s been in Seoul for three months, and they’re going snake-raping insane. Heh.

  14. I liked Lost in Translation. I spent the last 15 minutes scared that they’d go at it, but was happy with the resolution. Bill Murray was hilarious – especially in the scene at the hospital waiting

  15. So much in the film struck me as plagiarized, starting with the characters: the husband sleepwalking through his dysfunctional marriage, the just-graduated directionless student, the dumb blonde movie star, the husband too busy with his work for his wife. Add to that complaint how none of the Japanese people counted as much more than scenery (and really, neither did the lounge singer). The jokes mostly covered well-trodden “We sure ain’t in Kansas anymore” territory: black toe in the sushi restaurant, the usual Japanese mispronunciation of English R’s and L’s, etc. So many of backdrops also came from the Japan travel documentary checklist: the Bullet Train, a pachinko parlour, monks chanting inscrutably in a temple, a golf course in the shadow of Fuji-san, a video game arcade, a wedding party in traditional dress, and kimono-clad women practicing ikebana.
    It all seemed so lazy to me, especially given that the film already revolved so much around alienation, a mood so simple to evoke that it’s almost ludicrous: put a character in a room alone with a pensive face. The character does not speak, but may wander aimlessly around the space. Repeat. Repeat again outside the room, as the character observes others without making any sort of contact. Hints of sadness flicker across the character’s face. Repeat ad nauseam.
    I hardly need to spell it out, but to me, Tokyo’s exoticism just served as a smokescreen to a noodling vanity project. I wonder if it would have been made if not for the wealth and fame of the director’s father.

  16. Good call, Aron. That puts a finger on some of the uncertainty I felt about how much I liked the film, too.
    At the same time, I wonder if the set of standard cardboard backdrops are exactly what is necessary to get the point across. Is it possible that the makers of the movie were clever enough to deliberately use the same tired place-and-people-props in a knowing, ironic sense? In an attempt to wrap a metamessage around the ‘lost in translation’ alienation the characters feel?
    No, probably not.

  17. That in hollywood this so-so movie appears to be a breath of fresh air says a little something about the state of their movie business.

  18. Sorry to get back on the saddle later than expected. (Aron pretty much nailed it.) But a much more interesting film that used Japanese culture as cardboard cutouts but that worked for me was Peter Greenaway’s hilarious “8 1/2 Women,” of which no one has made yet comparisons too. That film, like “Lost in Translation,” had its talons hooked in Fellini. But where Greenaway excoriated how upper-crust types view everyday life (to the point where they cause calamitous earthquakes around them), S. Coppola took few subversive chances.

  19. Various Artists – Lost In Translation OST

    It’s no surprise that ‘Lost In Translation’ would have a cool soundtrack to accompany it. Sofia Coppola’s last picture, ‘The Virgin Suicides’, was scored by Air and her latest has Kevin Shields in charge. Well, not so much ‘in charge’…

  20. But, yeah, I’d say my reaction to “Lost in Translation” has more to do with me. 🙂
    Thanks, ed, that saved me the need to write a long deconstruction of your views. I’ll just say “what ed said.”
    I thought the movie was damn good: not a “great movie” (I reserve that adjective for Godard, Altman, et al) but much better than I’d expected (having had a grudge against Sofia since Godfather III). The thumbs-down comments here mostly seem to have more to do with preconceptions about “bourgeois” “Westerners” than the movie itself or, you know, art. It’s like women who refuse to read Hemingway because he was mean to women. There’s little enough really good stuff in this world that it’s pretty silly to limit yourself to good stuff that also happens to meet your social/political criteria for virtue.
    Oh, and I add my thanks for the translations of the unsubtitled Japanese!

  21. Peter Greenaway’s hilarious “8 1/2 Women”
    I haven’t seen that one, but if I can find a torrent for it, I will. I liked some of Greenaway’s earlier stuff, but I haven’t seen anything he’s done in yonks.

  22. I’ve held several different opinions on this movie since I initially saw it. At first, I found it entertaining and was mesmerized by the sights and sounds. But as time wore on, I started to wonder whether the criticisms claiming that there’s a racist undertone had a hint of truth.
    In the end, I don’t believe so. At least, I don’t believe the film carries a racist message, nor do I feel the characters are inherently racist. The story is about two individuals who are in Japan during an introspective point in their lives. Their alienation already exists, but being in Japan enhances that condition.
    Bob seems to see his trip as a job, nothing more. He’d rather be elsewhere, as evidenced by his attempts to leave. Charlotte, on the other hand, has come to Japan to be close to her husband (possibly to alleviate her perceived lack of direction), but ends up feeling more detached. There are token attempts to do stereotypical touristy things, but they seem like weak graspings at a deep culture. The monks and the bamboo arranging scene seemed hollow to me, and I believe this is a success of the film, not a failure.

  23. If you’ve been following the conversation here, you might be interested in this.

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