16 October 2007

Unfunky, but a Serious Topic

I am not the most culturally hip person under the best of circumstances (meaning pop culture). The past few years of illness and kids have only widened my cultural knowledge gap.

Before I became a complete cultural nincompoop, I loved going to the movies. One of my favorite movies is Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. There are precious few movies that I will watch over and over, but Lost in Translation is one of them.

So here's my question: what kind of rock was I living under to have missed what evidently was a lot of kerfuffle about racism in the film? (For more, Google "Lost in Translation" + racism.) I'm way late to the party, and I just don't know what to think.

I have traveled the world and lived in many other cultures. I try to be respectful of other people and aware of cultural differences and possible stereotypes. As the mother of biracial children, I want to be especially sensitive to discrimination based on race. In my mind, Coppola's movie was not racist. But I'm not Japanese. I'm a white woman who has experienced Charlotte's disconnected feeling of being the outsider. I identified so strongly with Charlotte that it didn't occur to me that the portrayal of what she was seeing could be racist.

But was it? Those of you who have seen the film, what do you think?


Jess said...

I haven't seen the movie so I can't comment specifically, though I did read the article that you linked to. But I think it's about what the movie intended to do. If it wanted to show that incredible feeling of disconnection and never waver in its outsider perspective, then it makes sense to me that it would intentionally reduce the Japanese people in the movie to one-dimensional stereotypes, because that's often how cultures are seen by outsiders, and in fact that's the very root of much racism. When I lived in Senegal, there were many Americans in my group who never learned to see beyond the stereotypes about the Senegalese people and still view them in a very stereotyped, one-dimensional light.

That is one of the risks of cultural exchange programs--if it's not total immersion, if it's a brief time spent thrown into a culture that is utterly foreign to you without being equipped with the skills to learn about the culture from the inside, then it doesn't accomplish its goal of teaching tolerance and cultural understanding. Not that the movie was about a student exchange program, but I think there are a lot of parallels.

I also think that current culture likes to treat anything that doesn't give a totally PC, well-rounded view of other cultures as racist or xenophobic. I think that's a challenge for anyone who wants to tackle those issues, to balance the perspective they're trying to show with what is sure to be an outcry about all the perspectives they didn't show. If Lost in Translation claimed or strived to be a balanced study of two cultures, then yes, it would be racist. But if it is truly and relentlessly a film that focuses on the perspective of an outsider who honestly sees the culture she is in in a one-dimensional way, then it is more about subtly depicting the racism that all of us can feel on occasion than it is actually racist itself.

Kizz said...

As a writer and an actor I feel as though, while the allegations may be fair (I didn't get that out of the movie but I'm not Japanese), Japan wasn't the point of the movie. It could as easily have been set in France or Italy or Greece or Egypt probably but Coppola's experience was from Japan so that's where she set it. It's about as American a movie as can be and as people have said before me, the reduction of the (very few) Japanese characters in the movie speaks more of the inability of the American characters to connect or immerse than it does of the Japanese people as a whole. The whole thing wouldn't make sense if the characters knew or understood any Japanese person. It's about one person's experience not about a whole culture. I'm sorry that people are offended by it but I don't think it makes Coppola a bad (or good) film maker.

Lori said...

It was all pretty much what Jess talks about - people used the example of scenes like Scarlett Johansen's (sp?) character looking at seemingly 'inscruitable', traditional architecture (a temple, I think?); Bill Murray's comical interactions with the advertising people, etc. - to talk about how the film never got past one-dimensional portrayals of "the Japanese."

I *think* that there was much more outcry among Asian Americans than Japanese-in-Japan (the film did okay there - not great, but it did have a certain following, mostly based on interest in Sofia Coppola as a director); I couldn't say quite why, without making probably grossly exaggerated generalizations, but that was my impression.

I liked much of the film myself, and I saw most of the one-dimensionality as intentional - that is, foregrounding the divide that unfamiliarity creates. Certain moments - Bill Murray and the oversexed ?hostess? (what was she??) - leave a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, but there are some others - when he's at the hospital and the two older ladies talk to/about him (?it's been awhile since I saw it); when he's on the crazy TV show (which was a real show and his reception there is pretty much how foreigners are dealt with) seemed to be pretty much what you get as a white Westerner in Japan. As apparently unflattering as the depiction of Japanese might be in certain scenes, there's a definite degree of truthfulness to white foreigners' experience of Japan in them.

The scene at the very end - where they say goodbye on the street - was shot right outside the electronics shop that I used to frequent with my then-boyfriend-now-husband. I think I cried the first time I saw it, since he was still in Tokyo and I was back in the States. For that alone, I'll always have a fond place for the movie in my heart.

aqua said...

This is a long-running argument that my husband and I have. We both lived in Japan, and he thinks the movie is racist. I disagree. I think the story was portrayed from the main character's point of view, and when you first get to Japan, the uniqueness of it all is overwhelming -- and that's what the movie was striving to convey.

Sarah said...

The odd thing is, as an American who has travelled in foreign countries (although not to Japan), I DIDN'T think the Japanese characters in the movie were "one-dimensional" - they were certainly much deeper than the main characters!

The author of that article only cites one scene from the movie - when Bill Murray feels awkwardly tall in an elevator and in a shower. When I went to Stockholm, I felt the exact same way when I was in an elevator with several tall, fashionable teenagers who were all speaking Swedish. It's uncomfortable to stand out like that (in my case, I was frumpy and short).

Rachel said...

I thought it was racist. What bothered me was that all the jokes were at the expense of the Japanese people.

On the other hand I do think she did a good job of conveying the feeling of alienation one gets when traveling.

I think a book/ movie/ song/ painting can be racist, yet still have artistic merit.

Emma (in Amsterdam) said...

Like you, this must be one of the very few films I've seen more than once. People who find this movie 'racist' have obviously never been in another country and experienced that feeling of being 'lost'.

Perhaps some of the characters were caricatures, but I wouldn't say it were just the Japanese. It also was the wife back in the US, the unsupportive husband, and the naive just-wedded-wife.

I live in Amsterdam: all kinds of people and nationalities do. But I guess our behaviour and values can confuse and even offend foreigners. Are visitors telling the people at home how they felt about my country racists? Of course not!

Lost in Translation made me want to visit Japan, actually. I've seldom felt better than arriving in a strange city and feeling a little bit lost.

I even felt that way the first few weeks traveling through California, Utah and Arizona. I'm part Dutch part Belgian part Indonesian but/and I'm tall, blond and blue eyed, which didn't make me stand out in the US.

But everything was SO different none the less: all the fast food, the huge cars, the friendliness of random people we met, two beds in one motel room (in stead of one), electric shopping carts for people who were too fat to walk through the isles, 24 hour shops, so many Indian people running the motels and fast food chains, all the different accents that are hard to comprehend being used to British-English...

That was no different from this summer really, when we traveled between Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur. The people looked different, talked different, acted different, and still we got along great.

Why is noticing differences so bad? Especially in a movie, where a director is allowed to 'enlarge' the main character's observations?

And... have you ever seen Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain?
(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0211915/) If Lost in Translation is my number 2, this movie definitely is my number 1. Racism factor 0/10.

Daddy Dan said...

I didn't think of it being racist at all. I think people are too sensitive sometimes.

Emily said...

I guess I'm similarly out of the loop because I didn't know about this either. It surprises me too. Like you, I was a Peace Corps volunteer and so absorbed three years of Cultural Sensitivity Training in the form of 15 billion lectures/articles/discussions/dreaded role-plays. (I also committed about 15 billion cultural sensitivity faux pas...and, if I'm honest, a few deliberate acts). But anyway, i was surprised to learn this because I felt I should be "trained" to pick up on this sort of stuff.

I also grew up in Japan. Unlike a previous commenter I think Japan was important to the point of the movie -- to foreigners, especially first time visitors who don't speak the language, it really does feel like the face of the moon, or something. It's easy to feel completely lost, completely baffled, completely misunderstood. I think the Japanese characters were meant to be seen entirely from the two characters points of view and that makes them seem, fairly, one-sided or lacking in depth. It's true Sophia Coppola made zero effort to understand Japanese culture...but in the context of the movie, I think that makes sense.

carosgram said...

First I love Sophia Coppola, even in Godfather 3. Next I love Lost in Translation but then I love anything with Bill Murray in it. I was not concerned about whether the movie was racist or not because I didn't think the film was about Japan, it was about how the two of them viewed themselves while living there. Their self involvement and isolation from the culture they were living within were well portrayed. Like remakes of movies of the 50's the racism of the times and people need to be shown to be authentic. JMO.

Amy said...

I never picked up on racism. I picked up on the differences between the cultures, which in my mind made the movie. Perhaps as a Japanese person I might have problems with it but sitting where I am, as someone who lives in Canada and have never been to Japan I saw no fault.

Agree with the commenter who said that film could have been made in any 'foreign' country. The emphasis was on the American's take on the differences in culture and customs.

Tamar said...

I loved this movie! (Most of my friends thought it was slow-moving and boring.) I lived in Japan and taught English after undergrad and I could totally relate to some of the experiences. Especially when Bill Murray's filming the commercial and the one guy says five or six long sentences and the other person translates it as two or three words.

I didn't feel it was racist, but I'm often not as sensitive to that as others are.

Elaine said...

Most of the Japanese people I know -- and I live here in Japan -- didn't like the movie, despite tremendous admiration for the Coppola family (especially "The Godfather" series). They thought it was kind of insulting.

Denise said...

Hmmm. I really loved this movie too, mostly because it captures that sense of being jetlagged and in an antiseptic hotel in a different culture. I thought the movie was making fun of the Americans more as "fish-out-of-water" than of the Japanese.But I suppose if I were Japanese and looking at this film as a representation of Japan, I would find it racist.

I also saw this movie before I had my (Korean) kids. Maybe I would feel differently if I saw it for the first time today?

Amy said...

delurking here! I loved that movie, too, and I thought it capture beautifully the clueless outsider American in Tokyo. The Japanese characters seemed full and real, with the very real language barrier in full existence. Japan, and Tokyo in particular, was the most different-from-home place I've ever been.

And yes, Bill Murray's character might have tried harder, but wasn't that the point of his character? That he was just there to make a buck and escape his family?

I guess I don't think the movie should have to be an introduction to Japanese culture. It's more about being lost and feeling like you don't quite fit.

Anonymous said...

I am a caucasian American who lived in Japan, by choice, for two years. I studied Japanese before going and during my time there. I have a lot of love and respect for Japanese culture, and I LOVE the language. It was actually one of my life's goals to live there.

That being said, however--it is STILL such a major culture shock. EVERYTHING is different from the U.S. And believe me--if you are over 6 feet tall, you will have problems running into doorways, having showers reach only to your neck, and bumping your head against straps on the subway. I can imagine that for an American who is only there for a short period of time, is not familiar with the language or the culture, and is not there because they want to learn, the culture shock would be that much more.

I loved Lost in Translation, and, like others have said, I can see where the Japanese characters were presented as one-dimensional. But I also thought most of the fun being poked in the film was toward the American characters--e.g., Bill Murray's forgetting to unclip the clothespin from the back of his suit; the "Carmen Diaz" dizty blonde movie star; the shallow, "fashionisto" husband of Scarlett Johannsen; the anonymous American woman in the hotel lobby who keeps trying to hit on Bill Murray, and on and on. The movie was also funny to me because it brought back memories of my being in similar "culture shock" situations, especially of trying to communicate with my limited Japanese, and I appreciated the "post-modern" bit when the Japanese photographer was trying to get Bill Murray to pose like one of the Rat Pack (yes, Virginia, Japanese people also have stereotypes about American culture).

I was trying to think of a movie that portrays Americans as cultural stereotypes, and one that comes to mind is the Triplets of Belleville. (If you haven't seen it, just know that Americans are viewed as FAT over on the other side of the pond). I didn't take offense to that, even though I know that, as an American, not all of us are obese, because there's a kernel of truth to it and it was funny. If we can't laugh at all at ourselves, that's kind of sad.

But anyway.

Kay said...

I never considered the movie racist, probably because I wasn't looking for racism in it. I loved the movie. I have been to Japan once - it is culture shock. I was able to get around fairly easily though. The subways were easy and in Tokyo where I was staying all the close-by restaurants had picture menus. The ONE thing that gave me trouble was trying to get the point of "salad dressing" across in sign language. I was there for 10 days, and did not succeed.

As for standing out - I worked in Prachinburi, Thailand (about 3 hours outside of Bangkok) at a facility for about a month. I think I am possibly the first white woman that many of these people have ever seen. I am only 5'4", but had curly hair down half my back and am overweight. It was a bit unsettling to see an entire cafeteria of 18 year old Thai girls - all no taller than 5 feet, all tiny little things, all with jet black straight hair - pointing and giggling. I think I had about 50 people come up to touch my hair.

I have to say the experiences were wonderful, wouldn't trade them for anything ever, and I was very glad to get home where I "fit in".