The complex legacy of Lost In Translation two decades on
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The complex legacy of Lost In Translation two decades on


It has been 20 years since an ageing Bill Murray and a young Scarlett Johansson introduced Tokyo to a generation in Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation.

The legacy of the Oscar-winning movie, which hit screens on Sept 12, 2003, is mixed. It's the film that launched a thousand travel blogs, helping propel a tourism boom as it catapulted Japan onto the list of exotic Asian destinations where young philosophy majors could go to find themselves. Yet many of its depictions of the Japanese, questionable even then, are uncomfortable in a modern light.

At a time when the country had lost much of its international relevancy, the film helped rekindle interest in it. After 1989's Black Rain and 1992's Mr. Baseball, Hollywood movies set there mostly disappeared as the spectre of a Japanese takeover of the world economy faded.

The release came just when the administration of then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, with his Elvis covers and baseball-based friendship with US President George W. Bush, was putting the nation back on the front pages. Together with The Last Samurai and Kill Bill: Volume 1, both of which were released in the same year as Coppola's movie, Lost In Translation showed what made the country cool before the YouTube era.

Of those three cinema hits, of course, only Lost In Translation is set in a modern and ostensibly realistic Japan. It's clear that Coppola finds Tokyo as beautiful as I do. It was one of the first pieces of English-language media to really display the allure of Tokyo's skyline, to paint the city not as a congested, polluted morass but as a vibrant, dazzling metropolis that rewards exploration. Despite extensive redevelopment across the city, the big locations are still there today: The Karaoke Kan in Shibuya has survived the area's frenetic reconstruction, though the many new luxury hotels that opened in the decades since mean Shinjuku's Park Hyatt looks due for a refurbishment.

Revisiting the movie recently, I was also struck by the care and attention taken in depicting the parts that its target audience isn't meant to understand; the scripting and acting of the Japanese-language cast, whose unintelligibility is the point; the TV shows Murray's Bob Harris and Johansson's Charlotte watch during their jetlag-induced insomnia; the local-language signage, real and fictional, in the background. It's all a level above what's usually seen even in much higher-budget movies.

While we're on the plusses, the movie is also believed to be partly responsible for triggering the boom in Japanese whiskey. The appearance of real Suntory items is probably one of the most successful product placements of all time; an entire generation knows that "for relaxing times, make it Suntory time". (Is that the best-known fictional slogan in history?) As a result, good luck these days finding a bottle of Hibiki 17, the whiskey Harris drinks in his ad. Sales were discontinued in 2018 as stock dried up.

Yet for all the love of Japan and its products evident on the screen, that same affection doesn't feel there for the people. The Japanese characters are, at best, props -- and, at worst, obstacles in the way of our bored, impossibly privileged heroes. There's a snootiness to every interaction with a Japanese person; not only can they not be understood, but it seems impossible to ever understand them.

At its most careless, this veers into Orientalism. The movie's obsession with Japanese pronunciation of Rs and Ls, most famously with the sex worker who visits Harris' room, has aged quite badly -- especially as neither of the main characters attempts to learn much Japanese beyond kanpai, despite their copious free time. In one of the most cringeworthy scenes, Harris pokes fun in rapid-fire English at a sushi chef who stares on, uncomprehending.

None of the Japanese characters have any agency; all of them are stereotypes. We must find them odd and inapproachable to understand what brings our protagonists together despite the their sizable age gap. Japan is a theme park, a video game in which the people exist only to service the goals of our heroes; at no point do they display any interest in their hosts' lives.

That attitude continues to inform far too much conversation about the country. Despite the world being more connected than when Bob Harris receives faxes and FedExed packages from his wife, smartphones and Instagram don't seem to have contributed to any greater understanding. The latest books and documentaries about the country hitting this month in English still lean into this wacky-Japan angle, with all the high-tech toilets, karaoke bars and other tropes that Coppola long since introduced to the world. The lack of agency afforded the Japanese roles in her movie extends to how the country is often seen internationally -- only relevant when interacting with Western culture.

Nonetheless, on rewatch, I strangely found myself holding more affection for the movie than I expected. Perhaps it's because, having come to Japan just a month before its release, I now find myself much closer to Bob Harris' age than I realised, and relating to his character more than I could two decades ago. Japan may no longer be the likely destination paying US$2 million for a fading Hollywood celebrity's endorsement -- a modern version might well take place in the Middle East, though the whiskey would have to go. But perhaps that makes it all the more important to have well-intended takes, no matter how flawed, that celebrate the country. Bloomberg

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