by Mizuko Ito
Kiku Day has a scathing review of Lost in Translation in UK's Guardian. Day's review echoes some of the critique in Jane's mostly favorable chanpon.org review and the complaints aired by others and myself in the comments on Jane's review. The review was circulated to me through the East Asian Anthropologists' listserv where there was some lively debate on the topic.
Film reviewers have hailed Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation as though it were the cinematic equivalent of the second coming. One paper even called it a masterpiece. Reading the praise, I couldn't help wondering not only whether I had watched a different movie, but whether the plaudits had come from a parallel universe of values. Lost in Translation is being promoted as a romantic comedy, but there is only one type of humour in the film that I could see: anti-Japanese racism, which is its very spine.
Day echoes the widely voiced criticisms that the film panders to stereotypes of Japanese as small, dark, overly polite, and communicating in bad Engrish. Similar points were raised on chanpon.org as well as in the recent article by Motoko Rich for the New York Times that Justin blogged. But Day goes further by describing some of the more submerged associations in the film. I was particularly struck by her pointing out the contrast between the reverential treatment of "traditional" Japan and the ridicule heaped upon "modern" Japan.
While shoe-horning every possible caricature of modern Japan into her movie, Coppola is respectful of ancient Japan. It is depicted approvingly, though ancient traditions have very little to do with the contemporary Japanese. The good Japan, according to this director, is Buddhist monks chanting, ancient temples, flower arrangement; meanwhile she portrays the contemporary Japanese as ridiculous people who have lost contact with their own culture.
The idea that "real" Japanese culture is more Kyoto Zen garden than Tokyo Park Hyatt has a stubborn resilience, and leads to the more problematic corollary embedded in Lost in Translation. Despite the excesses of Western mimicry, the Japanese will never be able to fully participate in a Western-dominated international cosmopolitanism. The film deftly erases Japanese interculturalism and cosmopolitanism by suggesting that even at that most trendy of icons of Westernization -- the Park Hyatt in Tokyo -- Japanese can't fully participate among the trasnational cultural elite congregating there. What we say will inevitably fall on uncomprehending ears.
We could consider instead ongoing cultural co-mingling, particularly in the past century: Japanese imperialism and WWII, the US postwar occupation, the subsequent "economic miracle" that made Japan a player in transnational capital flows, as well as the increasingly speedy flows of culture and commodities between Japan and the rest of the world defining Japan's current gross national cool. I live in a parallel universe, together with Day, that sees Japanese culture as inherently hybrid and cosmopolitan, and meaningful translation across cultures as a cornerstone of everyday life in a city like Tokyo.
Day's critique helped me get a handle on my own ambivalence and difficulty with identifying with any of the representations of the film. As an intercultural Japanese of a somewhat postmodern variety, it makes sense that I object to "authentic" Japanese culture being portrayed as fundamentally apart from frenetically modernized Tokyo chanpon culture. Despite the many technical virtues of the film, which Jane has covered with lovely detail, I see it as a set-back in our struggle for recognition of a culturally diverse Japan.
Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2004年02月07日 22:57