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Discussion on "Lost in Translation," at the New Yorker Movie Facebook Club

Milosz Siebert
Hello everyone !

I’ve recently attended a screening of « Lost in Translation » at our local cinema with some friends and a lively discussion followed, which I would like to share here and get your feedback.

The main issue was that the film was considered quite racist towards the Japanese culture by one of my friends. I thought it would be interesting to see if any of you here share this opinion?

My response to that was that I did not consider the depiction of Japan racist. If anything, I do agree that the culture has been objectified to some extent, and used as context for the development of the story and the relationship between the main characters. However, I did not find it in any way critical, diminutive, or offensive (alright, maybe the character of the “professional” translator in the Santory commercial scene wasn’t very flattering). Rather, I think the movie depicted Japan as probably imagined by most of us who have never been there in order to serve as background for the story.
Your thoughts? 

Full disclosure - I'm trying to be as neutral and open-minded as possible here, even though this is one of my favourite movies ever. 
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Patrick McEvoy-Halston The psychiatrist James F. Masterson was invited to do a lecture tour in Japan, after his book on narcissists and borderlines proved a big seller there. He studied their childrearing and observed in "The Real Self" that narcissism is developed very differently in their culture than in the U.S. He provides neither a flattering look, but establishes them as quite alien to one another: narcissism is expressed through grandiose self gestures in U.S., but is hidden and closeted in Japan. Here was someone of Western heritage invited into Japan to say ostensibly hostile things about their culture, because the Japanese themselves saw validity in it. Sometimes it takes an outsider, right? Or does this only apply when Boston Catholics are being spotted out. 

The film does give the advantage to the Westerners (not her boyfriend, or action hero lady, who are both dunderheads... well, he has a moment of considered empathy) in they're at a level of sanity the Japanese are not. But we sense the momentum is with the Japanese, and the sane Americans are in danger of getting mopey and lost in the shuffle. There is no not abiding the window shades that automatically open whether you'd like them to or no, and despite their complaints, they require the contact with the Japanese to carry them.

Brian Brunton I liked the movie. Seen it several times. It caught the desolation of the international corporate world. "Japanese whiskey", hotels, photographers on location. Wives who accompany, or stay at home...

Patrick McEvoy-Halston How desolate is something you'd actually seek out? It's not exactly Toni Erdmann. You get on this ride, there's comforting safety.

Brian Brunton Seeking out? Aides or computer bookings in the corporate galaxy

Jon Athan It uses the othering of Japanese culture to provide context for a white relationship. The Japanese are not fully realized characters and exist only for the purpose of Billy Murray and Scarlett Johansons characters. So it's not racist like the original Birth of Nation is racist, but it does assume a colonial narrative that is in the tradition of othering another culture. If you are really interested in answering this question, I would recommend reading some colonial and post colonial criticism. You don't have to agree with everything he says, but a good place to start might be Chinua Achebes essay on Heart of Darkness. It is very accessible and will give you context for the argument.

Patrick McEvoy-Halston We're not drawn to not want to know more of them? I'm not sure that's the case. I certainly didn't find they existed only for the purpose of Murray and Johanson's characters. "Othering" would seem evident in the only real out group in the movie -- the American movie star and the cocktail singer. Both a squandrant dumber than the principal characters. The Japanese culture is awry from our own expectations, but has sensitivity and soul, while these two -- representing mainstream American culture -- are banal. If Japanese culture is being "othered" here, it's the kind of othering that many who are familiar with postcolonial texts are familiar with--using the high esteem of other cultures, to make proles in their own culture seem that much more ignorant and disgusting.

Jon Athan Patrick McEvoy-Halston, that very well may be so. I haven't seen the film in a while, but when I saw It, it felt like the characters were poking fun at Japanese life. It seemed like the two main characters were supposed to be all of us, but even if your analysis is correct, that still essentializes Japan. A variety of postcolonial critiques address whether essentializing place from a position of power is problematic, so that comes to perspective. I mentioned Achebes article because it discusses this very issue of power dynamics, but, like I said, one can choose to agree with it or not. It's not a yes or no answer.

Jon Athan As a white person commenting, I find it more valuable to steer the OP in a direction towards an authority rather than presume to answer this justifiably complex question myself.

Giuseppe Marcelli Hi, as I see it, it's not racists. The main characters are using stereotypes as mental shortcuts to evaluate their brief experience in Japan, the focus however is on their selves: they are out of their comfort zones and have the time to face their own problems, as people does in common life. If it was set in Italy, for example, it would have been the same: alienating framing, not fully understanding why peOPLE ARE YELLING LIke that... so they try, in some kind of way, to find a safe zone.

Patrick McEvoy-Halston The impressions of the Japanese do stick though. The absolute refusal of Sean Connery for Roger Moore, the assumption he'd want a prostitute whose expertise was perversions, the neurotic necessity of exact procedure and routine... don't register as stereotypes but as pointed observations. It can only be seen as flattering in that it's all part of the neurosis that keeps this high civilization in full movement. But it's precariously set, and if you poked at it... Still, there is kindness and respect in her observations, I think too.


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