Lost in Translation: Thoughts

Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

I recently saw the movie Lost in Translation. My major in college was Japanese, I have lived in Kyoto for a year, and I still have friends there (both Japanese and foreign). So I had been looking forward to this movie for some time.

I liked the way the movie used language to alienate the characters, particularly in Bill Murray’s scenes — the Suntory photo shoot, the hospital visit, and the ridiculous talk show. There are no subtitles. The effect was a little spoiled for me because in each case I actually understood what the Japanese people were saying, but this really only added to the comic effect. (Here’s a translation of the first Suntory photo shoot to give you an idea.) I imagine a lot of the “acting” was really just improv between two people who really couldn’t communicate in real life.

(Of course, when I was laughing during these scenes and my girlfriend was only smiling, she wanted to know what was so funny, and then I needed to translate from Japanese to Chinese for her, which is a hard switch for me to make if my attention is partially diverted — which it was — so sometimes my “Japanese to Chinese translations” would come out as Japanese paraphrased in more Japanese. Oops. That really confused her.)

One of the reviewers on IMDb felt that the movie was overrated, and that Coppola largely ripped off Wong Kar-Wai. Interesting claim. I don’t know how much the movie was hyped overseas; I missed all that. I do know that I enjoyed the movie, but perhaps largely due to my familiarity with Japan on a personal level. I don’t usually enjoy Wong Kar-Wai’s movies.

One thing I hate about the American media is its neverending charade of “look how wacky those Japanese are!” The American media loves to find the most bizarre aspects of Japanese society and then exploit them. Yes, cultural differences are interesting, but the overall message that the media seems to be trying to convey is they’re not like us, and that can be dangerous. Lost in Translation presents cultural differences (and, indeed, even wackiness) in a way that seems very human. It didn’t annoy me; it made me smile. (Meanwhile my girlfriend, who has been to Japan but doesn’t speak much Japanese, was saying, “Haha, the Japanese really are like that!”)

I’d like to see Hollywood come out with more movies of this “being a foreigner in a distant land” variety. It seems like other countries do it a lot more. (I guess it’s because the terrorists, aliens, and natural disasters all converge on the USA every time, so naturally, that’s where we make the movies.) No, Midnight Express and Spy Game don’t count; that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Hollywood movies that address the reality of expat life. I’m sure you could get something equally entertaining set in Germany, Thailand, Hong Kong, or even (gasp!) Mainland China.

[NOTE: I don’t pretend to be a movie expert, but that’s my take. I’d love to hear about other movies like this, or links to stories about Lost in Translation.]

John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. John,

    Re: making movies about foreigners in Mainland China. I’ve been thinking they could make a great adaptation of Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now set on the Chang Jiang.

    An oral English teacher goes nuts in remote Sichuan and makes some village his own personal little ‘foreign superstar kingdom’. Someone close (friend/family) comes to China to try and find him and get him out. This person would travel from Shanghai deep into the hinterland and live a bunch of “Only in China” experiences, questioning his/her own sanity along the way.

    Realistic potrayal? Of course not. But that would be one heck of an entertaining movie.

  2. John:
    USS Blue Ridge of 7th fleet is visiting Shanghai, would you go to see it ?

  3. I honestly didn’t enjoy the movie that much, but everyone seemed to say how incredibly fantabulous this movie was, so I’m constantly like, “Are they talking about the same movie I watched?”

    Maybe the Japanese parts could be a factor. I had no clue what they were saying. If I did, I might find it way more hilarious and entertaining.

    But still, I have two questions.

    1) Remember that woman who goes into Bill Murray’s room and acts so wackily (the whole “lip” “lip” brouhaha)? What’s that about?

    2) Bill and Scarlett go into a bar, and some girl is dacning “wildly”, the background music being, “sucking on my t*****” over and over. I don’t think it contributes to the story in any way. What do you think?

  4. well of course we can all count on Hollywood to provide us with an accurate representation of the Far East. For a depiction of the PRC, I found Richard Gere’s ‘Red Corner’ particularly poignant.

  5. I think a lot of this movie might get lost on people who’ve never been to Japan – the second scene Fwger mentioned fit in perfectly for me – this country (Japan) is just so overtly porno-ised. A lot of the other scenes my friends have asked me about, really do fit in well, but you need a handle on it from living/visiting Japan.

    I recommended this movie to my family as a good “Japan in a nutshell” experience. I actually think the “Japan is wacky” approach appropriate – it’s very difficult to break into the culture in the short-term and so your view remains that way for a long time. For the two new characters to Tokyo, this is how they would see Tokyo/Japan.

  6. Oh and John, can you make this comments box bigger or adjustable?? It’s just not big enough on my screen – just me, or everyone get the same?

  7. Da Xiangchang Says: February 25, 2004 at 10:13 am

    In my opinion, “Lost in Translation” is good, not great. It’s definitely overrated. Mostly, I don’t think it penetrates Japanese culture in any way. While the film’s set in Japan, both of the main characters are American, and if you remove them from the “exotic” setting, their problems become extremely prosaic. Think about it. Bill Murray’s trapped in a boring marriage; Scarlett Johansson doesn’t know what to do with her life. Wow, what originality! The two-dimensional Japanese characters are thrown in purely for laughs, like the whore, the weirdo talk-show host, the old couple at the hospital, and so on. There’s no character depth to any of them. Still, the film entertained me so I think it’s a good movie overall. And I really liked the ending where we’re NOT supposed to hear what Murray whispered into the girl’s ear. I loved that! So I enjoyed myself. In any case, the film’s vastly superior to that other big Hollywood movie about Japan: the wretched, political-correctness-run-amuck “Last Samurai”!

    And don’t dis Wong Kai-Wai. I absolutely love “Happy Together,” “Days of Being Wild,” and “Chungking Express”!

  8. I enjoyed the film too. I like Bill Murray, I liked seeing the sights of Tokyo. However, my wife and I couldn’t relate to the main characters. Here they were in a luxury hotel, smack in the middle of paradise, with money to spend! And what did they do, but mope around and feel sorry for themselves. If it was me, I would have been having a blast!

  9. Any film which generates such a divide between those who love or hate the film is always a great film in my book.

    Personally, I really enjoyed the film. I liked seeing the representation of people forced to be somewhere not of their choosing and hating it, then finally wanting to stay (if only because they didn’t want to address the reality of ‘back home’).

    This film was discussed in great depth at a dinner party I went to on Monday night. The Japanese friend HATED IT, my partner (who is an American who lived in Tokyo for 3 years) LOVED it.

    The Japanese friend objected to the stereotypes while the American related to every frame 100%.

    For me, Tokyo was presented as the most intriguing and perplexing main character of the film. It made me want to visit it more than any other film I’ve ever seen about modern Tokyo (and there’s not too many of those).

    Interestingly other friends at the party objected to it as being anti-Asian, although when I asked if they’d enjoy a film set in Paris with Parisien stereotypes (‘Amelie’s come to mind), they thought that would be great.

    Anyway, I liked the film. I applaud such a young director making an honest debut about a city and place she knows a lot about (Sofia used to live in Tokyo).

  10. I liked the film, and an early film by the same director called The Virgin Suicides is also excellent. Da Xiangchang: I confess the “philosophy student with no future” situation was a bit unimaginative, but the portrayal of Rob Harris’s marriage through phone calls and faxes was quite interesting and sympathetic to both the husband and wife. In any case, those issues were only the background to the real subject of the film, which was the friendship between Rob Harris and Charlotte.

    I don’t know anything about Japanese culture, but I could see some similarities with China which was enough to tell me that at least the film was getting some things right. I have to admit that I was pleased to see that a western filmmaker could at least manage this! But talking to friends afterwards, I came to realise that a lot of the japanese characters were quite carricatured and that a lot of the laughs in the movie came from playing on japanese stereotypes.

  11. Hi John,

    Have you ever seen Iron & Silk? It’s a movie about an (American? Canadian?) English teacher in China. The setting is in the early 1980’s, so it definitely doesn’t reflect modern China. Still, it’s a nice depiction of an expat’s point of view before the massive influx of international commercialism and the development that it brought during the 1990’s. I think it might be banned in mainland China for depicting communism in a negative light, but you should try to get your hands on it.

  12. Da Xiangchang Says: February 26, 2004 at 8:21 am

    “Iron & Silk” was a decent book, but the movie was a plotless mess. I don’t think there’s a single movie about mainland China made by a Westerner that wasn’t anything but complete shit. There was “Spy Game” where we find out that people in Suzhou speak Cantonese, and “Red Corner” where Richard Gere eludes the entire Beijing police force by jumping from one rooftop to the next. And “Seven Years in Tibet” was politically correct nonsense; however peaceful the Tibetans might be, I don’t think they agonize over the well-being of earthworms (as depicted in one of the scenes).

    Actually, “The Last Emperor” was a marvelous film, and it was made by an Italian. So that’s it–the best and only good movie about China made by a Westerner.

  13. I watched Lost In Translation last week and found it to be a pleasant movie, but over-rated. Oscar material? Maybe not. Anyone who has lived in a foreign land (doesn’t matter where) and not be able to communicate, should be able to relate to the movie. I did.

    The earlier question about the “lip/rip” scene and the nude-bar scene, in my opinion, is the potrayal of the Japanese’s fetish for kinky sex/porno stuff.

    Scarlett is eye candy though.

    The forthcoming Korean-made movie “Expats” sounds interesting.

  14. i guess the movie’s more poignant for those who could relate (not necessarily to japan/tokyo, but even for those who find themselves somewhere not home).

    overrated? isn’t anything one person liked and raved about but another person didn’t going to be overrated for the latter? the term overrated is overrated πŸ™‚

    hey john, can i crash in shanghai? thinking of taking a stopover πŸ™‚

  15. the Tibetan earthworm scene was taken directly from Harrer’s book and not ‘director’s licence’.

  16. Da Xiangchang Says: February 28, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    Hmmm, interesting. I haven’t read Harrer’s book so I can’t comment. But if it’s anything like the movie, it’s shameless hagiography. I have a problem with uncritical histories, especially rose-tinted ones about “exotic” non-Western cultures like in “Seven Years in Tibet.” Speaking of which, there’s a very funny–and very politically incorrect!–travel article about Tibet in Salon magazine. Check it out:


  17. Watched “Lost in Translation” and it’s a personal favorite now. I really enjoyed the flamboyantly stereotypically Japan images and scenes. The first scene when all the Japanese are showering him with gifts matched to the stereotypical American response. Bill Murray’s performance was perfect. I laughed really hard which is a rarity, and laughed considerably more than last night’s film, “Starsky & Hutch” – which had its moments, (mostly the interrogation of the cheerleader in the locker room). Ben & Owen are a match, just like in Zoolander and Meet the Parents.

    I think Lost in Translation is really good if you’ve experienced that longing, that loneliness, that amazement, the foreign-ness, the culture shock, that shared moment with another in the same place as yourself. MOVIE OF THE YEAR IMHO.

    • wilson / sinosplice / racingmix
  18. Hate to comment so late, but I was surfing the archives, and I think some of you were frustrated/disappointed because you were expecting a movie about Japan. As far as I can see, Japan had nothing to do with the movie other than where it was set, and it seems that it was picked because it was convenient. It has a lot of similarities to and differences from America, and the severe language barrier makes it easier to isolate the characters, who are really what the movie is about. That’s why a lot of the reviews called it a character study.

    And I think most of the “ripping off Wong Kar-Wai” sentiment comes fromt the fact that at the end of his movie “In the Mood for Love” (I think it’s that one, I haven’t seen it) the male lead writes a note and leaves it, and we never see what’s inside.


  19. I know this was an old post, but I’ll chime in just the same…

    I really enjoyed Lost in Translation. I agree with Ken. Most of you seemed to miss the point of the movie, that it wasn’t about Japan, but rather the isolation of the characters. It could have taken place anywhere. I’m looking forward to her next movie, Marie-Antoinette.

    John, I have a great movie recommendation for you that’s along these “expat movie” lines. It’s called “Last Life In the Universe”. It’s by a Thai director named Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and stars Tadanobu Asano, a really great Japanese actor.

    You might not like it, though. It’s really thoughtful, slow paced, haunting–very Wang Kar Wai. I really like Wang’s movies, so I liked this one as well. Also, Wang’s old director of photography, Christopher Doyle, who’s one of the best in the world, did the lighting for Last Life In the Universe.


    You guys were mentioning “7 years in Tibet”. Forget that piece of garbage. If you want to see the best movie on Tibet, pick up Scorsese’s “Kundun”. It is totally amazing. Unfortunately it was hamstringed by politics right before it came out, and Disney never even advertised for it.


  20. “You might not like it, though. It’s really thoughtful…”

    Oops, I meant to say “You might not like it, though, if you don’t like Wang Kar Wai.” The above comment seems kinda insulting. That wasn’t my intention. πŸ™‚


  21. G,

    Haha, when I read “You might not like it, though. It’s really thoughtful…” I felt mildly little insulted, but it is true that I don’t like Wang Kar Wai. (I don’t think he’s a bad director; it’s just that his style doesn’t appeal to me.)

    I may check that movie out (if I can find it).

  22. Ha ha, yeah, sorry, I meant no offense. I went directly into the reasons why I liked the movie without the qualifier as to why you wouldn’t like the movie. Clearly I was running low on caffiene yesterday. πŸ™‚

    Wang Kar Wai is definately an acquired taste. Really, it’s just a luck-of-the-draw-thing as to whether you can stand his movies. They can be kind of “pretentious” at times. I finally got one of my friends here in the states to watch “In the Mood for Love” with me. Yeah, not necessarily a movie for two straight guys to watch together, but he’s a film guy and I thought he would like it as much as I do. He was falling asleep within 20 mins!


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