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Thursday, December 16

Lost in overreaction

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Korean title: "Can love, too, be translated?"

While recently sifting through long forgotten Web detritus for info on Sophia Coppola's beautifully bittersweet film "Lost in Translation," I was surprised to find that upon its release some groups vehemently decried its characterization of Japanese people. The Lost in Racism campaign, by a group which seeks to promote a "fair and balanced portrayal of Asian Americans in the entertainment industry," harshly criticized the movie and scared off lots of potential Academy kudos. I didn't realize there was so much controversy surrounding the flick. Now I understand why it took so friggin long to be screened in Japan, and only by small arthouse theaters at that.

Weird. I lived there five years and thought it was spot on. Oh my god, maybe I'm oblivious of my own racist tendencies!

Here are some negative review excerpts from the website:

"[The] humor is too often based in stereotypical perceptions of Asians (they're short, they're laughably polite, they eat weird food)." - Ken Fox, TV Guide

"[After] it's abundantly clear the movie's going nowhere slowly, [the protagonists] encounter Charlie Brown, or "Chalrie Blown" (the director's friend, Fumihiro Hayashi), who's so thinly developed that he makes Bob and Charlotte look like classic Dickensian creations by comparison." - Gregory Weinkauf, Dallas Observer

"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." - Kiku Day, The Guardian

"Lost in Translation expresses a distasteful racism through romantic comedy. It says, as racists often do, that foreigners, in this case Japanese, are inherently comic and stupid. Of all the Japanese in the film, not one comes across as much better than a cretin." - Robert Fulford, The National Post

"The film relies on stale stereotypes of the Japanese for laughs: They're short! They're wacky! They can't pronounce their r's! ... The film is replete with racial gags that draw from the same old Hollywood stereotypes" - Melissa Bagtan, Asian American Movement Ezine

"The Japanese are presented not as people, but as clowns ... the hilarity is rooted entirely in the "otherness" of the Japanese people. We laugh at them, not with them." - E. Koohan Paik, Color Lines Race Wire

Pu-leez. I didn't even begin to see the movie in this way. After all, the protagonists are very much the Murray and Johanssen characters; everyone else is peripheral. No, none of its Japanese characters are well developed. Yes, it's peppered with ethnic stereotypes shamelessly employed for comedic effect. But these things didn't bother me one bit, as I think they wouldn't bother anyone who has lived in Japan, because I know how honest they are. The Japanese are shorter than Americans. Showers are set at hobbit-height. Japanese people do bow excessively, and yes, they really can't pronounce their r's. (Call me insensitive, call me lacist, but I still find it leally hilalious.)

And Matthew's Best Hit TV? It's a real show, and Matthew Minami really is that insane.

I think it's rather difficult for most Westerners to understand how homogenous Japan truly is. One can make sweeping generalizations about the nation and be correct much of the time simply because the Japanese, unlike Americans, share so many physical and cultural characteristics. There was nothing in the movie, except for maybe the call girl scene ("Lip my stocking!"), that exaggerated elements of life in Japan--though I've never hired a prostitute so I can't say for sure.

I also think people saw the movie and thought, "The Japanese can't possibly be that quirky! The country can't possibly be that strange!" But, from a Western standpoint, they really are, and it really is.

And why not poke fun at such things? It was gentle ribbing at best. It wasn't as if the movie made fun of terminal illness.

I agree that it'd be nice to see a movie that presents a balanced portrayal of East and West, but first, you need a director with one foot firmly planted on each side of the cultural fence, and second, they have to be willing to take a big risk. The subtleties of a culture are easily "lost in translation" from the script to the screen. At any rate, it'd be a difficult sell. Who wants to see reality at the cinema? I thought "The Last Samurai" made a pretty good stab at a balanced portrayal of cultures (albeit during the Meiji Era), but it's still a far cry from what could be.

Most films are rooted in a single culture and a single language. Bridging cultures in a meaningful way is not an easy thing to do, especially for a film that requires broad appeal to make a profit. Not impossible, just difficult--and this wasn't the objective of Lost in Translation anyway. I mean, look, I couldn't even understand half of Trainspotting, and that was entirely in English!!! How do you expect Joe Blow to understand a realistic film that is both multiethnic and multilingual?

I think the films and performances "approved" by the Asian Media Watchdog tend to either focus on Asian American cultures (e.g. Harold and Kumar)--which is far easier than portraying cultures on both sides of the Pacific--or are so minor that no one's ever heard of them.

The Japanese government, at least, is cashing in on the film. The Japan National Tourist Organization is offering guided Lost in Translation tours.


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