RogerBW's Blog

Lost in Translation 28 August 2022

2003 romantic comedy/drama, dir. Sofia Coppola, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanson; IMDb / allmovie. Two people in Tokyo find themselves isolated and rootless.

I think my biggest problem with this film was that I expected it to be about two people in Tokyo, a valentine to the city as Coppola claimed, and it really isn't. For all we see of the place and its people, it could just as easily be Moscow or Mumbai or Mombasa, anywhere where they don't speak English very well and have a culture that's not generic standard Western.

Now I must point out that this wasn't, in general, criticised as a racist film when it was released (except in Japan). I don't know how I'd have reacted to it in 2003. But watching it for the first time in 2022, I can't help notice the steady parade of Different Is Bad, starting with the very first shot of neon-lit fa├žades flowing past the car: yeah, that said Foreign City in You Only Live Twice in 1967. Oh look, Japanese people are short! Look, they pronounce L like R and vice versa! (That was a tired joke when we told it in the school playground in the 1970s.) Look, there's a restaurant where you have to cook your own food! Karaoke, ikebana, how dare they be all different like that! (If you find the food icky, go to McDonald's. It's been in Japan since 1971.)

I mean, sure, you can say that the film isn't supposed to be about Tokyo, it's supposed to be about these pig-ignorant people's perception of Tokyo, in much the same way Toto's song Africa was written by a white guy who'd never been there and was promptly claimed to be about the feelings of a white guy who'd never been there. But then why bother to shoot in actual Tokyo?

I've gone on about this at some length because, to appreciate what's good in this film, I kept having to suppress my feelings about the rest of it. Bill Murray, who wasn't quite having a career collapse but was definitely more remembered for what he'd done ten years earlier than for what he was doing in 2003, plays from the heart as Bob, an actor whose best days are behind him and who hasn't really thought about what he's going to do with his life when people stop paying him to fly to Japan to endorse whisky. Scarlett Johanson's Charlotte comes over as rather flatter, just as lost but less demonstrative about it, though as Coppola is at pains to show us she has a nice backside.

Of course she was 17 when this was being filmed and Murray was 51. And they look it. So while the ephemeral but deep friendship they build up doesn't become sexual, it's always for me skating along the edge of squick. They ought to have completely different sets of cultural assumptions, being two generations apart, but somehow that never becomes a factor; all that matters is that they're both feeling lost and alone and they can't talk with their supposed peers, so they end up talking with each other. I'd have been happier if it had been blatantly non-sexual, to put the lie to those fools who say that men and women can't be friends without sex coming into it, but neither of them really feels able to have that conversation, so when Bob (married) sleeps with someone else it's a shock to Charlotte even if she hadn't planned to jump him herself.

There are many missed opportunities that could have been used to do something more interesting. The generation gap. The possibility of doing an Adaptation or Shadow of the Vampire and making a film about the making of the film, such as the parallel real-world incident where a shoot in a restaurant overran by fifteen minutes, the American high-ranking crew thought this was no big thing, but the restaurant owner who'd been given a stop time that he thought he could believe in unplugged the crew's lights and the Japanese production manager resigned.

There are good bits here. But there's a lot one has to throw away to get to them; I'm not a fan of eating lobster either.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

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