Lost in Lost in Translation

Japanese react to "Lost in Translation"

When it comes to Japan-themed American films, Japanese movie goers seem to lose objectivity. Some are just excited that such Hollywood royalty as Cruise, Tarantino and Coppola took a notice of our humble culture. Others turn into authenticity detectives, picking on naccuracies, offensive cliches and outdated stereotypes. I may be a bit of both but tend to evaluate them solely based on how uncomfortable they make me. They often do. I know; there's some insecurity about our appearance at play.

I felt obliged to rate the trio of recent high-profile movies, which couldn't have been more different from each other except that they take place in Japan. I don't know how local audiences will react when Sofia Coppola's Oscar winning Lost in Translation finally opens in late April in Japan, but for me, it was the most difficult of the three to sit through. Stuck in a posh Tokyo hotel, Bill Murray, who plays a has-been movie star, meets Scarlet Johansson's young woman, in a blurry state of jet lag and loneliness. With Bill and Scarlett doing little other than deadpanning and looking lovely, respectively, for comic relief the movie depends on the their bewilderment with the weird stuff the Japanese do. A torture to me, in other words.

True, Japanese shove business cards onto anybody every chance we get; our talk show hosts are bizarre and awful; and yes, we switch the 'L' and 'R' sounds, like the film's hooker, who demands Bill Murray "lip" her stockings out when she means to say "rip" them. Sofia reportedly said everything in her movie "came from experience." I'm sure. As I make occasional efforts to translate for Americans, I saw myself in the character of the lousy interpreter, a Japanese woman, who skips most of the details. (And I thought nobody noticed.) But do we really appear that stiff, silly or downright crazy? I was so exasperated it's a wonder how I remained in my seat in the little screening room without rolling on to the floor.

Have you ever listened to your own voice on the answering machine and sworn that you can't possibly sound that nerdy? It's like that, only it goes on for an hour and 40 minutes. But it's not just me; as a nation we
constantly worry about how we're perceived in the world - particularly by Americans. That's what drives my government. Sofia's observations force us to see ourselves in /their/ eyes, and the picture isn't pretty.

In contrast, The Last Samurai was easy and uplifting. Dark-haired and compact-bodied, Tom Cruise, a Civil War hero-turned samurai admirer, looked perfect in kimono. I wasn't offended even when a beautiful Japanese woman briefly bared her shoulder for no good reason. Rather, I was impressed that she never disrobed to help the American star take a hot bath, which is usually what Hollywood hires a Japanese actress for. The "Dances with Wolves Goes Far East" story line is ridiculous, but the glorification of the dying way of samurai, along with Tom's letting the Japanese star Ken Watanabe outshine him, offered the audience here, including myself, a rare ego-boosting experience. It's a hugely unrealistic and therefore safe film to watch.

It wasn't as good, however, as Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1. The battle between the vengeful Bride, played by Uma Thurman, and Lucy
Liu's yakuza boss lasted way too long and was a bit too gross for my
taste, but over all, it's pure bloody fun. Tarantino's obsession with our B movies is flattering and it also helps that the movie portrays a Japan I have never been to. I stayed anxiety-free the whole time watching it. I am, therefore, tempted to declare "Kill Bill Vol. 1" the best Japan flick of
2003, but I have trouble pronouncing the "L" sounds. I can't even say the title.

Meanwhile I hear "Memoirs of a Geisha," based on Arthur Golden's best-selling book, will start filming soon. I'm already fidgeting.

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