"My Stockings. Lip Them": Consuming Japan through Film and Video Games

Article excerpt

Increasingly, Americans form their understanding of Japan through popular culture, whether it be Japanese products exported to the United States or representations of Japanese culture in American media. Through an analysis of the position of the spectator/consumer in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation and Japanese-made video game software, this essay seeks to understand the different forms of cultural exchange that occur between film and video game representations. It explores why Coppola's best intentions to depict Japanese culture as it is experienced by American visitors fail escape charges of racism. Though most critics gave it favorable reviews, Coppola's film sparked outcries of racism against Japanese and Asian Americans. Written by an American and starring American actors Lost in Translation uses Tokyo as a backdrop for its story about love and alienation. Setting the film in Japan underscores the characters' feelings of loneliness, although the setting can also be read as causing these feelings. Assuming that Coppola did not intend to perpetuate racist stereotypes, how is it that her film can nevertheless be accused of doing so? To answer this question one must compare Lost in Translation's attempt to rework old film tropes about Japan to the way in which Japanese culture is assimilated by North American consumers of video games.

Lost in Translation is primarily a drama with a few comic moments, centering on two characters struggling to maintain their marriages. Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an aging film star flown to Tokyo to shoot a series of advertisements for Suntory whisky, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young Yale philosophy major who followed her photographer husband on his latest job assignment, form an unlikely romantic (though platonic) relationship. Through repeated meetings in their hotel bar, the two connect over their mutual insomnia, marital troubles, and feelings of alienation in a country where they do not speak the language. Critics were sharply divided over the film. Some praised Coppola's sensitive depiction of troubled relationships and stunning cinematography, while others complained that the film perpetuates tired racist stereotypes. A group called Asian Media Watch even launched a campaign called lost-in-racism.org against the film in response to its Academy Award nominations. (1) Kiku Day's critique argues that the Tokyo setting functions as Saidian Orientalism, "an exotic background for Bob and Charlotte's story, like dirty wallpaper in a cheap motel" (Day). To a certain extent it is true that Lost in Translation uses Japan as a uniquely alienating location for Bob and Charlotte. The language barrier is more forbidding than a Romance-language European setting would have been. As the world's most populated city at the time of filming, Tokyo represents the ultimate impersonal, impenetrable metropolitan environment. It has the same forbidding characteristics any large city presents to a newcomer, but raised to a higher degree. The problem is that since the film centers on two visiting Americans, only the surface of Japanese culture is presented, rather than a full and sensitive depiction of Japanese culture. What draws Bob and Charlotte together is partly their isolation from their surroundings, after all. Because Lost in Translation received many nominations on the awards circuits and won an Academy Award for Original Screenplay in 2004, the potential racism of the film was a divisive issue in a way it was not with previous Japanese/ American culture clash films, such as Gung Ho (1986) and Tokyo Pop (1988).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Lost ill Translation does employ certain well-known tropes about Japan: the difficulty some Japanese have pronouncing English l's and r's, the short stature of the Japanese as compared to Westerners, and the almost excessive hospitality of Japanese business culture, for example. It is a mistake, however, to think Coppola deploys these stereotypes at face value. …