I remember not rushing off to the movies theater to see Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation when it came out in 2003. Probably because I was in Asia at the time. But later I did see it. My initial reaction was that the film was dark and depressing. It was like witnessing a collision of automobiles at an intersection only instead of cars – Love and Life collided with Lost and Lonely.
I’ve since watched this film a few more times. Maybe to see if my understanding of the film had changed because of my own experiences in Japan, as well as my connections to Japanese culture via many Japanese TV drama series that I’ve seen.
Of course when you make a long-haul flight like that going to Japan from New York or from San Francisco, you will have that kind of physical/mental disorientation that can’t be avoided.
Then factor in the language barrier, with the possibility of insomnia, and it can be daunting. Staying in a hotel like The Park Hyatt in Tokyo in a room high above the streets can only add to one’s sense of isolation.
Bob Harris commented: Sure we have neon in the states too, only there, I can read the signs.
Of course, Tokyo is not the only city on the planet, where your senses undergo an assault from blazing neon. Nor are skyscraper hotels, karaoke clubs, strip clubs, and strobe lighted discos unique to Japan. But these are what Coppola presented to us on screen.
But Coppola also presented plenty of feelings for you to connect with by thinking about what you are seeing. Both Bill Murray’s portrayal of Bob Harris
– an actor being paid an enormous sum of money to do a commercial for a Japanese whiskey, and Scarlett Johannson’s Charlotte –
a young married woman left to her own devices while her photographer husband went off to work in Japan, gave us a visual perspective, which had to be digested mentally, of what it is to be isolated, lonely, and in an alienating environment.
Let’s see, I’ve been to Japan more than a few times; loved riding those bullet trains. But the country is more than just great trains that arrive on time. My own experiences were different to a degree. Early in the film, we have Murray as Harris a crowded elevator.
He is head and shoulders above all the Japanese men in the elevator. I too am quite tall, and experienced that sense of my size being quite different.
But walking in the streets in Shinjuku, I often felt invisible. I mean that despite my size, most Japanese in Tokyo, didn’t find me unusual enough to warrant them paying me any attention at all. I was just another foreigner in their city.
However outside of Tokyo. Things were different. In Nikko, I was surrounded by a pack of about 20 7th graders all eager to talk to the gaijin – in short they wanted to practice their English. On my way to Miyajima to see the historic and beautiful Torii Gate in the sea, an elderly Japanese woman spoke to me in Japanese asking me if Miyajima was my destination, in Osaka local people spoke to me on the trains, and in Kyoto, a few Japanese people asked me directly in English if I was lost, or needed directions to somewhere.
The country is a visual feast. Oh sure, the cities have their issues of blocky, ugly city buildings chock-a- block with the more traditional buildings that you could see within the cities in parks, shrines, temples, and gardens that are just wonderful.
In fact one of my favorites artists – Jeremy Barlow – has done a wonderful series of paintings set in Japan. I offer these as contrast to the Japan that Coppola showed us. It’s not that Coppola’s view is wrong, or that Barlow’s view is right.
They represent just two perspectives of the same place. And Coppola knew that as well. She had Charlotte visit some temples and gardens as a break from the kinetic Tokyo that we saw in the Shinjuku or Roppongi street scenes in the the film.
Barlow’s works seemingly are much more respectful of Japan’s beauty than was Coppola’s film. Maybe I mistook Coppola’s intentions, but as one of the film’s taglines line said, “Friendship needs no translation.” Which is fine as a concept, but in the film, this concept was represented only between the characters of Bob and Charlotte.
And that’s how I feel about Barlow’s Japanese paintings. There’s no culture clash in these artworks. Nor may we say that there’s a lot of painterly flourishes in them either.
Barlow’s works both clarify and explain Japan as far as the artist’s perception. There’s no mistaking the admiration and awe.
Just as there’s no mistaking that I enjoy Barlow’s paintings.