I first watched “Lost in Translation” in high school. I got 15 minutes in and stopped because it made me feel so disgusted — like I was disgusting. At the time, I didn’t know why. That was before I learned anything about Asian American activism, before I even realized that Asian Americans were discriminated against. But after seeing the title on the State Theater’s board of features while walking home last week and remembering that there’s a famous movie with actors I love and by a director I love that I hadn’t gotten through yet, I watched it again and I finally understood — it’s grossly offensive.
There is a repeating motif of Bob (Bill Murray, “St. Vincent”) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson, “Under the Skin”) being the only ones awake at night, mindlessly clicking through TV channels until the time difference loses its hold on them. It’s framed as a moment of cultural alienation, but since the content of the shows — over-the-top aggression in action movies, ditzy looking reality TV girls — is typical, the only thing engineering the feeling of being “lost in translation” is the Japanese voice itself. It’s quiet, but the incomprehensible, loud Japanese are the cackling cacophony that interrupts the silence, jarring these poor white people out of their element. Universal behavior is reinterpreted with a Westerner’s self-conceit, racialized and portrayed as “bizarre” interactions with a foreign culture.
Furthermore, it otherizes Asians, exaggerating negative stereotypes as its source of humor. A simpering, high-pitched prostitute begs Bob to “Lip my stockings! Preas! Preas!,” and when he goes along with it out of amusement and derision, she rolls around on the floor kicking her feet up absurdly, “Don’t touch me! Hep preas! No! No!” It’s the peak of the hypersexualized, submissive and morally strange Asian woman stereotype. Murray constantly mocks the Japanese for their accented English by repeating them the “right” way and questioning his Japanese director’s vision as if it’s stupid just because of the way he conveys it. The Japanese are portrayed as flat, hollow characters with no thoughts of their own, as if they’re just there for the white people to laugh at. We don’t laugh because we are confused, or because we are embarrassed at our own sense of cultural misunderstanding. We laugh because all these Asian people are just so weird. All these stereotypes are true, but are purposely exploited for cheap jokes, like an elevator scene where Bob towers at least a foot over a horde of tiny Asian men while in other scenes, there are clearly Asian actors his height.
Even the aspects of Japanese culture that are portrayed positively are done through a stereotypical lens. The first time Charlotte genuinely smiles, it’s observing monks chanting prayers in a Buddhist temple, approaching women in kimonos arranging flowers while tender, serene background music drifts quietly in the background. Japanese culture is only used for the white protagonist to find herself, and even the speaker introducing her to Buddhism is another white woman, not a Japanese person who carries that history.
“I know I’m not racist,” director Sofia Coppola insisted in an interview with the Independent, and I believe it. People may say that I’m being too sensitive, too politically correct. After all, 60 years ago, Katherine Hepburn was prancing around in yellowface for “Dragon Seed.” I get that the point of the film is to show how alienating it is to be alone in a different world, to feel like no one understands you. I get that all of these characters are flawed. They project their own insecurities onto their surroundings, so we shouldn’t take their opinion as fact. The one-dimensionality of the Japanese characters, portraying the mundane as different — I understand the value, even the necessity, of these artistic decisions.
This is where things get a little muddy. Having grown up in the West, even I view some of the same things the film mentioned as something weird, or different from what I’m used to. So these feelings are perfectly valid, and pointing out these differences is how Coppola gets us to connect with her characters. But emphasizing the difference taps into our base instincts of xenophobia — encouraging the intended Western audience to draw on that point of twisted personal empathy in order to propel the film forward.
I really wish this film could have succeeded in another universe. It might have felt a little less exploitative if a white girl from a privileged family hadn’t directed it. Maybe it would have worked well if an Asian had portrayed the same feeling of isolation in America. But because there are so few films featuring Asians, the rare ones that do must work to undo centuries of stereotyping. Unfortunately, the thematic premise of “Lost in Translation” makes it inherently impossible to maintain sensitivity.