Growing up Lost in Translation

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My favorite movie since I was in my mid-teens has without question been Lost in Translation. Other movies have come and gone – the whimsical, melancholy, but ultimately juvenile Garden State, the gorgeous, existential, pretentious Wings of Desire, the hilarious, heartwarming, chauvinistic Sideways, to name a few – but my appreciation of Lost in Translation remains pretty much as it was since I first watched it.

If I remember correctly, I watched Lost in Translation for the first time in a hotel room with my dad and my brother. We were on a roadtrip. (To where I forget, maybe Colorado?) My dad, being the way he is, brought along a DVD player so we didn’t have to buy movies from the hotel streaming service or depend on the unreliable offerings from cable TV. I think we may have purchased Lost in Translation in a Target bargain bin or something like that on the road. Maybe my dad brought it along with a few other options. In either case, he was the one who suggested we watch it.

I was a Midwestern teenager: White, upper-middle class, smart, comfortable, but closeted, lonely, unmotivated, intermittently embracing and rejecting solitude. I had already been drawn to Japanese literature, starting with Haruki Murakami, especially finding comfort in the lesbian-tinged Sputnik Sweetheart and any work that discussed food and reading and finding peace with your own company at great length. From there I moved to more classic authors like Natsume Soseki, Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, and Osamu Dazai. I liked the gaudy aesthetic of Mishima and the minimalist beauty of Kawabata; the subdued emotions of Soseki and the quintessentially Japanese despair of Dazai. I didn’t really know that much about Japanese history or culture at the time, only having a vague idea of it from incessantly playing Shin Megami Tensei games, but something really drew me to it. Or at least me idea of what “Japanese culture” was. I was fascinated by the concept of “minimalism”, which wasn’t quite what it actually is but more something I had made up after consuming a large amount of Japanese literature and film. Shinto shrines, simple food, ceremonies, mindfulness—stuff like that. It seemed to reflect what I wanted my life to be like: Simply, peaceful, accepting of my place.

Lost in Translation has little to do with any of that, at least not directly. It’s a movie about two Americans abroad – fading movie star Bob (Bill Murray), escaping his home life by taking on a job endorsing Suntory Whiskey, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a recently graduated philosophy student who followed her photographer husband to Japan on a business trip. Both are pretty much oblivious to Japanese culture despite being steeped in it. The movie gained a lot of criticism for this, showing as it does a shallow interpretation of Japanese society as wacky and incomprehensible, full of bright neon lights, labyrinthine urban streets, kinky strip clubs, and mindbogglingly loud arcades.

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Not to give the movie too much credit in this regard, as I don’t think Sofia Coppola had “Create a holistic and respectful interpretation of Japan through Western eyes” in mind when making the film, but one could easily argue that we as an audience get this shallow interpretation of Japan because Charlotte and Bob are too self-centered and miserable to take in the culture in any way that doesn’t immediately affect them. Charlotte is only touched by Japan when she sees a wedding ceremony (reflecting her feelings on monogamy and love) and when she’s invited to help with some flower arrangements (reflecting her desire to have purpose). Bob, the more miserable and hopeless character (even if he’s more charming about it), meanwhile exploits Japan as an escape from a wife who doesn’t understand him and kids who love him and who he loves but “are fine” without him. They both wallow in Japan, meet, chat, connect, have fun exploring, fall in something like love with each other, and leave probably as better people (though we’re not totally sure if anything changes much in either of their lives after it fades to black).

In rewatching Lost in Translation, which I have probably a dozen times over by now, I’ve identified more with a particular scene or arc depending on where I’m at in my own life. Early on it was the party night sequence—starting at a crowded, neon-lit bar and ending with an intimate session of karaoke—which brought me the greatest joy. Short-lived sweet moments like that were how I wanted to live, if not in actual practice then at least in general mood. From there though I’ve begun to find more in common with images of Bob at the hotel bar by himself or Charlotte’s wanderings in Kyoto. It goes back and forth between the introverted scenes and the extroverted ones, you could say.

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I haven’t seen Lost in Translation in some time now, and I’m not sure where I would find the most resonance now. I’d probably be impatient with Charlotte for not really having any idea what she wants to do with her life (because I’m in a similar boat, of course). I might be equally disenchanted with Bob, who comes off more as a miserable curmudgeon than an affable dude in a midlife crisis the more you think about him.

Growing up in a near-rural suburb, existing socially at a high school that wanted to cut its already minimal arts funding in lieu of more athletics, where there were very few queer kids to identify with, I definitely had a desire to escape in the ways that Bob and Charlotte did. And by that I mean, I lived comfortably and only had emotional needs that weren’t met, so I wanted to escape in a luxurious fashion, where I didn’t have to give up the comforts I’d grown used to. Lost in Translation, to some extent, offered a catharsis in which I could get that release of escape without actually doing anything, not give up anything.

The way the protagonists in Lost in Translation treat Japan in contrast to their lives back home reflects in a way how I viewed my relationship to my own life and culture. That being, how I wanted to detach myself from them entirely. I spent most of my time at home, on the internet or in front of a book or TV screen, consuming as much culture as possible that derived from anywhere but here. No wish to join in high school organizations or attend Pumpkin Fest, the staple town holiday. Like Bob and Charlotte, I used Japanese literature (and less impactful but more time-consuming, Japanese videogames) to displace myself. It wasn’t always a happy process, but it was soothing to deny the things I didn’t like about the setting in which I lived. I felt more at ease outside small town Americana, where I felt like I was being judged at every turn and could only either act out or subdue myself, neither feeling like I fit in nor wanting to. Lost in Translation is a wonderful fantasy about the world being your oyster and forgetting that you actually just borrowed that oyster. I embraced the spirit of it.

That spirit has something to do with my teenage relationship with Japanese culture as well. Instead of looking for Christopher Isherwood or some new YA author when I first began to accept my queer identity, I jumped immediately to manga and anime. (Note: Gravitation is trash. I’m not actually sure if there’s any good gay manga or anime out there.) Instead of reading classics of American literature, I jumped to the aforementioned Mishima, Soseki, etc. I think I didn’t actually believe I had anything to do with my own culture and looked to form someone else’s into what I wanted it to be. Co-opted Japanese minimalist aesthetic to fit my own teen angst.

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I mean, culture is fluid and complex and it’s not necessarily co-opting. Murakami is extremely influenced by “the West”, but his writing is also extremely Japanese. After a while I began to develop a similar balance in my own life. As I grew more comfortable with myself in college, I was able to appreciate small town Americana more than I did as a teen. Attending a university in a small city with a similar vibe to my hometown was probably a good call. There’s a lot that’s terrible about small town USA, but I’ve been able to parse out what feels like “me” in them: Diners, dogparks, thrift stores, walkable downtowns, etc.

When I watched Lost in Translation the last time, probably my sophomore or junior year, I maintained my overall appreciation of the movie, but allowed myself some distance for critique. The privilege of the protagonists is beyond grating, the scope of their curiosity relatively limited. I still found something in common with them, to be sure, but I didn’t feel as connected to their problems anymore. Or, perhaps more accurately, I wanted them to admit their complicity in their problems more than they do in the movie. Bob and Charlotte exploit the freedom of being in a foreign culture to distance themselves from their home lives, rather than using this experience to gain perspective on them. It’s a romance in which the characters lose themselves in each other and in their environment, and whether or not they change is never quite touched upon. Maybe they do after the credits roll, but that’s not the point of the plot we see in the movie itself. It’s more of a transitory thing, where they’re able to detach themselves from themselves for a bit, then get back to their reality once they part ways.

The summer after my junior year, my ever-traveling father graciously recruited me to go on a trip with him to what he keeps calling the far East. It was a multi-week trip in which we explored China, South Korea, and Japan. The first two-thirds of the trip are a story for another day: Traveling to Japan, my dad and I did much of what the characters in the movie do. We ate food we weren’t sure the contents of, got lost in Kyoto, failed to communicate with locals in a semi-comedic way. We even went to the very hotel Lost in Translation was filmed in, the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Appropriately, the bar and restaurant in which the characters find themselves for a large portion of the movie is called the New York Grill. This suggests to me that these characters can’t stray too far from the familiar, strong as their desire is to escape, to get lost, so they stay in a place called New York in the middle of Tokyo.

Of course we ate at the restaurant ourselves (the waiters pulled out your chair for you and put your napkin on your lap, it was ridiculous), so maybe us travelers with limited knowledge of Japan veered toward the familiar as well. But we wanted to go to Japan to be in Japan. Bob and Charlotte wanted to go just because they had the opportunity, and anything was better than staying home. I’m still learning, but I know at least that much about my own motivations.

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About Bryan Cebulski

Historian, critic, author. Undercover queer. Aspiring P&C adventure protagonist. Collects bad habits like Jessica Rabbit.
This entry was posted in Movies, True Story and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Growing up Lost in Translation

  1. So glad you enjoyed the post! Thank you!

  2. Luke Atkins says:

    Lost in Translation is my favorite film of all time, and I too love it the most because I think about it all of the time; its philosophical implications and nuance always comfort me when I feel lonely, overwhelmed, “lost,” heartbroken, inspired, curious, and pretty much all other emotionally heightened feelings. Glad to read a story intertwined with it, just to see the film’s beauty manifesting itself in other human stories! Have a good day.

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