David Chart's Japan Diary

July 28th 2005

I'm still busy, but I'm too tired tonight to do any useful editing or writing, because there's a serious risk that I'll produce drivel. If I produce drivel in my diary, it's less important; nobody is paying me to write this. I've not done any writing for about four days, but I have basically finished editing one book, and done almost all of the administration that needs doing with the new flat. There are two things pending: I'm still waiting for my copy of the Japanese version of the Land Registry, which is now a bit late so I might have to chase, and I need to book movers to the new flat. The latter was held up by the company that moved me from Okazaki to Tokyo for 28,000 yen wanting to charge 60,000 yen to move me to Kawasaki, which is about fifty times closer. Yuriko has found me a cheaper place, so that may be sorted. Having a friendly native speaker makes things a lot easier, even when you speak the language.

Speaking of which, I saw Lost in Translation last night. It's one of those films that English-speakers living in Japan, particularly Tokyo, really have to see at some point. So I decided to finally rent the DVD and see what it was like.

I enjoyed it. It provoked a couple of reflections, which may slightly spoil the film if you haven't seen it. On the other hand, it really isn't a 'what will happen next?' sort of film.

The first is that it's almost literally a different film for me, and anyone else who lives in Japan and speaks Japanese, particularly if you're bilingual (stretch the point a bit, and I can now claim that). The central theme is that Bob (Bill Murray's character) and Charlotte (Scarlet Johannssen's character) are lost in the middle of their lives, surrounded by people they don't understand acting in ways that don't really make sense. Being in Tokyo is a concrete reflection of that. The bewilderment that Bob feels at the shoot for the commercial is a particularly concrete version of the bewilderment he feels at his life: 'Why am I here, doing this? What do people expect of me?'. To a point, Tokyo and Japan are a mirror for the central characters' relationships with their normal lives. This is clear if you listen to the conversations they have with other Americans, apart from each other. About as much communication takes place as when they talk to the Japanese. In that respect, I think the film was very well done indeed.

But, if you've lived in Tokyo and speak Japanese, things are very different. It's not an alien, incomprehensible world, it's home, and you spend the time playing "Have I been to this place?". (Generally, yes. I've been to both the places Charlotte visits in Kyoto, and to most of the outdoor places they visit in Tokyo.) The views from the bullet train when Charlotte's on her way to Kyoto were particularly familiar to me, because they were both taken from the stretch between Tokyo and Toyohashi, so I've seen them lots. Only, they're views from opposite sides of the train; she couldn't look at both on the same journey. And she was really lucky with the weather passing Mount Fuji.

And, of course, the scene where Bob is shooting the commercial is completely altered when you know the director is telling him to talk as though he's greeting an old friend, and put his heart into it. The interpreter is really bad. It is notable that the things the Japanese people are saying are all reasonable things for them to say under the circumstances. Communication doesn't fail because one side of the conversation is composed of weird idiots; it fails because there's no common language. Much like Bob's conversations with his wife, or Charlotte's with her husband.

This does make me wonder about the existence of a Japanese release. Really, the dubbed version should dub the English to Japanese and the Japanese to, oh, Swahili or something. If the Japanese were left as Japanese, I can't help feeling that a great deal would be, well...

The second was recalling a letter written to the Guardian Weekly about when it came out, saying that it was racist, holding the Japanese up to mockery. I strongly suspect that the people writing that letter had never been to Japan, and I'm all but certain that they didn't speak Japanese.

One comment was that the Japanese were merely background. Well, yes. The film is about Bob and Charlotte, not about the population of Japan. In particular, it's important that they don't become comfortable with any Japanese people, because that would undermine the main point of the film.

In addition, some of the scenes possibly look more like jokes at the expense of the Japanese if you don't speak Japanese. For example, the scene in the hospital in which Bob is talking to the little old lady. If you don't understand what she's saying, I would think it looks very strange. Actually, though, she's trying to ask him how many years he's been in Japan. She behaves entirely sensibly, and in a friendly fashion, the whole time. When you speak both languages, it's Bob who looks ridiculous, not the little old lady.

Now, it's true that the interpreter Bob has for the commercial shoot is awful. I could do better than that. But that's deliberate, for reasons I gave above; it is artistically important that he does not know what is going on. The director is saying entirely sensible things, and one of the things he does is ask the interpreter whether she's told Bob everything. However, this is not 'all Japanese interpreters are dreadful'; the interpreter he gets on the talkshow is much, much better. In addition, there's a very subtle point there that may not even be deliberate. The reason I have doubts is that you need to be bilingual in English and Japanese to spot it, and that's a really limited audience segment. The talkshow host says what he will do. The interpreter then translates, quite well but missing one point out. The host emphasises that point in English. In other words, the talkshow host speaks pretty good English; he followed the translation well enough to notice that something had been dropped, and could add it back in English himself. He probably speaks better English than the interpreter Bob gets for the commercial.

It is true that most of the intended audience of the film would not notice much of this, due to not speaking Japanese. However, the point is that at no time (with the possible exception of when the prostitute is sent to Bob's room) are the Japanese depicted doing anything ridiculous. They only look ridiculous because they are not understood. And that, as I suggested above, is a large part of the point of the film. When you don't understand the people around you, their behaviour seems very strange. I can see no way in which depicting people behaving entirely sensibly could be described as racist. Bob and Charlotte, on the other hand, are repeatedly shown doing rather daft things.

It is telling that Yuriko and her friends really liked the film. They thought that, unlike many films, it portrayed Tokyo as it really is. There really are places like that, even if the particular restaurants portrayed are sets. When she mentioned one particular scene, the reason it struck her as funny was that the Japanese people were portrayed doing exactly what Japanese people would, and Bob was completely bewildered. It's the scene very near the beginning, where he arrives at the hotel. He is introduced to a whole group of people, who give him business cards and gifts, and then leave. Not only is that normal, we've just done it at the new flat, visiting our new neighbours to hand over gifts, say our names, and leave.

The letter writers also complained that the film resurrected the old slur that Japanese people mix their r's and l's. Such a complaint has to face the reality that the Japanese title of the film is Rosto in Toransrashon.