The Orientalist Implications of Sofia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’

Bill Murray as Bob in Lost in Translation (2003). Bob, a white American, stands in an elevator crowded with Japanese businessmen. Bob visibly stands out as he is a head taller than everyone else.
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Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola’s second directorial feature, is one of the defining films of the early 21st century. Following her debut, The Virgin Suicides, the film solidified Coppola’s success as a filmmaker both critically and commercially. Its reputation as a beloved American classic, that accurately depicts the human condition and longing for connection, is held close to many a film fans heart. However, behind it’s dreamy mise en scène is a disturbing colonial narrative. 

Fundamentally, Lost in Translation is a western film with an eastern backdrop. It tells the story of two Americans, who, dissatisfied with their relationships, end up searching for meaningful human connection in Tokyo. Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a disaffected actor clinging to the remnants of his stagnant career and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a philosophy graduate, visiting because of her husband’s photography career, connect over their isolation and general disenchantment with life.

Tokyo is used as a visual device to amplify the loneliness Coppola is portraying in her characters. Hollywood’s penchant for using the east, and its culture and people as decorative backgrounds, presents the ideal landscape on which these white characters can navigate. The film relies on the relationship of the western viewer and the racialised eastern subject to create this disconnect and portray the protagonists as isolated entities. This relationship is referred to as Orientalism, a term coined in 1978 by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said.

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte in Lost in Translation (2003). Charlotte, a young white American woman, is standing in a store, her surroundings are blurred in a shallow focus - the only clear detail is her sombre expression.
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Orientalism concerns the essentialising way in which westerners depict and discuss the east, formerly known as the ‘orient’. Since British and French imperialism in the 18th century, we can observe a phenomenon emerge in which western scholarship, art and literature have a tendency to depict eastern civilisations as culturally backwards and developmentally static. This representation ties back to the colonial imagination, where eastern women are sexualised and exotified and eastern men are emasculated. Through this deliberate mischaracterisation comes the dogma that “the orient is something to be feared or controlled” (stated by Said in his 1978 book: Orientalism). Therefore, the east exists only in opposition and juxtaposition to the superior west.

Despite outright colonial rule having ended half a century ago the colonial legacy persists. In reference to Japan specifically, this can be acknowledged through attempts to mystify the ‘other’ through America’s fraught history with Japan, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans in the mid 1940s. Having said that, just because Lost in Translation is set in an eastern country, it doesn’t mean it’s trying to sell a narrative of cultural superiority. Coppola is not an explicit neo-colonialist who perceives the east as inferior, but that doesn’t absolve the film’s orientalist implications. 

Language is one of the first key indicators of the film’s oriental implications. The viewer encounters this almost immediately when the Japanese characters speak, they are either forced to speak English or when they do speak Japanese their speech is left untranslated. It is obvious why Coppola made this decision; to embed the feeling of isolation and detachment into all aspects of the film. However, it creates a sense of ‘othering’ between the Japanese characters and the western audience, that isn’t necessary in maintaining her carefully constructed narrative. Instead, it ingrains orientalist perceptions into western audiences, therefore, upholding colonial ascendancy. One of the most painful, reoccurring aspects of the film is Bob’s propensity to mock the Japanese characters attempts at speaking English, specifically the pronunciation of the letter ‘r’. This failed comedic endeavour establishes the relationship of the Japanese characters to the American characters as one of subservience and inferiority. Their attempts to communicate through broken English juxtapose the protagonists’ laissez-faire approaches of disinterest and infantilising hand gestures.

Bill Murray as Bob in Lost in Translation (2003). Bob is sitting in a waiting room, looking perplexed at the Japanese man with a walking stick sitting beside him, who points up at the sky.
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Alongside the dissonance between the protagonists and the Japanese characters through language, we are also treated to a hotchpotch of vague Japanese cultural references. Depictions of Buddhism, ikebana (the art of flower arranging) and omikuji (fortune-telling), function as aesthetic, visual stimulation but little else. This contributes to the Japanese monolith Coppola creates as the audience view the country through the eyes of a westerner. As Said states, “the Orient is watched, since it’s almost (but never quite) offensive behaviour issues out a reservoir of infinite peculiarity; the European, whose sensibility tours the Orient, is a watcher, never involved, always detached”. The audience is taken on a tour of Japanese culture, never bringing them close enough to the humanity or propensity of its people. Thus imbuing in them Coppola’s own limited understanding of the very county she saw to portray. It’s the pervasive mysticism and the degrading sense of ‘other’, used to depict Japan that is problematic. Lost in Translation is Japan through the lens of Liberal Americanism, just as Orientalism is the east through the lens of the west.

Perhaps if the characters displayed more self-awareness, the film itself could have been effective in depicting neo-colonial influences that persist through social interactions between the east and the west. However, the characters navigate their surroundings with an extreme sense of entitlement. Arguably, this could be blamed on Coppola’s decision to present Bob as though the world is beholden to him because of his failing career. Although, this does not exonerate Coppola of her responsibility to consciously consider how Americans navigate other countries, often with a propensity to be hubristic.

One of the most defamatory elements of the film are the depictions of the Japanese. The film relies on racialised stereotypes for a few cheap laughs and situates the Japanese characters as props within their own country. This lies in stark contrast to the dynamic and fully realised white characters. The homogenised Japanese character Coppola creates allows Japan to be observed as an aesthetic and monolithic territory, in which the white characters move about voyeuristically.  She avoids providing depth to any of these characters, they simply facilitate the character development of Bob and Charlotte.

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte and Bill Murray as Bob in Lost in Translation (2003). Charlotte and Bob are sitting opposite each other at a restaurant booth, a large steaming bowl sits between them. Both are slumped morosely in their seats and don't appear to be talking.
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The Japanese prostitutes and strippers portrayed are stand-ins for the exotic, sexualised women Said speaks of. Coppola objectifies their bodies, whilst also presenting them as undesirable, because, despite Bob being married, he never sexually engages with them, and instead sleeps with the hotel’s American singer. Coppola prioritises appealing to an American audience over accurately depicting Japan. Much like the depictions of Japanese traditions, the Japanese themselves have become decorative accessories that can only be acknowledged once you look past the distractingly pretty and melancholic mise en scène.

Regardless of Coppola’s well-intentioned liberalism, the film exchanges the typical narrative of fear and domination for a placid appreciation for other cultures. This allows Lost in Translation to fly beneath the Orientalist radar. The subtlety with which Coppola casts aside and stereotypes eastern characters results in the normalisation and reproduction of these tropes.

It is important to consider that, whilst female filmmakers have a crucial role in diversifying the industry, they are not exempt from perpetuating damaging hegemonic narratives such as Orientalism. The majority of accolades the film won went to Americans, and Coppola’s Oscar win for best original screenplay reveals how blind Hollywood is to the colonial narratives they perpetuate, or perhaps they actively favour them. The lack of agency the Japanese have within the film reflects wider concerns within the industry, and writers and directors need to approach these cultures with the nuance and sensitivity they deserve.

 by Annabelle Underdown

Annabelle (she/her) is a London native currently studying geography at Nottingham University. She is writing her undergrad thesis on black identity and experience through landscapes in film.She dreams of becoming the cool, rich aunt who travels the world and when she’s not reciting SZA lyrics word for word she’s either playing rugby or looking up dreamy NYC apartments online. Her favourite films include Madeline’s Madeline, Frances Ha and Moonlight and she cites Josephine Decker as her cinematic idol. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Letterboxd.

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