caricatures are lost in translation
Ever since i came back from Japan, the first question out of everyone’s mouth is: “Is it like Lost in Translation!?!?” I always respond “Well….”
It’s hard to parse what i’m being asked. Perhaps i’m being asked if i was just as lost and overwhelmed in Tokyo as Murray and Johansson are. Or perhaps i’m being asked if the caricatures of the Japanese are true. I tend to assume the former, but perhaps that’s hopeful…
Japan was a totally overwhelming experience for me. Not only was it (New York + London)^2 in terms of intensity, but the subtle differences were so fascinating that i spent my entire trip watching for details. Even in my own glazed-over viewpoint, there is no doubt that the Japanese characters in the film were caricatures.
It’s important to remember how caricatures operate. Ever watch a caricature artist? What they do is take the features that appear fundamentally different to their perceived norm and magnify them. Each caricature artist magnifies different features dependent on their own perspective (although, if you have a large nose, you’re going to have a tremendous nose in the eyes of every caricature artist).
Try as i might to see Tokyo on Tokyo’s level, i was brutally aware of my own caricaturization of the city. Fashion played a prominent role in my own processing. My memory has somehow secured the rush of men in business suits in Shibuya and the absurd commonality of 1980s retro fashion. I know that this doesn’t fit everyone, but it stood out because it was so different from what i normally see. My mind was holding on to magnificent differences only.
The problem with creating caricatures is that it’s only funny when you’ve chosen to expose yourself to that processing, when you want to see what stands out from another’s perspective. We choose to subject ourselves to the caricature artist. It’s not nearly as humorous when it is subjected on us. This is where i recognize the problem with Coppola’s movie. I suspect that she meant well… she wanted to portray a sappy set of characters in what she perceived as the American caricaturization of Tokyo. That said, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this doesn’t read well in Japan. It’s far more insulting because the joke is not shared.
This goes to the root of humor. When humor operates by making fun of a population, it is only funny to that population if they were the joke tellers. For example, when my ex-girlfriend used to roll her eyes and call something gay, it was funny; when a stranger does the same, it’s homophobic. Context. Audience. Speaker. One of the key problems with LiT is that it is a caricaturization by gaijin.
I had a great talk with Joi about differentiating portrayals situated in hatred and those situated in stereotypes. The latter are not nearly as visible and can hurt just as much. This is a really good point and i conflated the two in this entry. Humor based on stereotypes doesn’t feel as problematic because the intention is not based on hate. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt.
I also realized that a really good way to consider LiT is to juxtaposition it alongside Kill Bill. Kill Bill (both parts of the full movie) is not nearly as problematic because it is caricaturing every action genre out there, from Chinese martial arts to Japanese sword fighting to Westerns to stupid Americans and their guns. When you laugh, the laughter is only partially at the characters; it is predominantly at Tarantino for incorporating yet-another genre in an off-the-wall way. Additionally, in the Japanese section of Kill Bill, Tarantino goes out of his way to caricature Japanese sword-fighting while simultaneously empowering female fighters to be the most prestigeous. Certainly, everyone in that film dies except two and all of the wrongful deaths are righted, but it’s important to remember that everyone proves their worth in fighting except the stupid dumbfuck American hick with his gun.
United Airlines is showing Lost in Translation for the month of May on two types of flights: to Tokyo/Narita, to Hong Kong / China / Korea. This gives me the distinct impression that people are linking the movie to certain cultures, not simply to the state of being lost in another country. Other movies during the month of May had no clear linkage between location and direction. LiT is not being shown to/from Europe, unlike almost every other movie.