My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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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.

[Thoughts stemming from the CSM article (thanks Joi) and Mimi's old post]

[For more on humor, read Jokes and Their Relation to the Unsconscious. References on caricature can be found in "The City and the Body" from Judith Donath's "Inhabiting the virtual city."]

Update:

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.

Update:

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.

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12 comments to caricatures are lost in translation

  • “[T]here is no doubt that the Japanese characters in the film were caricatures.”

    With the exception of the prostitute, which Japanese characters did you think were caricatures? I don’t think any of their behaviors were exaggerated. They were one-dimensional, but how could they not be? The movie was made from the point of view of a foreigner who cannot communicate with them. In that context, everyone seems one-dimensional.

    For what it’s worth, none of the Japanese I know have found the movie offensive, despite recent reports that seem to imply otherwise. These news articles have focused on the fact that the movie is only playing in a single theatre in Shibuya—but that is not unusual, especially for small-budget films. Japanese distributors often negotiate long-running exclusive engagements rather than widespread distribution.

  • Ryan – interesting…

    The three characters that immediately come to mind are the women who welcome Murray, the guy directing the shoot and the prostitute.

  • I saw LIT with Japanese friends in Tokyo, and they were not necessarily offended, but they were a tad uneasy with some of the characterizations/ generalizations.

    I personally was not offended either but I could not understand why it was Academy-award winning material.

    Danah, I’d love to hear more ruminations on you time in Japan. We all travel with different “glasses” based on our perspectives and experiences. I’d love to hear more about what you were surprised with about Tokyo or Japan. The image of Japan created in the mainstream media- was it accurate? If not, where was the difference?

  • The three characters that immediately come to mind are the women who welcome Murray, the guy directing the shoot and the prostitute.

    The prostitute, definitely. That scene was idiotic and should have been cut. The director is a caricature, but of “creative types” in general, not of anything specifically Japanese. The women welcoming Murray were not caricatures, that is actually pretty normal for that kind of situation.

  • Lorenzo

    I think the subject is not Japan but two foreigners in a foreigners land so it’s actually right to see the whole thing with theyr glasses and understand what they felt “weird” as if we were the thirt foreigner
    I liked the movie, i personally saw myself going into similar situations when i first got to japan. They spent two weeks there, and that’s a slice of two normal person’s life in a extraordinary environment like tokyo from arrival time till two weeks after.
    Japan seems and many time is impermeable to ousiders at first.
    For japanise is like looking at their normal everyday behaviors being pointed as weird… with our eyes… someone said… “why is funny giving the meishi?” but infact is not funny but it’s just very japanise

    summing up. I found it interesting

  • Mimi

    I think the fact you are getting asked if Tokyo is like LIT gets to some of my discomfort with the film.

    A lot of the discussion I have seen on it is about whether it is “true” or not — “true” in its depictions of Japan and “true” in the depictions of the experience of Tokyo by newcomers. Personally, this is not my concern. Yes, the film depicts things that can happen in Japan.

    My issue is more how the film has come to stand in for a certain set of viewpoints on Japan. It is not whether a representation is correct or not but what was chosen to be represented that is my issue. As a film that has been celebrated nationally and internationally, it has drawn a tremendous amount of visibility and interest. One effect is that the elite touristic viewpoint on Tokyo that it describes becomes a point of identification for people at the expense of other viewpoints on Japan. This is why, yes, it makes sense to ask danah if she experienced tokyo like the characters in LIT even though her subjectivity and circumstances of travel were radically different. I might do the same. The film has turned into something of an icon of what it means for a white person to travel to Tokyo and an assumption that it will mean a sense of disconnection with the people and culture and a stronger sense of connection with people of your own race and culture. It depicts this viewpoint in a compelling way. I am not suggesting that people are confused about what the film represents or that it is somehow bad or racist to identify it. I am just saying that the movie participates in a much broader and dominant set of cultural associations and identifications.

    The film decides to focus on the incommensurability of cultures and race rather than meaningful connection between them. This reality is in indeed true for most people, so it is the probably the right decision for mobilizing audiences. But in the process it decides not to depict certain other truths such as how Tokyo is a multicultural city where people from radically different cultures routinely make sense of each other in everyday life, and the fact that Japanese and US cultures have been on an intensely co-evolutionary path ever since the postwar occupation.

    My viewpoint is a minority one because I have a minority subjectivity in relation to these issues. For me, the film did symbolic violence on my personal experiences and identity as a bicultural Japanese with mixed race children. I shouldn’t expect these aspects of my experience to be represented in cinema, but with this film I found it hard not to take it personally since the setting was my home. I get into situations a lot where friends are trying to convince me that the film is in fact okay and got it right. But I think the different opinions are actually inherent in how the film works representationally, and is not the outcome of someone having a right or wrong interpretation.

  • i1277

    Seeing this great movie made me curious on what the Japanese thought of it too. And it really made me want to go to Tokyo!

  • “dumbfuck american hick with his gun”

    Caricature!

  • Yes, he was a caricature. That’s the point.

  • I know, I know. I was just failing in an attempt at humor.

  • Maybe as part of the culture that’s “in on the joke” I just didn’t recognize how the film treated Japan and Japanese people… I’ve never been to Japan and so I don’t have a good perspective on this. But I felt like the movie could have been set in almost any developed nation, as long as there was a hotel bar available. The heart of the story for me was so much about the connection, the uniqueness and beauty of the relationship… The way two people can balance on the line between friendship and attraction as they get to know one another, the way genuine care and love can exist in a liminal space that other people don’t know about. (Sorry, I had to say “liminal”.) When I hear people mention the Japan-related aspects of Lost in Translation, I almost feel like I was watching something different.

  • Giles

    Think simple Learn different..