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'Lost in Translation' doesn't translate well in Japan

The Oscar-winning film by Sofia Coppola opened to a lukewarm reception in Tokyo this past week . Critics say it draws on 'unpleasant' stereotypes.

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Japan's self-image is a subject so sensitive that it rarely gets raised among gaijin, or foreigners. An exception came last week when statesman Yasuhiro Nakasone, speaking minutes after Vice President Richard Cheney, insisted it is time for Japan to be a "normal nation," and shed its postwar image of US dependence.

Even the Japanese hostages in Iraq last week unveiled the different approach here. E-mail postings were actually critical of the three hostages for disrupting Japanese foreign affairs. Their family members apologized publicly for damaging Japan's image.

Now, in a small but significant way, Sofia Coppola's film, Lost in Translation, is also coming under the gun. The Oscar winner is described by Ms. Coppola as a "valentine to Tokyo." The lushly filmed and bittersweet story of two bewildered and lonely Americans who discover each other half a planet away in the Shinjuku Park Hyatt, has been a conversation piece for months. At the Hong Kong Literary Festival in March, authors spontaneously took up the film's themes of relationships, alienation, and globalization.

But the film is under attack for cultural bias, and for maximizing its humor by depicting Japanese as robotic and cartoon-like. The question is: to what degree is the film insensitive - and to what extent is this the kind of "poking fun" that some ethnic groups now ignore?

Until now, none of these voices or questions has come from Japan. Indeed, while "Lost in Translation" opened all over the world last fall, it opened in image-conscious Tokyo only last weekend. Some sources say this is deliberate. Japanese decorum on culturally sensitive matters precludes angry protest or high-volume misgivings about images that might be considered unfair or "unpleasant," to use a local reviewer's term. But it is telling that the Academy-award-winning "valentine" can be seen here only in a small 300-seat theater in Shibuya, and critics warn that the film may hurt the feelings of ordinary Japanese.

Ms. Coppola, for her part, told journalists at a recent press conference here that her film focuses on the relationship between an aging actor (Bill Murray) and a 25-year-old Yale philosophy graduate who reads self-help books for her troubled marriage (Scarlett Johansson) as they battle loneliness amid the neon wilderness of digitalized Tokyo.


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