Lost in PCness

In order to keep up with this world’s latest trends, and think global while acting local and eating very local (gyosa with natto and pasta at lunch, to be exact), I regularly go on an extensive browsing and skimming of that mythical “blogosphere” I’ve been reading about in hip media (the same that used to tell me how balls.com was gonna “revolutionize the way I was buying balls online” etc). From my entirely unscientific study sample, it seems one of the latest question on every bloger’s mind is whether Sofia Coppola’s last movie is very racist, kind of racist or not so racist. Even our dear froggy blogers seem to take a keen interest in this burning issue.

The movie, according to its detractors, greatly harms the US Asian population by perpetuating negative stereotypes about Japanese people…

Indeed, as most pointed out, and from what I remember, it does feature:

  1. Overly polite Japanese business people who bow every 30 seconds
  2. Wacky TV show hosts that go out of their way looking utterly ridiculous, shooting for the lowest common denominator’s type of humor, while more or less humiliating their guests all along.
  3. Japanese people unable to tell apart L’s and R’s for the life of them, making way for all kind of crazy misunderstanding and wacky situations.
  4. Fading american actors paid a hefty sum to advertise the merits of Suntory Whisky to the japanese masses…
  5. Horny young chaps who like to get “private dance lessons” from pretty long-legged ladies…
  6. Same young chaps, always ready to massacre a drunk rendition of old american classics at 3am in one of the countless karaoke bars cluttering the city…

And probably countless other examples…

Now, are there any truth in these stereotypical scenes and descriptions?

Hell yea!

I seriously suspect that some of the people throwing rather bold accusations of racism (explicit or “submerged”, as some contend) against Sofia Coppola do not have a fraction of her knowledge of Japan. Actually, it is pretty safe to assume they have close to no first-hand knowledge of contemporary Japanese culture. Otherwise, they might have realized how, in a lot of aspects, the “stereotypes” they loudly decry in the movie are, in fact, very much actual – watered-down – traits of Japanese culture…

Let’s take a quick look at the aforementioned points, shall we:

1) Overzealous politeness and incessant bowing is not a myth: ask anybody who’s ever had a business relationship with a typical Japanese company. Not that this is actually something the movie or I would think about criticizing. It is simply a part of Japanese life and common business practice as much as shaking hands is in a western country.

2) Preposterous TV shows featuring excruciatingly annoying hosts: I mean, come on, have you watched any Japanese TV lately??? In comparison, the slightly doppy host in LiT is a model of professionalism.
Update: Actually, my bad. The show host featured in LiT is a real Japanese TV show host (can you tell I never watch TV). I saw a few bits of his show, and can tell you he really toned it down for the movie.

3) One word: Engrish

4) Foreign celebrities and “japandering“: would you be surprised to learn that Bill Murray’s commercial for some local whisky brand is for real – only with a different actor…

5) Regarding “Private Dance Lessons”: if my stint as a bartender/waiter in one of Tokyo’s “most refined gentleman’s club” is any indicator, Japanese youths are indeed very keen on taking the ladies to the champagne room… Yes, Japanese men sometimes are total hornballs who go to sleazy places and pay to see naked girls (or guys). just as much as every other men from about every country on that freaking planet: get over it!

6) Karaoke: Did I mention that before working in a strip club, I did work in a small neighbourhood bar near azabu-juban? did I mention that said bar was equipped with the latest in terms of Karaoke technology for the enjoyment of drunk salarymen and tipsy O.L.?
I will merely point you to my current state of mental imbalance and overall borderline psychopathic behaviour, as well as my irresistible urge to stump repeatedly on any microphone-shaped object whenever I hear the word “my” and “way” in the same sentence nowadays… Let’s just say it was a deeply psychologically scarring experience.

So a vast majority of these so-called “stereotypes” about Japanese are irremediably and undeniably true
Does that make the movie an objective, unbiased look at Japanese culture? Of course not! It is not a freakin’ documentary, it is a movie aimed precisely at showing how people have difficulties understanding foreign cultures and can feel somehow alienated by these differences…

The movie does not claim Bob and Charlotte’s attitude toward their Japanese counterparts to be exemplary behaviour, but since when do movie heroes have to be flawless embodiment of humanistic qualities?

The movie does not imply that the quirky and strange facets of Japanese civilization do not exist elsewhere, otherwise why would Bill Murray’s character feel so alienated by his own all-american Martha Stewartish wife as well?
All of the above points can be successfully matched with equal quirkiness or sheer imbecility by about any culture on Earth: Japanese TV only seem really stupid until your remember Jerry Springer and what passes for TV in the US. I’ll take twenty japanese polite bows any day over your average American sales consultant’s colgate smile and pushy demeanour. And need I say that the occasional melting of English consonants by Japanese locals speaking an otherwise decent English is nowhere near as hilarious as what you get when hapless gaijins take a shot at speaking basic Japanese (and that is, assuming we overlook the fact that most americans have trouble mastering their own language, let alone bothering to learn any foreign language)…

Of course Lost of Translation is packed with clichés a dozen, but if this is a punishable offense, I think it’s time to fold the whole Hollywood industry and call it a day, ’cause the competition is rather fierce in this domain…

I will finish by saying I might give more credits to some of the valid arguments fueling that controversy, if not for the fact that the official boycott site:

  1. complains in the name of “Asian Americans and the stereotypes it is conveying about them“. If this is not racism, then I don’t know what is. Implying that a movie that talks about people living in a certain country (Japan) could be applied to people living in another country (US), not even because they are of Japanese descent, but because they are somewhat of the same skin color! Tell me who’s using racial stereotypes here?
    I don’t see how cultural traits of people living in Tokyo are supposed to reflect poorly on American citizen, who just happen to have parents born somewhere in Asia…

  2. gives the grossly inaccurate, ridiculously one-sided, historically incompetent Last Samurai as an example of “positive, unbiased” take on Japanese culture. no comment

Frankly, I’m the first one to be appalled at Hollywood’s “lack of cultural sensitivity” (major understatement) and its overall cultural imperialism. But picking on Lost in Translation on that ground is seriously looking in the wrong direction, when it’s so obvious Sofia Coppola has a lot of affection for Japan and Japanese people, and shows it in her movie.
This kind of PCness bigotry only serves to weaken an otherwise very respectable cause.

1 comment

  1. you’re so right… our entries are eerily similar. especially on the issues of japanese TV and the lack of ability for Japanese people to say r/l compared to the lack of ability of gaijin to speak basic Japanese….

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