What is Asian cinema?

What is Asian cinema?

Society / Education

Set in Tokyo, Japan, in 2003, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation depicts the hidden love story between a young woman named Charlotte and protagonist Bob Harris after they meet by chance at a hotel in Japan. Orientalism, defined by Edward Said as “a collective notion identifying ‘us’ [Westerners] against all ‘those’ non-[Westerners]”, plays a key role in the movie, as many negative, weak aspects of the Japanese are highlighted throughout.

The film embodies certain facets of Edward Said’s Orientalism and Cecil Rhodes’s “Confession of Faith”!

Moreover, displaying the presence of Western intervention in the East, something desired by Rhodes, and Edward Said’s idea of what Orientalism looks like in the modern world. The work of these two men in accordance with Coppola’s Lost in Translation make apparent the film’s irrefutable grounding in orientalism and imperialist beliefs; not only acknowledging Japanese inferiority, the film argues that Western influence should be used to right the Japanese wrongs. 

In Lost in Translation, one of Said’s notions of orientalism, the idea of the power of the West, is displayed in the ways that white characters are shown as inherently greater than the Japanese.

As the movie begins, Bob Harris, the protagonist, arrives at his hotel in Tokyo and is met by a group of five Japanese men and women, a group that continues to follow him around the hotel throughout the rest of the film. Bob, one white male, is constantly attended to by five Japanese assistants; this unbalanced relationship displays that one is not enough, and the non-Westerners must bring their power together to meet the needs of the white man.

This recurring relationship closely portrays Said’s vision of the relationship between the “Orient and the Occident”, “a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony”.

In this instance, the power of the white man over the Japanese men and women is shown through Japanese behavior, as they must join forces to satisfy Mr. Harris.

However, as the movie progresses, more of the direct Western power and dominance is evident as the protagonist is displayed as inherently more powerful than the Japanese individuals around him. In the first few minutes of the film, Mr. Harris is shown riding in the hotel elevator on the way up to his room. Moreover, located in the center of the elevator, he becomes surrounded by nine Asian men. All significantly shorter than he is. In this scene, Mr. Harris is dominant; he is not trying to exert his power as a white male, but nevertheless is inherently greater.

Through the film’s images, we can note that Mr. Harris is not only a dominant person because of his Western status, but also because of his physical characteristics. While Said’s idea of Western power is evident in the film, there are also ways in which the film glorifies the West by stressing the negative aspects of Japan. 

In addition to Said’s vision of the relationship between the Orient and the Occident, he refers to the non-West as a place of sexual promise, a theme highlighted in Lost in Translation through the actions of the Japanese and the impact that they have on the Westerners. Looking at the actions of the Japanese specifically, there are instances in which they are shown as overly sexual, and almost backward.

When a Japanese woman comes to Mr. Harris’s hotel room to give him a massage, the scene quickly turns sexual as she asks him to “rip [her] stocking”.

Something she struggles to say in her broken English. When Mr. Harris refuses, the woman breaks down on top of him, touching him inappropriately and showing a desire for sexual attention that takes over her mind. As it relates, Said argues that “the Orient seems still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise” and “unlimited [sexual] desire”, descriptions that viewers notice in this scene. Further, the idea of unbridled sexual desire is one highlighted throughout the entire film, as in another instance where Mr. Harris’s Japanese acquaintances drag him to a strip club, a situation in which he is quite uncomfortable and decides to leave before the others.

Despite the civilized, superior person he is portrayed to be in comparison to the Japanese, the main storyline of the film is one of a covert love story between Mr. Harris and a younger woman named Charlotte, both of whom are married. Married for twenty-five years, Mr. Harris comes to Japan and instantly falls in love, relating to Said’s idea of a “frightening self-discovery” that naturally comes as a result of the East’s unlimited sexual tendencies; he disregards his morals, and experiences no qualms in doing so.

Charlotte, having been married for only two years, also falls into the trap.

Furthermore, ignoring her marital vows in this sensual land; the film shows a freedom of sexual desire, unleashed only in the East. While the overly-sexual Eastern stereotype is highlighted in Lost in Translation, along with the affect that is has on the film’s Western characters, there are also apparent connections to more extreme, imperialist beliefs. 

In addition to the ways in which orientalism is used as a method of portraying the Japanese in Lost in Translation, the film notes more than just the differences between East and West: specifically, a recognition that Western intervention is used to restructure and improve Japan. On four different occasions throughout the film, Mr. Harris goes to the bar of his hotel, and there is live music being played by a band; however, despite the location of the hotel in Tokyo, and its housing of many Asian individuals, the two musicians are American and are playing American music, revealing the film’s recognition that Western influence in Japan is of great importance.

In connection with Said’s idea of Orientalism being a way of “restructuring…the Orient”, the Westerners in the film are attempting this rebuild through music.

Examining another part of the film, Mr. Harris came to Japan initially to shoot a commercial for Suntory Whisky, a Japanese brand of alcohol; he is American, yet is asked to promote a Japanese brand in an English-spoken commercial.

Akira Kurosawa, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers from the Golden Age of Asian cinema.

Moreover, in giving Bob this role, the film is showing yet another way of restructuring the nation: incorporating the West into the everyday lives of the Japanese. Similarly, in his “Confession of Faith”, Cecil Rhodes argues that the East would be better off “under [Western] influence”, as it would spread Western beliefs and rid the world of the “most despicable specimens of human beings”. While the film does not take the latter half as far as Rhodes does, it is acknowledged many times that the Japanese are inferior and even wrong in their desires, and thus the more powerful and civilized Westerners must bring with them a positive impact.

Through a combination of Western influence and images of Japanese wrongness, the film shows a grounding in 19th century thought and imperialist beliefs as it notes that non-Westerners are in need of Western influence, the agent that will right their wrongs.

Having discussed and examined the ways in which Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation both embraces the ideals of Orientalism laid out by Edward Said and shows a grounding in 19th century thought with its connections to the work of Cecil Rhodes, what larger questions arise? Because of the ways in which Western influence is prioritized in the film, it is important that we look into what these ways are and what kind of importance they hold.

Primarily, Western influence is incorporated into the film through music; as music is at the center of many cultures, it is interesting that the film decided to restructure the Japanese in this way; is this a common tactic among films to take away as much power and influence as possible from a marginalized group of people? Lastly, it is undeniable that, in doing this, the film takes away autonomy from a group; however, these changes fly over the heads of many in the world of cinema. Can we work to change and publicize this notion of taking away selfhood, while still maintaining the world of cinema as we know it?

Written by Thomas Heath

What is Asian cinema?