A-Z of Japan: L is for…

I’m not even going to entertain other possibilities for this week’s A-Z of Japan post. There is only one thing that L could be for…

L is for… Lost in Translation!

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I know some of you reading this will disagree with me but, in my opinion, Lost in Translation is one of the best movies featuring Japan that’s ever been made. In fact, it’s one of the best movies of all time.

This 2003 movie starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, and directed by Sofia Coppola, was one of the things that really influenced my love of Japan. When I first saw the movie, I was captivated by the neon lights and high-rise buildings of Shinjuku and Shibuya. I found the “otherness” of Japan so enticing, and I knew I had to go there.

But Lost in Translation is a bit of a “Marmite movie” – you either love it or you hate it. I know a lot of people who say it portrays Japan in a bad light, some even say it is “anti-Japanese” and full of racist stereotypes. Whatever you think of the movie, it’s undeniable that it helped to increase tourism in Japan (special “Lost in Translation package tours” were even sold at one point).

As I planned to visit Japan for the first time in 2006, I built parts of my trip around visiting areas from the film. One of the first things I did when I arrived in Tokyo was to go to the famous Shibuya scramble crossing and sit in Starbucks, where parts of the film were allegedly secretly filmed.

Shibuya crossing

At night in Shibuya, I was delighted to see the exact same neon sign which had caught my eye in the movie:

Shibuya (this sign is featured in Lost in Translation!)

On my second to last night in Japan on that very first trip, I treated myself to something rather extravagant – one night in the Park Hyatt hotel where a lot of Lost in Translation was filmed. It was amazing, and well worth the money (which was about a week’s rent at the time).

Park Hyatt

☆★☆

Park Hyatt

☆★☆

Bathroom, Park Hyatt

☆★☆

Breakfast - room service!

I remember taking a luxurious soak in the bath and watching Japanese MTV on the TV in the bathroom. I remember the bed being so wide that I couldn’t reach both sides at the same time when I stretched out. I remember breakfast being brought into my room on a table in the morning, with a little card telling me (in English) how the weather was going to be that day. I remember being too nervous to go into the famous New York Bar on my own, and thinking that next time I would make sure I was with someone!

It was the most spectacular experience, and I never would have dreamt of going to the Park Hyatt if it hadn’t been for Lost in Translation.

Other famous locations from the film are Heian Shrine and Nanzenji (temple), both in Kyoto.

Heian Jingu

☆★☆

Nanzenji, Kyoto, 3rd January 2009

Both of these are worth visiting if you’re in Kyoto, whether you like Lost in Translation or not. For more information about other places used in the film, see this article. I’d love to go to the karaoke bar that’s used in the movie one day!

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The film Lost in Translation is not really the romantic comedy it is sometimes billed as. It is funny at times, but it’s also sad, touching, and even strange. The romance in the movie is really only hinted at. Both of the main characters, Charlotte and Bob, are in difficult marriages but, unlike many Hollywood blockbusters, they don’t just shack up in the fancy hotel. They could, but the closest they get to sleeping together is to actually sleep together – they don’t have sex. It’s this that, for me, makes the movie.

The final scene of Lost in Translation is a scene which has caused much discussion and debate. In that scene, Bob whispers something in Charlotte’s ear, and we can’t quite catch it. Not knowing what he says is part of the mystery of the movie, but people still like to guess at what he might have said. Apparently, he says “I won’t see you till the next making of Suntory. Go to that man and tell him the truth, okay?“. I don’t know whether to believe that or not, though.

If you haven’t seen Lost in Translation I really must urge you to go out and find a copy. You might not like it, I’ll accept that, but at least watch the movie for the brilliant soundtrack! Featuring songs by a variety of artists, including Air, Death in Vegas, Kevin Shields, Happy End and The Jesus and Mary Chain, it is a soundtrack that I have listened to countless times. For me, Alone in Kyoto by Air always invokes a feeling of being lost in Japan, and Just Like Honey by The Jesus and Mary Chain just brings back that amazing last scene and the feeling of having to let something go, even though you don’t know what you have to face next.

Watch Lost in Translation – and let me know what you think! Comments always welcome below… 🙂

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Official Lost in Translation website.

12 thoughts on “A-Z of Japan: L is for…

  1. We loved that movie…you’re right, for people who haven’t been to Japan it seems to give an authentic glimpse into that world! Thanks for the ending quote, that drove us nuts when we saw it!!!

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  2. Hands down my favorite movie!

    I read the article on the film being anti-Japanese and I’d have to say I disagree. The writer missed the point–it’s not a film about Japanese culture or people. Partially, it’s about two people’s reactions to it. She states that the Japanese people are like wallpaper in the film which is a little harsh, but besides Charlotte and Bob, ALL characters are kept in the background of the film’s happenings. If you’re already existing in a state of isolation, going to another country where all things are difficult or have hints of strangeness (visiting the doctor, ordering food, bathing) then your continued isolation at the strangeness is much more consuming than really processing the new things you’re seeing.

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  3. Lost in Translation came out shortly after my first visit to Japan, a visit in which I fell head-over-heels in love with Tokyo, with the bright lights and constant action, with the idea of being in one of the most cutting-edge, one of the most happening, places on the planet, and being somewhere and doing something that most people in my life really thought was quite extreme and special – something they might not ever imagine doing themselves.

    I came back and didn’t know if or when I’d ever go back – in the end, it was more than 5 years. But, before that happened, I watched Lost in Translation.

    For me, the movie can never be what it is for the average typical viewer, for the person who has never been to Japan, has never studied Japan, and is here for a romantic comedy, or for a (slightly) art-film, or whatever it is that Lost in Translation is supposed to be. For me, the movie can never be just about Bob and Charlotte; no matter how many times I watch it, it’s never really about them as individuals nor about their interactions. It’s about exploring and experiencing a different place, as a foreign visitor. It’s about figuring out what Tokyo (and Japan) means to you, and for you, and figuring out who you are in relation to it. It’s about the nostalgia I feel for that first time spent in Japan, and it was in fact quite painful at times to watch the movie, remembering how awesome it was to be living in Tokyo, and wondering if or when I would ever go back.

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    • Thank you for your heartfelt comment. I know what you mean. Sometimes when I watch Lost in Translation now I feel sad because I’m not in Japan. Other times I just remember the experience of being there. I wonder if everyone goes to Tokyo to find themselves, and to figure out what Japan means to them? It seems like a lot of people do. ^_^

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  4. I’ve never actually seen this movie! I’ve always meant to but, like so many other “important” movies, it’s just never happened. It’s always interesting to hear what picture people have of Japan in their heads, before they come here, and what it’s influenced by. I will take this post as incentive to look for it next time I’m at a video store. Thanks!

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