While taking a peek again at Sophia Coppola’s 2003 film
“Lost in Translation” I was brought back to my 17 years as an alien in Japan. It all came back when I visited recently – how little Japanese and non-Japanese understand each other, somehow missing the common element of both being human. And there were Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson having the same experiences a decade after I’d left. Déjà vu!
On my visit I stayed with Japanese friends, both of whom are as alien in their own culture as I suppose I’ve always been in mine. Aliens attract aliens wherever they roam. Still, our conversations were “lost in translation.” We caught each other’s words, but often not the subtle meaning behind them. The nuances were missing.
During my long stay I grew used to never really understanding what was going on. Sometimes it was frustrating. At other times I was relieved. I had no interest in the nitty-gritty of their politics. Nor did I care about the nation’s thriving pop culture. I was interested in links to shared values toward our fellow man, both those close to us and man at large.
I could relate to the two Americans in the film feeling lost, for foreigners in Japan always do. The Japanese they meet never share their own lives’ experiences, nor do they elicit these experiences from the foreigners. In the majority of cases they simply don’t know enough about each other, so they resort to stereotypes.
The situation leads to amusement for both. Poor Bill Murray being made a fool of on the Japanese TV talk show in the film. I used to think we were created for each other’s amusement. We make each other laugh. But it’s never enough to reveal who we are.
The movie brilliantly captures the tumultuous chaos of Tokyo’s streets and night spots. I must have been thrilled when I first saw the city at the age of 30. On my last visit I was reminded that it’s the most exhausting capital on earth.
There are the crowds, of course. Thirty million people living in a 30-mile radius is a lot of humanity to tolerate. Public transportation is scrupulously organized. It is functional beyond any other place in earth. Each time I boarded a train, I knew I would reach my destination. The friends I stayed with, however, lived on opposite sides of the metropolis. It was necessary to change trains. The journey took at least one and a half hours.
Buying tickets from vending machines required knowledge of whether different train companies would be used to find the proper fares, more often than not written entirely in Japanese. Where there were no escalators, the steps down to the platforms looked as though they descended to the depths of the earth.
If riding the trains doesn’t flatten you, the sheer constant din of public service announcements, loud pop music, trains clanging down tracks, cars roaring down overhead freeways, teenage girls giggling in cramped elevators will. Silence is forbidden.
If you escape deep enough into the countryside, or slip into one of Kyoto’s lovely Zen temples before the babbling school groups arrive, there’s still the chance that you’ll find solace, maybe even experience an epiphany. This will take careful planning.
Japan eternally offers the distinct possibility of being “lost in translation.”