The 100 Best Contemporary Japanese Movies - Psycho Drama is launching an ambitious yet invigorating project to compile 100 of the best modern-day Japanese movies from the last 2 decades or so - that features the best young actors of their generation - from Joe Odagiri, Takako Matsu and Tadanobu Asano, to Satoshi Tsumabuki, Hikari Mitsushima, Mao Inoue, Ryuhei Matsuda, Shun Oguri and Masanabu Ando to the current crop of exciting young talents - Shota Sometani, Yuya Yagira, Kamiki Ryunosuke, Fumi Nikaido and Ai Hashimoto.
AS I stare quietly at the screen after the last credits have all rolled out, I find myself thinking about what Bob Harris (Bill Murray) whispered into the ear of Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) as they go on their separate ways in the end part of the movie, "Lost in Translation." This is where the pace sort of picks up again to enliven what seems to have been a dull second half only to find out it all stops right there and you are now craving for more.
For the males who have seen the flick, they must have delighted at the sight of Scar-Jo in her see-through undies in the opening minutes and expected more of her flesh to be "served", but, nope. She's too young and this one is an entirely different story.
In the ensuing sequence, we learn that Charlotte is the wife of John (Giovanni Ribisi) whose job as a celebrity photographer has brought them to a glitzy hotel in Tokyo that would serve as her away-from home detention cell.
A product of Yale philosophy school, Charlotte feels insignificant being abandoned by her husband who's always on the go. She is alone, sad and miserable. She goes to a shrine, hoping to soothe her weariness, but she was too numb to absorb the tranquility of the moment. "I don't know who I married," she tells a friend on a long-distance phone chat after that brief sojourn with tears rolling down her eyes only to feel the person she called is not really "there" to listen.
She can't sleep and she knows her presence is just a formality, if not a burden to her husband who has the hots for this starlet blondie (Anna Faris) who is promoting her B-movie in Tokyo. But, Kelly, the blondie who is drowned in her own allure and John, are just ornaments in the story, forgettable characters like the passengers in the bullet train station. It was easy getting rid of John in the picture, but not quite Kelly, perhaps because she did her b*tchy blondie role justice which, if given more playing time, would definitely have ruined the film.
Kampai to Bill
Now comes Bob Harris, an over-the-hill American actor who is also in the city to do a Suntory whiskey commercial. These are tough times for Bob, despite being paid $2 million just to utter the words "For relaxing times, make it a Suntory time," in his ever-dependable wry and confident wit; it's actually the part where you'd think it's a comedy flick, especially when the Japanese director mumbled a litany of instructions for Bob only to be told by Ms. Kawasaki (Akiko Takeshita), the interpreter, to "turn and look in camera, okay?" with her impassioned yet poor grasp of English.
The first Suntory scene is where a reference to the movie's title is evident. Here, Bob, unable to make anything out of the language barrier, just goes about his own flair and we are treated to a tiny dose of his trademark slapstick antics, with that roll in his eyes matched with a forced smile, perhaps to signify a bit of sarcasm in a subtle way just to get things done so he could walk away and go back to his own corner of solitude.
Bob is tired but he, too, can't sleep. He's in a strange land, surrounded by strange people who treat him with such awe, a luxury that he's overgrown and yet still hounds him even in the twilight of his career. He would rather now be left alone. He finds a dimly-lit bar in the hotel a more reassuring spot where he could shed all the days' and nights' miseries and just let go. There's still no privacy, but he feels more comfy here, compared to the serenity of his own suite, which is very ironic.
One night Charlotte, tortured by insomnia, wanders to the bar, meets Bob and the story unfolds. A mutual relationship slowly blossoms between the two and they soon find themselves extricating from the cold and cruel embrace of the hotel to explore the neon pandemonium of Tokyo's nightscape. It was a scene that reminded me of Rose and Jack in "Titanic", where the main characters struggle to discover their own piece of happiness and meaning in spite of the odds.
For Bob and Charlotte, it was a chance for them to forget about their marriage and feel alive again, if only for a while: Charlotte can forget about his useless husband and be with Bob who's now become a source of inspiration and... looming despair. Bob has never been happier in many years, but he too knows that all this is temporary; reality keeps him in check through his wife's constant calls, a hectoring voice that reminds him of a family that he soon must go back to.
There were instances where the two could have easily gone with the flow and just follow their human instincts. In bed, after another bout with insomnia, they shared their innermost thoughts -- instead of having sex. In the elevator, they give each other a friendly smack – instead of doing the French kiss. After a night of booze and Karaoke, Bob carries Charlotte to her room, tucks her into bed and leaves her safely alone. He's too decent for this. The scene couldn't have been any better.
Writer and director Sofia Copolla has other things in mind and she wanted the story to evolve that way – slow, hanging and subdued. Otherwise, Bob can do as he pleases -- just like the way he's given free reign to demonstrate his acting savvy with a glass of Suntory, including other scenes where he could have nonchalantly toyed with his deadpan demeanor. But then, that would have changed the complexion of the story.
This two-character film was intended to be a drag, because that's where it gets its strength and substance. And it can't be denied that there were funny moments that were hard to ignore: the automatic blinds that aroused Bob from sleep as if to signal the weird surprises which await him; the shower scene and the middle-aged call girl who told him to "lip" (rip) her stockings and yes, the whiskey commercials.
But many Japanese thought the movie was a direct insult to their social and educational status -- that they are short people who can't speak and understand English. Hmmm... I'm not quite sure about that.
In "Rush Hour", Jackie Chan played a Hong Kong supercop (Detective Lee) who was mocked by his loud-mouth LAPD partner Chris Tucker (agent James Carter) for his inability to speak and understand English, but the Chinese never raised a howl against the filmmakers for making fun of their hero. The world laughed at Nixau (bless his soul), the Namibian bush farmer in the "God's Must Be Crazy", but nobody in Namibia cried foul for his depiction as a "dumb" and "uncivilized" Kalahari bushman.
While many Japanese took offense on some of the film's deliberately funny moments, still many others find them very hilarious, perhaps because they know that they are not stupid people and though lacking in physical height, which is a fact by the way, they take pride in having the highest literacy level in the world and that they know the movie is not about them -- but about two foreigners trying to make sense of their existence.
I think it was all part of a conspiracy -- between the director and the Japanese actors -- to dilute the storyline's drag with a dash of humor that in the end revealed the goodness that is Japan and its breathtaking allure that served as a tasteful backdrop to the story. The city was actually one of the central figures that gave the story a breath of fresh air in a string of vignettes that would have otherwise given the main characters more gloom than hope.
Lost in Translation is a story that can sustain itself without going the extra mile and adding more emotional hype for conformity just to please the audience. It is modest in terms of letting Bill Murray's character take advantage of an obvious funny moment with his natural comical aura and only allows humor to set in when necessary. Same goes with Charlotte. She hears a female voice inside Bob's room but instead of showing her disgust, she keeps her composure and gives him the space he needs.
They meet up afterwards in what is to be their last night out together and talk like nothing happened – even at the lobby the following morning when Bob was set to leave. There's nothing to explain. They're closer together being detached.
Have you seen Lost in Translation already? What can you say about the movie? Is it insulting the Japanese or simply making a movie about foriegners living in Japan? Let us know what you think!
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