Travel Films Week: Othering and Alienation in ‘Lost in Translation’

Written by Robin Hitchcock

Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) in Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is remembered mostly for the genuinely affecting romance between its leads Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, but it also offers a singular depiction of culture shock. Unfortunately, in representing the “strangeness” of Japan through the eyes of its American characters, Lost in Translation often veers into racist stereotypes and caricatures. When the film was up for several Academy Awards including Best Picture in 2004, the anti-racism group Asian Mediawatch advocated an Oscar shut-out for the film because it “dehumanises the Japanese people by portraying them as a collection of shallow stereotypes who are treated with disregard and disdain.” [Despite this protest, Lost in Translation did garner writerdirector Sofia Coppola an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.]
Bob Harris (Bill Murray) stands tallest in a Japanese elevator
My viewing (as a white American) of Lost in Translation didn’t see disdain for Japan or Japanese people, but rather an aggressive othering, which of course is problematic in its own right. But emphasizing the differences between Tokyo and the American homeland of main characters Charlotte (Johansson) and Bob (Murray) is vital to the narrative of Lost in Translation: both characters are in crisis, unmoored in their daily lives, and the mundane discomfort of their foreign surroundings brings these deeper struggles to bear.
Charlotte looks out at Tokyo from her hotel room window
Focusing on the existential angst of two white Americans in Japan without any well-defined Japanese characters is enough to turn off many race-conscious viewers to begin with, and Lost in Translation doubles down with some cringeworthy Japanese stereotypes. The film gets alarming mileage out of its Japanese characters pronouncing l’s and r’s similarly, which feels even more dated than the also strangely boundless fax-machine humor in this 2003 film. Charlotte at one point asks Bob why “they mix up l’s and r’s” and he suggests it is “for yuks,” but it isn’t actually funny.
Take for example the biggest belly flop of a “comedic” scene in the film, in which an escort arrives at Bob’s hotel room; his host in Japan having gifted him with the “premium fantasy” package. She demands Bob “lip” her stockings. After a classic Bill Murray line reading of “Hey, ‘lip’ them, ‘lip’ them, what!?” the scene devolves as the escort one-sidedly plays out a rape fantasy. Too much of this scene rests on the “humor” of “lip” vs. “rip,” and the rest relies on judging sexism in Japanese business culture from a dubious moral high ground. It’s hard to watch.
Directions during a whiskey ad shoot are literally lost in translation
In contrast, the comedic highlights of the film are the shoots for the whiskey advertisement that brought Bob Harris to Tokyo. The humor in these scenes doesn’t come so much from mocking the Japanese characters as it does mining the disconnect between them and English-speaking Bob (alluding to the film’s title). The flashy director of the ad gives detailed, impassioned instructions in Japanese which are relayed to Bob in brief and inscrutable English directions (“Turn from the right, with intensity!” “Like an old friend, and into the camera.”)
Scarlet Johansson spends a lot of this movie looking out of windows.
Charlotte’s interactions with Japanese culture aren’t comedic, which is likely because Scarlett Johansson is not the established comedic actor that Bill Murray is. Instead, we get a lot of her gazing with wonder at beautiful scenery and meekly participating in ikebana. I think anyone who has ever been a tourist can relate to Charlotte’s wide-eyed stares out of cab windows, but her fascinated observation gets laid on a little thick and starts reeking of Orientalism. Early in the film she peers into a Buddhist temple and cries over the phone to a friend back home that it didn’t make her “feel anything.” That moment lends a lot of credence to those who would dismiss this film out of hand for its white-centricism. 
Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) in Lost in Translation
But the true heart of Lost in Translation is the relationship between Charlotte and Bob, a sudden and profound connection between two lost souls that transcends its blurred line between friendship and romance. This connection is only credible because of these characters’ alienation in their surroundings, so the emphasis on Tokyo’s foreignness to them is important to the film. And from my limited and privileged perspective as a white American living abroad, the representation of culture shock as alternately funny, sad, and spiritually moving rings true. But Lost in Translation‘s othering of Japan too often crosses into racism and xenophobia, which makes it much less of a movie than it could be.
Bob and Charlotte say goodbye.
I would love to see a Before Sunset type follow-up to this film, to revisit Charlotte and Bob and see what might come of a second meeting between their characters, but also to give us a new take on the experience of being in an unfamiliar location. A more nuanced take reflecting the advancing maturity of the characters and of Sofia Coppola, crafting a better film that’s not only enjoyable with privileged blinders on.

Robin Hitchcock is an American writer living in Cape Town who usually wears pants when she stares out her window to gaze wistfully upon the city. 

  • all I recall of that film is cringeworthy ball-to-the-wall racism, that and a heartfelt, “ScarJo how could you???”

  • Oh no, is it terrible that I absolutely love this film??? Great article, Robin!

  • Right on, Robin! I remember having such a hard time explaining the racism of this to my friends when it came out. People don’t enjoy being told something they love is racist, but awareness and recognition of a piece of art’s faults is crucial to the ability to critically examine it. You definitely touched on this, but my key complaint was in the inherent racism of using a country full of people as the backdrop for the existential crises of its two main characters. This reminds me of Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now in that the place itself becomes a symbol, which is the height of racism, ethnocentrism, and hubris.

  • Lost in Translation is something that I love that is racist. I’m still working on how to manage that as a would-be warrior for social justice.

  • As I said to Amanda, I love this film too. I wish I could love it without the gigantic BUT of its racism.


  • I feel the same way about Buffy the Vampire Slayer! I love the show, but it’s racist and generally advances a white, upper crusty, privileged feminism. I try to applaud it for what it does right and not let it off the hook when it fails. Looks like you’ve managed to do that here nicely!

  • I’d always wondered why that film left me feeling uncomfortable (minus Murray’s performance). Thank you for making me realize what the problem was.

  • its true, she was a youngster. and we all make mistakes. :)

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