I had the opportunity to be invited to a dinner with Steven Spielberg last night. We talked about Memoirs of a Geisha which Steven's studio, Dreamworks, will be producing. I imagined the difficulty of getting it right. It appeared that Steven and his team are going to work hard on this. The book has been criticized by some in Japan as either revealing too much, or emphasizing one aspect that doesn't reflect the geisha today. Other people love the book. I think they have a challenge and am eagerly looking forward to how it comes out.

My sister is teaching a class on how cultures are portrayed in movies and we talked yesterday about how many American movies are about Americans going to foreign cultures and "conquering" them. Even Kill Bill, which was one of my favorite movies this year, might have been more fun if it focused on the American obsession with oriental things, rather than setting it in Japan where the American triumph over the Japanese ended up being more highlighted. I'm generally a sucker for a good laugh so I loved Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, but my sister asks in the comments of our Chanpon blog

I found myself wondering what the film would have been like given a Japanese-American protagonist? Or what if they were not pampered ruling class hipster Americans staying at the most expensive hotel in Tokyo, but visitors of the more pedestrian tourist type? I also find myself thinking of visitors like Justin who resolutely refuse to take difference for granted and wander reckelessly through the most unpaved backstreets of Tokyo, confronting surprised Japanese in charmingly broken Japanese. What would a view of this kind of "othered" Tokyo subjectivity look like?
In Davos, I heard that soldiers going to Iraq watched The Battle of Algiers, which is a movie about how the French foreign legion tortures and mistreats the population, eventually turning their allies into enemies. My discussion with Shekhar Kapur about his decision to direct Long Walk to Freedom was also extremely thought provoking. I also remembered today, the opening of "Pearl Harbor" in Tokyo Dome. I got a weird chill when the over 30,000 Japanese in the audience cheered during the scene at the end where they bomb Tokyo.

Cultural understanding is one of the biggest problems facing us today and movies have a huge impact on how we understand culture. Movie makers, more than ever, have an opportunity and responsibility to help us understand each other.

13 Comments

From a previous post by Joi "It is very difficult to get the cultural passions right in a movie. Usually the culture is the backdrop of a story or the story is about how American culture triumph over other cultures." This seems like a good lead-in to a question that I've been wanting to ask you. Did you see "The Last Samurai"? If so, how did you feel about it?

Personally, I'd love to watch an American film where the Arab/Middle-Eastern guy isn't a terrorist or some Muslim fundementalist.

Don't worry, I won't hold my breath.

Also I'd love it if more people understood that Iranians are not Arabs. I used to make a big point about this but now I feel that it would be perceived as distancing myself from them so as to allow the negative stereotypes about Arabs more oxygen.

I wonder what the impact of negative cultural stereotypes are on the young people of the culture being portrayed in that light. Does being portrayed as a villainous culture in the media you consume make you more likely to behave in an antisocial way? Or do you get Michael Jackson syndrome and start hating the colour of your own skin?

Well, let's see... it took over 50 years for Germans to stop being the perennial ueber-bad guys in Hollywood action flicks... I can breathe again!

Stereotypes and clichés are the easy way to cash a buck since they play to basic urges in a society and do so on a widespread audience... i.e. Hold up an icon everyone recognises. Do with it what you think everyone wants to see done to it. Charge for the viewing.

I have to say, I love Bill Murray, but I think "lost in translation" is one of the most overhyped movies ever. Is it cute? Sometimes. Is it groundbreaking filmmaking? not even close. I agree that it would be far more interesting to see someone (a movie character) like Justin engage tokyo. since sofia's has been to tokyo a billion times, I was kinda of disappointed with her portrayal of the place. also, I agree with Joi's take on Kill Bill 100%.

Stereotypes exist in film, books, etc for the same reason they exist in life - it's much easier to believe the received wisdom than to think things through yourself, make your own judgements, treat people as individuals rather than categories and checklists. Even those of relatively good heart can stereotype out of laziness.

I think saying Kill Bill is "set in Japan" is a too strong. It's equally set in Texas. To be honest, I never once thought about the fight in terms of America triumphing over Japan until you mentioned it. I think the film defies abstractions like that, because the motivations and the actions are so deeply personal for the characters. It's more like The Bride is a force of nature and wherever her enemies happen to be, that is where the storm hits. I don't think it's about white people vanquishing black people, even though she kills a black woman.

I don't understand Joi's statement about how it should have been about America's obsession with things Japanese. How could it have been more so? I thought it was awfully obsessive, with the reiteration of the history of styles of samurai movies during the long club fight scene and things like that.

Y'all, rather than second guessing what the protagonist should have been in these movies - write a script, grab a DV camera, convince some actors to be in it and film it! There were movies in the recent Sundance festival made for less than US$1000. The barrier to entry lowers every day. Film your response to it. Many illustrious careers have begun with the statement "I could do better than that..."

To Dave,
regarding your make your own film comment...goodie, a chance to promote my work! I have done just what you suggested. I directed a small feature in tokyo about a year ago and we're in final editing stages here in new york. the film is called "Hikikomori". the title is based loosely on the japanese social phenomenon regarding "social hermits" who never leave their rooms and subsequently become rather odd characters. the film's cast is all japanese, and the dialogue is all in japanese. ironically, we'll be showing it here in new york first as a foreign film. we're looking for sponsors to bring us back to tokyo for a special screening/premiere. anybody interested can reach me by visiting: www.hikikomorimovie.com

Seeing "Lost in Translation" remembered me "Tokyo Eyes" for a couple of reasons. Both involve foreign directors and writers, are located in Tokyo, and eventually are not interested in an in-depth vision of Tokyo or even Japanese culture. Because of this fascination toward Asia, I guess many people are disappointed by this absence of consideration. I've read comments saying you cannot understand the movie if you don't know Tokyo or if you're ignorant of the Japanese culture. Well, I'm not comfortable with this idea... replace Tokyo with Seoul, Copenhagen, Madrid, Casablanca, every single city where there can be a language barrier, a different culture, and where there is some activity justifying a one week trip for business. I don't deny Tokyo is indeed special, at least in S. Coppola heart. But it's just a placeholder for simple peoples lost in translation, and the most interesting codes to translate are not inevitably those of this placeholder.

So what about claims (like those made in The Guardian) that "Lost in Translation" is racist in its depiction of the Japanese?

Although there are certainly problems with cultural representation in the film, I wouldn't call it racist. Perhaps "culturalist" might be a better word for it. but I don't think that's a characteristic of the film, but rather of the characters--when confronted with a foreign venue they retreat into a mixture of exoticising the foreign other and mocking their not-quite-American-ness. It's a sympathetic portrayal of a pair of confused individuals.

Unfortunately, it's behind NYTimes' micropay gatekeeper now, but there was a related article a few weeks back, about Hollywood's portrayal of Japan in "Kill Bill," "Lost in Translation," and "The Last Samurai." excerpt:

It's not just the setting that unites these movies. They are the objects of heated debate, particularly among Asian-Americans and Japanese, about whether Hollywood’s current depictions of Japan are racist, naive, well-intentioned, accurate -- or all of the above.
It referenced a lot of opinions from bloggers around the world, which was interesting.

Hollywood’s Land of the Rising Cliché, by Motoko Rich.

I remember that article, they actually quoted one of my posts on Jen Chung's Gothamist. Here's a link to the full story that works (at least for now).

"Land of the Rising Cliche"
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/04/movies/04RICH.html?ei=5007&en=7dda2260ac28f783&ex=1388552400&partner=USERLAND&pagewanted=all&position=

Has anyone seen this film, 'The Battle of Algiers'? It's a behind-the-scenes look at terrorism. Well worth tracking down and watching.

I don't think Kill Bill represented American triumph over Japan. I think Tarantino clearly is far too infatuated with Japanese culture (or at least the American interpretation of Japanese pop culture) to have wanted to make some taunting boast-on-celluloid.

And Seyed, movies off the top of my head include Lawrence of Arabia and the 13th Warrior.

It is my experience that the 'chill' Joi felt when watching a Holywood-popularised version of the events of WWII, in Pearl Harbour, is a common one for any culturally-aware person not of American nationality watching Hollywood blockbusters.

It is probably right to have a laugh at the stereotypes engendered in blockbuster movies, but I can't help thinking there is a serious side to this as well.

Hollywood, along with its partner industry of 'fast food', are at the epicentre of what is perceived by many as cultural imperialism. There are many books that describe this phenomenon. In the 5th chapter of "Why do people hate America?" by Sarder and Wyn Davies, they discuss 'American stories and telling stories to America': "America has not only told the stories that form its own mythic vision, but also exported them to the rest of the world through its dominance of global popular culture and entertainment. The whole world is familiar with the idea of America and the American idea of self."

From the same chapter:

"The Master Narrative of the US has not (cannot be) changed. It has been broadened. It has been broadcast. This narrative is only superficially concerned with 'taming the wilderness' and 'crossing new frontiers'. The US has developed a concept and reality of the state, I might say 'statism', because US culture is so completely ideological... The Master Narrative of the US proclaims that there were no 'Indians' in the country, simply wilderness. Then, that the 'Indians' all died, unfortunately. Then that the Indians today are a) basically happy with the situation and b) not real 'Indians'. Then, most importantly, that this is the complete story. (Citation of Jimmie Durham )

The West, as much as America, has built itself as a construct of knowledge. Science and knowledge founded on reason are its special possession, and therefore it studies and knows other people better that they can know themselves. ...What Durham says of Native Americans could be said of Muslims, Indians of the subcontinent or innumerable other peoples: 'The world knows very well who we are, how we look, what we do and what we say - from the narrative of the oppressor. The knowledge is false, but it is known'."

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