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Lost in Modernity: Ozu Tokyo & Others

Lost In Translation 

Dir: Sofia Coppola

Review by B  O'Connell

It is a mid-Summer night around 11:30pm; the lights that still burn in the office towers down town, have replaced the stars in the night sky. A full moon makes a half hearted attempt to distract us from the twilight luminosity of the twenty-four hour city. Looking down from one of the towers, we watch as the pulse picks up with the dawn. Workers and crossing commuters accelerate along the early morning streets and avenues performing military tattoos with the traffic. Just visible in the middle distance on one of the avenues are the large letters of a neon sign, ‘NY’ making its first brief appearance in this strange and intense study of modern life. After joining the flow below we watch the pace quicken times 2, times 4, then times 6 as we course through the veins of the metropolis.

The second time the sign appears it does so as a sentinel keeping vigil over the torrent beneath. Unlike much of the film the letters this time do not refer to New York but to the last two letters of SONY the Japanese electronics conglomerate. 

The   influence of Toni Reggio’s 1983 film Koyannisqatsi on our filmic sense of modern life, was immense, no advertisement or documentary would be thought complete without a sequence showing a hyper stream of traffic animated by a kinetic Philip Glass like score.  America and Manhattan had reached new heights of cultural and political dominance in the 1980s and Reggio’s film was one of the most cited references of that dominance. But inside this moment of triumph the film also registered a deep sense of unease and foreboding. In addition to the final sequence which looked forward to the Challenger disaster, the film also switched between the alienation and elation that the modern city produces.  Watching the film and listening to unrelenting score we don’t get to hear from the production line workers or the hospital porters or from the masses that throng the sidewalks, but we are given a sense that life, as the title implies, is ‘out of balance’. 

Twenty years on Lost in Translation (dir. Sofia Coppolla) gives us an insightful update, the long wait of SONY’s sentinel is at an end and the troubled souls of the modern city have transmigrated to Tokyo. This time there is very little in the way of wonder and excitement to experience. 

From her hotel room high over the capital, Scarlett Johansson looks down at the new 21st Century cityscape, Tokyo appears in the dawn light but the mood is distinctly corpuscular. On another floor in the same hotel sits Bill Murray killing time watching himself in a rerun between studio calls. 

Murray, playing a slightly exaggeration version of himself, as a successful actor who has developed an in-built cynicism to the trade he plies. Looking across the hotel bar he spies Johansson and senses her to be a kindred spirit. She feels similarly stranded, having decided to accompany her photographer husband on a promotion shoot, only this time it is for an anonymous band rather than Murray’s allotted mission to give an insipid whisky a new eponymous identity. 

We don’t need, and the film does not insist on, the connection between the droll countenance of Murray’s character and his off screen life. But the film’s attraction hinges on the suggestion that Johansson’s character is also the director Sofia Coppolas’ alter ego. What then attracted her to this story of late capitalist ennui that would not look out of place at the end of a distinguished European director’s career? 

One answer is that faced with the intensity and difference of Japanese and Tokyo society Americans cannot but feel alienated as the future that it embodies is no longer their own. Another is the effect of the realisation that this future actually turns out to be another reissued and reanimated past. Is there anything else but dread to feel faced with the prospect of enduring old dubbed TV shows, electric arcade punks and karaoke Johnny Rottens for your distraction? After watching the films anti-heroes experience their selected dislocations, what else is there to do other than acknowledge the accuracy of the depicted consequences?

In one of the most poignant scenes Scarlett Johansson’s character looks on as a young Japanese couple take part in a traditional marriage ceremony, her gaze –which she manages to project for much of the film – says very loudly, ‘if only they knew what I know, that this ritual does not guarantee you happiness’, not a controversial observation until you consider that Johanssen’s character is not yet 30 years old.

For a sense of loss in modern life may be the films theme, but is it not a privileged one, As early as Ozu’s Tokyo Story, one of the first films featuring the city following its post war rebuilding, the rise of new glass and concrete of the 1950s was for many, an intrusion into private grief. The extent of that grief can be gauged by visiting Tokyo Tower. Built in early 1950s, it is the cities equivalent of Sacré Coeur, the Eiffel Tower and London’s Alexander Palace (the first British Television centre) rolled into one. It is also a memorial.  Taking in each panoramic view of the city from the high deck, another photographic panorama has been placed just above the viewing windows. It is of the city shortly after the American fire bombing. A lot has been written about the effect of the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki very little has been written in the West about the total destruction of Tokyo, a city that once had more wooden buildings than any other in the world.

 The presentation of the Japanese in the film as people incapable of sharing the two leads sense of alienation or absurdity of modern life is an important oversight, which was not a common feature of the reviews the film received, but it should have been at least noted. Where the two Americans develop a sense of comic recognition that adds to their sense of pathos, the Japanese are unaware of just how unintentionally comic and absurd they are. Whether it is Murray’s bemusement at his off the wall chat show host or Johansson observing the arcade punks, it is the unknowingness of the locals which triggers the two leads knowing world weariness. 

But the loss is not of the ability of the two Americans to communicate with the Japanese but with a sense of loss due to their difficulty in communicating with themselves. The dislocation is not caused by Tokyo but by the inability of Americans to feel that they are part of the world at all.  Following the attacks on New York and Washington and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq they are common enough emotions, ones which many Japanese now share with the majority of Americans.  Had the director thought more deeply about the context for her subject, she may have faced the uncomfortable truth that the Japanese who she met tended to see her as the daughter of a famous director and not as someone who, like the increasing number of her fellow citizens, is experiencing a very real sense of grief and estrangement. 



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