"Lip my stockings!" - Is pop-culti riducule of Japan "OK"?

If you’ve seen “Lost in Tranlsation” (a fantastic flick, I must say), you’ll probably know the third “star” of the movie is none other than Japan itself, in all its inscrutable weirdness. Japan is invariably portrayed as a kind of mildly threatening pastiche of Western pop-culture detritus, somehow regurgitated from some giant sumo media mixmaster to yield a garish, ridiculous, oddly addictive, and thoroughly foreign post-modern hellscape.

Then there’s Comedy Central’s “Banzai”, where the absurd overdubs are hardly needed, as the selection of video snippets culled from Japanese TV are presented for maximum giggle-inducement. Internet 'bloggers have jumped on the loving ridicule of Japanes pop-culture long ago (e.g. I Like Bukkake).

I have to wonder what the average Japanese citizen would think of the critical acclaim for “Lost in Translation”. What do you think? Is this all harmless social commentary, or is Japan still a convenient foil, a butt of jokes for Westerners to snicker at?

I don’t know about the “average Japanese citizen”, but Jeffrey Wells reports:

I think in the specific case of Lost in Translation, it’s not really harmful mockery–or even mockery at all. It’s fish-out-of-water humor. The Japanese are portrayed as fitting in and understanding their culture perfectly. They’re getting along fine, and in most cases having a pretty good time. They go out of their way to be polite to the Americans. And during the “night on the town” sequence, they are portrayed as cooler than their American counterparts. Compare the treatment of the Japanese DJs and artists to the way the American actress and white boy rapper. The Japanese come off much better. I really didn’t read it as “Look at the silly foreigners.”

Now Banzai is another matter. It’s humor is 100% ethnic stereotypes. But I kinda like the show because that’s what I think reality television should be about. “What would happen if a group of midgets had a tug of war with an elephant?” That’s entertainment. Of course, I don’t find it entertaining enough to actually tune in with any frequency…

The absolutely weirdest portrayal of a Japanese person in the movie is the wacky talk show host. And that part is real. It’s a real show and that’s what he does.

Sofia has spent a lot of time in Japan. She has witnessed first hand the seemingly odd aspects of Japanese culture that only a visitor would notice. So she put what she saw into the movie. People raised in that culture will of course not see it that way. I.e., they don’t see what a visitor sees.

While the Japanese Dept. of Tourism probably would have preferred the movie to consists 100% of shots of people eating nice home cooked meals, tucking the kids into bed, etc., that’s not the topic of the movie.

It’s like insisting that “The Godfather” only show non-criminal Italian-Americans. The subject is the subject. Want a different subject? Make your own movie.

And the part that’s Really Stupid about all this: The Americans are portrayed in negative ways some or all the time. You have the air-head actress. The washed up lounge singer who sleeps around. Etc. Nobody gets off lightly.

I cannot believe that someone complains about the portrayal of the prostitute but not the portrayal of the actress. That’s pretty weird blinders to have on to see things in such a lopsided way.

I used to work with a bunch of Japanese people over here on Intern visas. Sometimes I thought some of them had slipped back into Japanese in the middle of their English sentences. Saying that people with different accents are hard to understand isn’t putting people down necessarily.

Can you imagine Americans complaining about a Japanese movie that showed Japanese people in America with the Americans being overly familiar, and trying out bad Japanese that’s not really understandable, or yelling English when it’s not understood the first time?

Well, it seems the general Japanese public is quite favorable towards the movie.

Even if you cannot read Japanese, you can check out this page:


There you can see that the average rating for people visiting the Yahoo site is 3.5 out of 5. (There’s about 200 reviews there.)

Further, upon glancing through some of the negative reviews (i.e. 1s and 2s) it seems that the opinions of these moviegoers reflect the Western moviegoers who also didn’t like the movie; i.e. they felt it was too slow-paced, did not contain any real “story”, didn’t “get it” etc.

Although I found a few people who said it ridiculed Japaneseworse than the movie Pearl Harbor.

Of course it’s OK to ridicule Japan.

I have to say, Loopydude, the movie contains absolutely zero social commentary. The humor isn’t a commentary about Japanese society, it’s that Bob and Charlotte have no understanding of the things going on around them. If some Japanese people are too sensitive about it, that’s their problem - it’s not the focus of the movie. The scene in the title of this thread is a good example. Bob doesn’t understand the woman’s accent (and obviously it’s racist to say that people have accents :p) but the source of humor is her weird behavior.

Lost in Translation hasn’t been playing in Japan that long, and hasn’t played at all in the fairly small city I live in, so I don’t think I know anyone here who’s seen it. But I doubt any ridicule or stereotypes of Japan it may contain is worse than the sort of ridicule and stereotypes of Japan and the Japanese I’ve often heard from ordinary Westerners, including some on this very board.

It’s apparent enough that the view many Americans have of the Japanese is that they’re a perverted, deranged bunch of nasty little dwarves who only manage to restrain their unspeakable urges by sublimating them into bizarre animated pornography, working 14 hours a day, and rigidly adhering to an incomprehensible and repressive set of customs and rituals. The Japanese are not completely unaware of this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students or friends ask me if Americans really think they’re a bunch of “yellow monkeys”. Thankfully, relatively few realize that there are Americans ready to condemn all of Japan because of some tentacle porn flick they downloaded off the Internet. However, several of the more outward-looking folks I know are painfully aware that no matter how high a level of technology, industrialization, and modernization they achieve, they’re going to be seen as barely civilized Oriental barbarians to the West, capable of nothing better than mimicry of “real” Western culture and advancements.

I don’t think mockery of the more colorful and strange aspects of Japanese pop culture (there are plenty, and some even seem weird to the Japanese) is anything to be concerned about. What troubles me is that the West in general often seems to look upon Japan with nothing more than amused contempt.

It’s symbolic. Most movies don’t try to depict a reality exactly as it is - people realize that books have a narrator (partial or impartial as they may be) but I think movies do too. There’s no explicit voiceover, or anything like that to give it away, but I still think the feel of the movie is not meant to say anything about Japan in particular but about the general feeling of being in a place you simply can’t understand.

It reflects the main characters’ own lives: Bill Murray’s character, harassed by his wife to pick carpeting while in another country, Scarlett Johanneson’s character married to someone she doesn’t even know. They’re both sort of lost moving through their lives at the beginning of the movie. And so we see the weirdest bits of Japanese society (or caricatures of them) especially when Bill Murray is onscreen, and then when he’s out with Scarlett Johanneson suddenly they seem a lot more normal and even cool. Because she’s shown him something about the country they’re in.

Besides, while just about every Japanese person I’ve met is perfectly nice, and none of them seem like raging perverts or barbaric yellow monkeys, this is a country where used underwear was briefly sold in vending machines? The point? Not that Japanese people are weird - really, they’re basically the same as everyone else deep down. But the particulars of a culture may make sense from its participants’ perspective, while seeming bizarre to outsiders. Ms. Coppola didn’t do anything to imply that the Japanese were evil or barbaric, just that their customs seem strange to Americans, just as American customs presumably seem strange to them.

I hope I didn’t come across as criticizing the film – I’ve never had the chance to see it, and what I’ve heard about doesn’t seem offensive to me. My only concern would be that it might unintentionally feed the negative, misguided ideas about Japan than many Americans already hold. (And some of those ideas do seem very, very offensive to me.) I’ve encountered people who believed they had achieved some great insight into Japanese life and culture just by watching a few of the country’s weirder cartoons, so it wouldn’t surprise me if an actual live-action movie shot in Japan were taken by some as a documentary account of modern Japanese life.

But if that does happen, I wouldn’t blame Coppola. She obviously didn’t intend for Lost in Translation to be an inside look at Japan or anything like that. Unless the film contains something much more insulting than what I’ve heard about, I’d consider Coppola at worst guilty of potentially overestimating the public’s ability to distinguish between “a fish-out-of-water movie about Americans confused by a foreign culture” and “a movie about how freakish a foreign cultures is.” If people come away from the film thinking it’s given them more evidence that the Japanese are horrible, weird, and crazy, then it’s because they were already prejudiced. It just worries me that there appear to be so many people that would be already prejudiced.

In the movie’s defense…

Most American men, catting around Tokyo and acting single again, will gravitate towards Japanese women, not fellow American expats. The “Lip my stockings” scene was intended to show why Murray’s character was drawn to Scarlett Johanson instead. If he’d been as attracted to Japanese women as, say, I am, there would have been no story between those two characters.

I fell in love with Japan after seeing the movie and moved it up my list over countries I must visit. I think it was a perfect portrayal of Stranger in a Strange land.

One thing I wonder though, even if it’s a GQ, I hope someone can answer it here. What’s up with Japanese confusing L and R? ‘Flied Lice’ and ‘Lip my stockings’ seems weird, considering Japanese have the R sound.

It’s a matter of the distinct sounds in a language. In English, the difference between L and R is important, while in Japanese, it’s not important, since they really don’t have the L sound. If they don’t have a sound, then they use the closest sount in their language, e.g. “Love” becomes “Rabu” in Japanese – there a popular anime/manga series called “Love Hina” in English, and “Rabu Hina” in Japanese.

Key thing to watch in That Scene: Even after Murray figures out she’s saying “rip my stockings”, mutual understanding does not follow. There’s a whole universe of weirdness that results. She doesn’t understand why he isn’t interested, he doesn’t understand why she thinks he would be. It’s mutual and goes way beyond misunderstanding a single phrase.

It takes two to culture clash.

(And, for the 4,723rd time, that’s not what the movie is about.)

No, they don’t. They have a sound somewhere between L and R (which most Japanese would identify as an ‘L sound’ if pressed, btw).

This is not quite correct. Japanese doesn’t really have an “L” or an “R” sound, at least not like in English. The Japanese sound transcribed as “R” is actually somewhere between the English “L” and “R” sounds (although it does seem closer to “R” to me). Unless exposed to English from a young age, most native Japanese speakers can’t distinguish between the English “L” and “R”. They don’t develop the “wiring” needed to hear the difference, just as native English speakers cannot perceive the difference between certain sounds in other languages. There is also no way to write the sounds differently in either of the Japanese phonetic systems. The family names of Grace Kelly and John Kerry (or even Mariah Carey) are written exactly the same way.

Many Japanese learn to pronounce the English “L” and “R” sounds by practicing the proper tongue/mouth positions. If they can’t hear the difference themselves, it’s anyone’s guess which sound they’ll actually make when trying to pronounce an English word containing “L” or “R”…especially if they can’t see it written down in Roman letters. It could go either way. Or they could just go with the Japanese “R”-like sound. All Japanese speakers of English are aware of this problem, and some make things even worse for themselves by overcorrecting.

A similar pronunciation problem that never seems to make it into comedy is “B” and “V”. Japanese folk often watch things on the “TeleBee” and buy drinks from “bending machines”. Just today my office manager said that someone from the head office looked like a “bampire”. Or maybe it was “bampile”. I knew what she meant, though.

She meant he looked like he wanted to dlink brud.

(I know, I know, but if I didn’t say it myself, someone else would have!)

That was a great post (although perhaps a bit stronger than I would have put it).

I myself loved “LIT”, and consider it among the top 5 flicks I’ve seen in at least a decade, so I find it difficult to find fault with it on any level. And, truth be told, I’ve had my share of Japanese weirdness, though I’ve never been over there.

Before grad. school, I worked as a tech in a lab that was funded largely by a Japanese cosmetics/pharmaceutical company. As part of the deal, many of their people came stateside to get their feet wet in the basic research arena. Hence, I worked with lots of Japanese PhDs. As nearly the rest of the lab was Italian or British, that left me the sole American, so every working day was like being in another country, practically.

I noted right away that the caucasians hung out with the caucasians, and the Japanese with the Japanese. The Chinese hung with the Chinese. It was odd how this lunchtime self-segregation just seemed part of the social order. Brits, Italians, American over here, Japanese over there, and Chinese way over there.

Anyway, due to the nature of my project, I worked often closely with this guy Toshiyuki. I was in an interesting position because, despite being only a tech, I reported directly to the P.I., and had my own project. For whatever reason, Toshi seemed to think this was a big deal. So did all the other Japanese docs, but I had less to do with them, so the effect of this perception was more profound in my dealings with Toshi. I’d be sitting there, working away, and I’d get that feeling I was being watched. I’d turn around, and there would be Toshi, standing there for heaven knows how long just waiting for me to notice his presence, with a look on his face that I could only describe as of someone trying to pretend they are not having a limb amputated.

“Uh, hey, Toshi.”
“Eh, Loopy, may I ask you question.”
“Of course.”
“Thank you. Thank you. May I ask…um, is difficult in English…”
“No problem, I’m good at sign language!”
Blank stare from Toshi.
“Uh, that’s just a joke…um, so what’s up?”
“I…would you?” gestures towards door to microscope room.
“You want me to go to the microscope room with you?”
“Yes! Yes! Thank you! If it’s not trouble! I wait…”
“No, of course it’s not trouble. No problem!”
“Oh, thank you! Thank you!”
We stand there for a moment. Toshi seems to be waiting for something.
“So, uh, do you want to go to the microscope room?”
“Mmmm, yes, yes, we go…” he gestures to me to move in that direction. He won’t lead me to the room; he’s waiting for me to go on my own initiative.
“OK, well, let’s see what you got.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you, is Olympus inverted microscope!”
Another brief pause.
“OK. You want me to go to the Olympus?”
“If it’s not trouble! Yes! Thank you!”
“OK, Olympus it is.”

Now, if one of the Italians in the lab had wanted me to check something out, the exchange would have gone something like this:

“Come here to the scope, this is crazy this result!”
“Be right there!”

So, you’re talking about ten seconds to fulful a request vs., oh, maybe five minutes, minimum. And every time Toshi needed to ask me something, it was the same thing. It started to drive me nuts. After a while I wanted to grab the guy by the lapels and say “Toshi, I’m a nobody, OK? You can ask me stuff. I’m serious, ask me anything! Just slap me on the shoulder, call me a dirty S.O.B., and ask the question! Please? I’m begging you man, I can’t take this extreme politesse any longer!” The P.I., who was Italian, and really was a dirty S.O.B., seemed to regard working with the Japanes post-docs as a necessary evil to obtain all that good Japanese funding. You could tell they made his temples throb, and I think part of the way he dealt with it was to engage in sly games of irony and sarcasm, things that rocketed over the Japanese docs’ heads completely, but the Italians thought was hilarious. Frankly, it became a painful place to work after a while, what with the Japanese obsequiousness and formality, coupled with the Italian frustration and calculated cruelty. I only lasted a year. And it was all I could do not to fall in to negatively stereotyping the whole lot of them.

As for Lost in Translation, I bought it completely. Nothing about it seemed untrue. If Japan was bizarre, it was bizarre, end of story. But then there’s that little voice that says “now, Loopy, is the director trying to use the ‘otherness’ of the Japanese in a pejorative manner to facilitate development of rapport between protagonists, to accentuate their lonliness, which is what draws them together.”

My impression is, yes, that’s exactly what the director is doing. Some above call it symbolism, but I’m not so sure it’s some kind of symbolic caricature she’s going after. I think it’s just the genuine perception: Japan is a whacked-out land, filled with all manner of oddity, and if you’re lonely and troubled, it’s an especially depressing place to be. Perhaps there’s a bit of tragedy to be found as subtext, the fact that the protagonists never find understanding in their surroundings (and hence must find each other), maybe as I never really got into the heads of the people I worked with at that lab. But I’m not so sure. That ride Bill Murray takes to the airport feels like a bittersweet escape, a traverse from one kind of hell to another. But Tokyo is redeemed, not by itself, but by Scarlet, his only love in the place. Murray’s character will look back on Tokyo with yearning, because it drew him to her. If they’d been in New York, they’d never have met. In Tokyo, with Japan as the foil, they found a refuge in each other.

IANAJapanese speaker, but I was taught by my Japanese-American father, who grew up bilingual, that the language has a rolled “r” sound very similar to the soft, rolled “r” in Spanish. The number six, “roku,” has that. The pronounciation isn’t “roh-ku” but more like “rdyoh-ku”. Or “doh-koo” (as a Japanese language book suggests).

He also taught me the all-purpose insult word “bakatare” (idiot, fool) as “bah-kah-tah-dee”. Simple “soft d” sound for the “r,” no rolling.
But I never really learned the rolled “r” in my years of Spanish classes, without having to think too much about it – and I was always prone to flubbing it. (Go figure.) :rolleyes:

As long as it means we keep getting new episodes of MXC, yes, it’s perfectly ok.