Not Racist, Just Lonely: The Rampant Use of Orientalism in ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003) 

Sofia Coppola’s Academy Award-winning film Lost in Translation (2003) delineates the feelings of loneliness and disconnection of being marooned in a sea of foreignness that induces our desires to encounter a human connection imbued with familiarity and comfort. Coppola cinematically depicts this through the movie’s two white American protagonists, Bob (Bill Murray) — a famous movie star shooting a Japanese whiskey commercial – and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) — a recent graduate who follows her photographer husband to Tokyo. When they fatefully encounter each other, they become each other’s source of comfort and solace, amidst a time and place of ambiguity and disconnect for both characters.

A still of Bill Murray as Bob and Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte in 'Lost in Translation'. They stand in profile view, facing one another.
Image courtesy of Focus Features

While the two protagonists’ individual unhappy marriages contribute to their feelings of disconnect in the movie, the bustling settings of Shinjuku and Shibuya are similarly and unfortunately to blame as Coppola uses stigmatized images of Japan that reduce it to an element of foreignness, commonly known as an instance of Orientalism. Orientalism is a concept where, in comparison to sophisticated, superior, and familiar Western, white societies, non-Western societies are depicted as undeveloped, inferior, and foreign. Further, Orientalism perpetuates wrongfully established stereotypes of non-Western countries and societies, negatively reduced to spectacles of oddity, exoticism, and magic rather than a society of their own. In Lost in Translation, Orientalism is heavily used to contrast the civilized and individualistic white man and the exotic and homogenous Asians to describe the white man’s loneliness, at the expense of Japanese bodies and culture becoming pathologized, ridiculed, and exoticized. Hence, despite its attempt on depicting a heartfelt instance of genuine human connection, Lost in Translation remains a film that is fundamentally and problematically built upon Orientalism.

The contrast between the foreign, homogenous Asians and the modern white man is most evident in Lost in Translation through its depiction of Asian men as odd and feminine. When Bob arrives at the Park Hyatt at Shinjuku, he takes the elevator with a crowd of Japanese men, who are all uncannily — and uncoincidentally — short, while Bob is the only tall individual. The visible height difference between the white man and the crowd of Japanese men creates a seemingly comedic moment, as Bob stands abnormally tall amongst the short Japanese men in the elevator. Taking the movie’s theme of feeling disconnected into consideration, it’s difficult to ignore how said contrast between the homogenous, short Japanese bodies and the tall, white individual operates in the realms of Orientalism. The short Japanese men are reduced to spectacles of oddness that symbolize the tall, white man’s unfamiliarity and discomfort in a supposedly extremely foreign country like Japan.

A still of Bill Murray as Bob in 'Lost in Translation'. He stands in an elevator surrounded by Asian men, towering over them.
Image courtesy of Focus Features

Through the image of the odd Japanese man, Japanese culture itself is additionally ridiculed and framed as a source of absurdity to enhance the feeling of foreignness necessary to establish the theme of disconnect in Lost in Translation. This is depicted during Charlotte’s journey to go to a Japanese shrine for the day — when she gets on a train from Omote-sando Station, she encounters a man reading Ghost in the Shell, a post-cyberpunk manga written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow that was a huge success in Japan during the ’90s, and continues to be a symbol of the post-cyberpunk genre in media. The screen shows a page from the manga, which coincidentally happens to feature a rather large panel of a naked woman, as Charlotte looks at the man in utter confusion. Here, the camera pans from Charlotte eyeing the man down to the manga panel, indicating that the movie’s intention is showing what Charlotte finds so unbelievable, and for the audience to sympathize with her shocking experience as the protagonist. The shot is framed so Charlotte is in focus with the Japanese man blurred in the corner, as the camera focuses on the explicit manga rather than the individual himself. Here, manga reading, one of the biggest cultural activities of Japan, is reduced to a shocking activity by Coppola not only specifically choosing to show a panel of a naked woman, but also choosing a particular camerawork that reduces the Japanese man into an odd individual from Charlotte’s perspective.

Another example of this instance is when Bob is invited by Matthew Minami, who is described as “the Johnny Carson of Japan,” to participate in his TV show, and is almost emasculated by engaging in an activity continuously coded as peculiar throughout the movie. When both Charlotte and Bob attempt to watch the TV at their hotel to assuage their loneliness, they continuously encounter Japanese TV programs that attempt to explicate the supposed absurdity of Japanese media. For instance, in one show, a Japanese man engages in what looks like a session of acrobatic dance with a group of young girls behind him following his moves, wearing costumes. In another show, a Japanese woman futilely tries to eat a few strands of noodles that a man sitting behind her is holding with a pair of chopsticks. Here, said Japanese programs are stripped out of their context, similar to the instance of Charlotte seeing the man reading the manga on the train, reduced to media embodying absurdity and worthy of ridicule.

Thus, when Bob is invited to Minami’s show, it only reinforces the established image of an absurd Japanese TV through Matthew tugging Bob to come closer to the camera while smiling. Bob, clearly annoyed by the situation, sarcastically imitates Matthew and immediately makes a face that indicates his irritation. The show progresses, as Matthew makes a heart with his hands and exclaims, “Matthew Smellick!” before the show transitions to a new activity. Bob follows Minami as well, but proceeds to say “Matthew Snellick!” in a high-pitched voice, ridiculing not only Minami’s seemingly feminine voice but also his pronunciation. This frames the Japanese TV show as strange and ridiculous, and its host as the stereotypical image of a feminine Asian man — the polar opposite of Bob.

Ultimately, in Lost in Translation, it is through the act of reinforcing the stigmatized image of an Asian man, rather than the act of challenging it, that the main theme of the film is established. Here, Coppola takes no consideration of how historically, the image of the emasculated Asian man was socially constructed due to a racist perception of Asians by white Americans upon their migration. Being labeled as yellow, and unable to blend into the white majority, Asian immigrants were ostracized for having different facial and physical features compared to their white male counterparts. Said societal ostracization led to Asian immigrants having to work in undervalued occupations traditionally considered as feminine, such as laundrymen, to financially sustain themselves. As a larger population of Asian men were found in said occupations, white men were able to utilize their white privilege to pursue more respectable and traditionally masculine jobs, and the image of an Asian man slowly solidified into embodying femininity and emasculated in contrast to the masculine white man. Hence, the seemingly feminine Asian men Lost in Translation uses to depict loneliness are stripped out of its racist history, reduced to intrinsic spectacles of humor that highlight the supposedly normal white man in contrast. 

Worse, said image of the emasculated Asian man is a recurring figure when depicting Japanese culture in Lost in Translation. By making the cinematic decision of Japanese men as active agents of cultural activities such as manga reading and Japanese TV shows, they are unfortunately reduced to being labeled as foreign and strange. Thus, from the opening shots in the movie of Bob in a car, looking at the busy and flashy streets of Shibuya, to the many instances of abusing the stereotype of short Asian men and the nonchalant depictions of Japanese culture as foreign, Orientalism is a key ingredient in Lost in Translation’s delineation of loneliness at the expense of reducing Japanese places and people into spectacles embodying exoticism and oddness. With the movie so heavily relying on Orientalism for its message and its comedy, it makes it difficult to imagine Lost in Translation cinematically functioning without it. 

A still of Bill Murray as Bob in 'Lost in Translation'. He is seen from inside a car, looking out the window with the streets of Japan a blur in the exterior.
Image courtesy of Focus Features

It’s important to understand that the movie’s most insidious intention is not simply the Orientalizing image of Japan and its people, but how said framing of Japanese culture and people as oddities become an excuse for the two protagonists to be explicitly racist. Due to the movie Orientalizing Japan as foreign and exotic, and a crucial cause for Bob and Charlotte’s feeling of disconnect, Bob and Charlotte’s hostile and sarcastic reaction to the local culture and people, unfortunately, becomes rationalized while said stigmatized images of Japan remain unchallenged. It’s an ironic narrative, for the two white characters seemingly become minorities in a sea of the foreign majority — their minority labels in Lost in Translation are thus what allows them to be explicitly racist but never punished, despite white privilege and supremacy continuing to aid white people and marginalize non-White communities globally.

While Lost in Translation is sometimes revisited and analyzed as a commentary on privileged and ignorant white Americans in foreign countries 19 years after its release, with remarks that Coppola’s racist characters were not intended to be liked by their audience to begin with. However, the fact that both characters never face any consequences for their racist and belittling attitude, as well as their encounter being seen as endearing and bittersweet, is a crucial point of the movie that should not be dismissed — there is privilege in having emotional turmoil prioritized despite evidently racist actions through the pathologizing of racial minorities. It is something that must be acknowledged, especially in the realms of American cinema, where minorities are constantly wrongfully reduced to spectacles of oddity to highlight the rather normal white protagonists.