Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier

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  1. Homay King | Public Books
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They mirror the enigmatic narrative of the film noir, the limit of rational thought. Here King examines how the film sidesteps the proposition that the film might uncover an authentic essence of China. There is also a series of reflections here—the filmmaker outsider constructing an image of his cultural other that is in turn fashioned for an external other in the West. The enigmatic nature of these signifiers provides the binding notion for the book.

The actual collection of signifiers is specific to each individual and maintains significance for each subject in their unconscious throughout life. King extrapolates this out and identifies enigmatic signifiers of race and culture that function quite differently in each chapter, with each grouping of films or artwork. Yet, the concept of an enigmatic signifier provides the analysis with an important point of departure, and a rationale for the selection of films, rather than a psychoanalytic methodology per se. While King explores the manner of the enigma and its signification in regard to each film, the work of the text and the process of translation that occurs within the world of the story or the film, drives the analysis rather than the application of psychoanalytic theory.

I believe this is not a problem for the analysis of the film indeed, it produces a more compelling and relevant film studies approach , however, it does present a point of confusion around the framing of the project. King, while briefly citing Said, does not, in any significant way, define her argument explicitly in the context of orientalism.

For these reasons it is unclear why orientalism features in the title. At times the discussion seems to pull back from more rigorous and in-depth theorizations, whether that be in regard to semiotics, psychoanalysis or discourse analysis. Tokyo represents their state of disequilibrium and is used in a way to personify it into the scenic views that are present in the film and the Japanese people. It was focused on the protagonists dealing with the conflict of their external and internal factors, namely their sense of loneliness which is confounded further through the alien surroundings of Japan.


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The exposition, climax, falling action and conclusion were all relatively short. The conflicts found in the plot structure in the rising action were dependent on Tokyo. Its location is central to the structure. Tokyo is their conflict with their own worries of life and all these problems are projected onto the canvas that is Tokyo.

Orientalism in the structure through the Rising Action is always present, from start to finish. This is the most obvious orientalist aspect of this film and it is shown in the imagery and musical codes of the film.

Scenic views of Tokyo are used as transitions between shots. These scenic views of Tokyo from the window of the hotel are always accompanied by a significant change in emotion. Tokyo represents their mental stress and ceases to become a city, and instead is a symbol of their insecurity. Tokyo, and the Orient have been, as Said put it, designated their identity by the West.

It is no longer a city of millions of people who lead different lives. The musical coding enhanced this symbolism. The tone of the music was used to create an emotional response for imagery that might not be clear. The soundtracks goal was to compliment the imagery and as such, there is significant Orientalist connotations for how the music and imagery interacted towards othering the city.

Without the music, the images would lose their signifier that the characters were entering this emotional state, the same way that without scenic view of Tokyo, there would be no signifier of loneliness. Thus, imagery and music were used to convey the motif of loneliness as a means to create a sense of detachment and Orientalism. The fantasy explored in this film was one of self-discovery by the protagonists. They do not want to leave their fantasy that they found with each other in Tokyo.

The fantasy in Lost in Translation is not the typical fantasy that other films exhibit towards Asia. Lost in Translation is complex in the sense that the fantasy is never desired by the protagonists in the beginning. This explains why there is an elongated rising act. It took time for the characters to create their fantasy. When Charlotte returns home to call her friend, she states she felt nothing.

Bob and Charlotte are fighting with the images and stereotypes of Japan that is expected of them to enjoy. However, this film dominates the orient in a different, albeit, more subtle manner. It is not until Bob and Charlotte find each other, that they begin to initiate a fantasy together.

They find a kindred spirit in each other and what were once meaningless walks around Tokyo and visits to temples, soon become profound experiences. When Bob and Charlotte are kicked out of a bar with their Japanese friends, they run away from the owners. What should be a frightening, or at least, not an enjoyable experience is turned into an adventure.

They run away from the fantasy that is their Japanese friends, and instead find their own in Tokyo. Their fantasy is still an Asian one, but instead of Bob finding a Japanese woman to end his distress or Charlotte finding spirituality, both characters find each other in Tokyo. But, Tokyo is essential to their fantasy and this is where the link of orientalism is situated. Without Tokyo, the two characters would not have met each other.

Homay King | Public Books

In a state of homeostasis and in a country with English as a native language, there would be no need for them to interact. Although they created their own fantasy, it is still a fantasy based upon the premise that they are two Americans in Japan. Their Asian fantasy is being allowed to find each other in a socially accepted way. Again, Tokyo is symbolised, but for their purposes to discover themselves and each other to bring a state of normality in Tokyo.

Tokyo is an enabler for their fantasy, and their fantasy is still a very Asian one. Othering is present as a form of humour in the film and this is on par with the fact this movie is a romantic-comedy. Othering is also complex in this film because it is not as straight forward. The director gives him a long list of instructions and this is translated simply to one sentence by the interpreter.

Below is the translated version of this scene which proves that the interpreter was the joke, not the Japanese. Director in Japanese to the interpreter: The translation is very important, O. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whiskey on top of the table. With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words.

If subtitles were given, this would have made the jokes less about Japanese being illogical, and instead would have made the joke be about a bad interpreter and a doctor not realizing his patient is not understanding him. Without subtitles, the joke is the Japanese, not the humour. Japanese women are also misrepresented in the film in two ways.

They are either very traditional or hyper-sexualized. Twice in the film, there are Japanese women introduced in a hyper-sexualized way. He does not want it, but the imagery is still presented. The prostitute is both demanding of sex and repulsed by it and wants to be dominated. The second hyper-sexualized woman occurs when Charlotte and Bob are invited by their Japanese friends to a strip bar. They are instantly greeted by hyper-sexualized Japanese women. This is in stark contrast to what Charlotte sees in Kyoto. This dichotomy between traditional pure and modern hyper-sexual is a form of othering the Japanese to two images.

The traditional is more accepted than the hyper-sexualized, but neither of these images are representative of all Japan. Othering in the film was done for comedic purposes and although the protagonists turn down the hyper-sexualised Japan, they embrace the traditional pure one which is not indicative of all Japan. When presented with these two images and their symbolism of purity and hyper-sexuality, this contrasts to Charlotte and the Lady in Red. Charlotte is thoughtful, deep thinking and has problems about where she is in life.

In her own way, she is both sexualized and traditional. She is the midpoint between overly sexualized and overly purified to an extreme to create a pure subject. The Japanese counterparts are presented as pure subjects of sexuality and pureness, the Western women are complex, different and are better developed in the plot of the movie. The films focus is from the point of view of two Americans and does not commit to the idea of representing Japanese culture in a meaningful way.

However, this cannot reconcile the fact that Lost in Translation holds stereotypical and orientalist imagery and conventions throughout the course of the film.

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Symbols of domination, fantasy and othering are always present. Just like Edward W. Said, I cannot propose a constructive means to overcome Orientalism in cinema. I have simply analysed its presence and presented it as being a present element in modern cinema. Throughout Lost in Translation, I found issues regarding fantasization of the Oriental land, the dehumanization of the Japanese people and the use of Tokyo as a signifier of loneliness to confound the motif of Orientalism. However, from my analysis, I thought of a pertinent question to ask in my conclusion and it is, did Japan benefit from this film?

The answer is, it did not. However, unlike Lost in Translation, the residual effect of Roman Holiday, was increased tourism Stabiner, , October This is something Lost in Translation has failed to offer back to Tokyo. Instead, images and stereotypes of Japan have been used to create a comedic image of Japan, without a Japanese input.

In other words, this film is a form of cultural appropriation.

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Namely the Japanese culture, as it is appropriated by the dominate Western one. Their representation was twisted to create a comedic film, wherein which they are the joke. Protestors stated this was cultural appropriation that held Orientalist overtones. In some sense, they were correct. There was an element of Orientalism, but counter-protestors included Japanese-Americans who said the museum was not offending them or their culture, but instead, allowing people to come into contact with Japanese culture in a more meaning way Valk, This difference in view is what separates those who would say Lost in Translation is simply telling a story about two foreigners in Japan, while someone else would say the movie is using Japan as a playground for a Western fantasy.

In the case of Lost in Translation, the Orientalist undertones cannot be ignored and represent a sense of dominance through cultural appropriation. However, this is not to suggest any form of art with Orientalist elements should be condemned. Valk makes the point that the incorporation of new culture is an essential part of how culture change over time. Japan throughout its Meiji period had adopted Western culture and today in our globalised world, it is impossible to not have lenses that view the world with Orientalist undertones and appropriate certain aspects of culture.

It is important not to demonize the Westerner, as this can other them, just as much as Orientalism states the West others the Orient. Orientalism offers an important insight into how reality is viewed in the eyes of a Westerner. However, it is important to attach Orientalism to other concepts, but within the confines of reasonability, so that is grounded and is not a tool to demonize the West, but instead to understand the reality that is seen by the West.

Analysing film through a semiotic analysis of Orientalism yielded many interesting findings, but it did not yield a framework to overcome them. Understanding how Orientalism manifests itself in cinema is a first step, however, Orientalist themes, motifs, imagery and music need to be connected to other theoretical concepts, such as cultural appropriation, in order to give findings far more brevity. You are commenting using your WordPress. You are commenting using your Twitter account. You are commenting using your Facebook account.

Newly Available Titles (Archive: January, 2011)

Notify me of new comments via email. Notify me of new posts via email. Literature Review Perspective on Orientalism There has not yet been a systematic approach to analysing Orientalism in film. Loneliness, The Motif of the Exotic Land The motif of loneliness can be seen as the focal motivation for the presence of Orientalism. Othering and Dehumanization Identities of East and West, along with Othering have manifested themselves deeply in modern cinema today.

Othering in other words, is a denial of history and the denial identity Pickering, Issue of Analysing Orientalism Analysing Orientalism in film presents its own challenges. Answering this research question will open greater avenues of research and will aid me in answering the following research questions: Music Codes S Below are music codes which portrayed the most amount of emotional meaning for the character in regards to their surroundings and their psyche. Results and Discussion Before discussing the results, it is important to mention how the Orient was situated in the Western mind. Thus, imagery and music were used to convey the motif of loneliness as a means to create a sense of detachment and Orientalism RQ.

He wants you to turn, look in camera.

Yes, turn to camera. The othering of women Japanese women are also misrepresented in the film in two ways. Visual communication , 11 3 , Carta, S. Orientalism in the Documentary Representation of Culture. Videomaker, 30 7 , Journal Of Screenwriting, 1 1 , Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier. Journal Of American Culture, 35 2 , British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 20 2 , The enigmatic signifier and the decentred subject. Looking for the other: Feminism, film, and the imperial gaze. Howard Journal Of Communications, 16 2 , Globalization and a way of being.

International Journal Of Intercultural Relations, 32 4 , Film Quarterly, 59 1 , Orientalism, cinema, and the enigmatic signifier. Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity. Audiovisual Styling and the Film Experience: A semiotics of the cinema. University of Chicago Press.