Lost in Translation, Millennium Actress

So I saw Lost in Translation this weekend and, like the critics are saying, I enjoyed its witty charms and mature sensibilities regarding its unusual relationship between a middle-aged actor (Bill Murray) and a photographer’s disillusioned young wife (Scarlett Johansson) after they meet while dejectedly passing through Tokyo. I found Murray’s stoic sarcasm endearing and Johansson’s adorable frumpiness fetching, and Sofia Coppola‘s observant writing and direction was intensified by her exceptional aesthetic bond with Johansson’s every move.

However, throughout the film I had an uneasy feeling that arose every time the characters looked wistfully out of their highrise hotel windows at the distant cityscapes, in the many scenes which joked about the Asian English accent (“l”s instead of “r”s!) or pronounced social roles, and the way the city seemed perpetually so remote and strange that even in social clubs, the Japanese people merely sat anonymously in the shadows–the most exhilarating discovery by the Americans in the streets of Tokyo was their own image on a passing bus.

Now, this isn’t simply my PC-notation, but a genuine sense that the relationship I admired in the film was inseparable from its cultural isolation and the film’s ability to cocoon its viewers within it. The Tokyo setting was merely an excuse to romanticize this isolation–a thriving city with an expansive culture which might as well have been the wild outback of Walkabout or the windswept rocks of L’Avventura. Murray and Johansson’s characters reminded me of the sort of people who travel to other countries and then sit inside hotel rooms, watching foreign videos (in their case, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) while complaining about the otherness of their environment. I think I would’ve appreciated their relationship more if I hadn’t felt the dramatic cards were stacked in order to make them the only humans in town, and I would appreciate the critical raves more if I didn’t question the film’s alleged cultural salvation at a time when American isolation seems to be such a critical issue.

If Lost in Translation doesn’t offer a nuanced view of Japanese culture, another film I watched this weekend, Satoshi Kon‘s elegant anime, Millennium Actress, thoroughly makes up for it. A major competitor against Spirited Away in 2001 for top animation awards, to my knowledge, it’s also the first international film Dreamworks has picked up for (limited) distribution with a DVD release planned for next month.

The basic premise involves the destruction of a historic Japanese movie studio and the efforts of a documentary filmmaker to track down its retired star, Chiyoko, who unexpectedly disappeared from the public eye many years before. Now in her 70s, she is given a key that was found within the crumbling studio and holding it, reminisces about her career, the various films she starred in, and the long lost, mysterious young man who initially gave her the key.

Beyond that premise, plot summary is virtually impossible, because director Kon presents the narrative as a whirlwind, reality-bending genre montage which not only incorporates the documentary filmmaker into Chiyoko’s memories, but also reimagines each of the central characters of her life (including herself) in various dramatic guises according to each film in her career. This gestalt method of picturing and projecting one’s life through history and its cinematic representation–the past, present, and future hopelessly and beautifully blended together–creates a moving statement on the way movies shape our notions about ourselves and the world we live in.

This structure also offers an affectionate look at Japanese genres through the ages–Chiyoko’s films span samurai epics and science fiction utopias, period dramas, martial arts actioneers, and shomin-geki melodramas. (Although director Kon claims Chiyoko’s character isn’t based on any Japanese actress in particular, he notes that the character has similarities to Setsuko Hara, who appeared in many films by Yasujiro Ozu before abruptly retiring.) Citing George Roy Hill’s freewheeling Slaughterhouse Five (1972) as a major influence, Kon offers a briskly-paced flurry of cultural memories and unrequited love, beautifully rendered in subdued colors and mesmerizing, cool tones.