Thursday, 2 August 2012

Lost In Translation, Japan and Poetry of Place

I first watched Lost In Translation shortly before visiting Japan in 2004. Although I've seen it several times since then, I watched it for the first time in years about six or eight months ago, and it hit me rather hard. I realised that it reminded me of a lot of things from the past ten years, one way or another. The middle-aged actor Bob (Bill Murray) is there to promote Suntory whiskey when he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). On my first visit, in 2004, I brought back some Suntory whiskey for the friends in Dublin who had made me sit down and watch Lost In Translation before I left - that went down rather well. On my second visit, in 2010, I bought a miniature bottle of Suntory for someone in London who, in the end, I never gave it to.

Lost In Translation is definitely a film which polarises people - almost everyone I know who has seen it either cites it as one of their favourite films (that's me), or says it was bland or insipid or boring or words to that effect. I just found it incredibly realistic and rather moving, in terms of the characters in their interactions. I wouldn't say that it offered a lot of insight into Japanese culture, though the glimpses are entertaining and fascinating - the main characters don't make that much effort to really engage with the culture around them, so they remain outsiders. Not that it is a culture where it is particularly easy to become an insider.

But Japan is one of my favourite countries, after two visits to see one of my (Western) friends and her (Japanese) husband. It is a country where you can have so much fun, exploring the old and beautiful history, art and architecture, or running through the modern playgrounds of the cities and the futuristic technology. And everything works smoothly and everyone is so polite... My shining memories tend to surround the time I spent with my friend, and with her delightful friends, and marveling at the beauty of the castles, like the airy Himeji, and the gardens of Kyoto, and the otherworldly Ursula Le Guin archipelago of Okinawa. Oh yes...and shopping a lot, and sampling all of the amazing food that I possibly could. (Japan is my number one culinary destination.)

Returning to Lost In Translation, I see this above all as a movie about dislocation and feeling isolated (which can happen anywhere - even at home) and about the place where you are reflecting your state of mind. The latter is particularly interesting, and relates to poetry. I've consistently found that when I write poems about places - which I often do - the place (usually a city) ends up acting as a mirror and as an excavator; it reflects my state of mind and my preoccupations, and uncovers more. Every city reveals something different, of course. With other human beings, you have a different chemistry (in any kind of relationship) and thus a different way of relating to everyone; cities are like this as well because they all have a differing energy. I know sometimes that my experience of a city could have been quite different if I had visited in different company; or alone; or happier; or sadder. I remember that Tokyo, which I only visited in 2004, struck me as fascinating, but cold. I was living in Ireland and having a hard time when I took that trip, and while in Tokyo I was either alone, or with people I didn't know that well. I am not sure if I would have found Tokyo exactly warm under different circumstances, but it would not have been the same, I'm sure.

I thought of this in relation to poetry partly because of the workshop I took with Kapka Kassabova at Poetry Parnassus, which was about poetry of place and travel. One way to approach this is by allowing the place to tell a story about your state of mind, or a process you are going through in your life, or something similar. This is often where I turn out to be coming from when I write these poems, although it can be an unexpected result. Among others, we looked at the poem 'Finisterre' by Sylvia Plath, and Kassabova's own wonderful poem 'How to build your dream garden'; these are great examples. In 'Finisterre', Plath's lonely and morbid state of mind surges overwhelmingly out of the poem's imagery:

The cliffs are edged with trefoils, stars and bells
Such as fingers might embroider, close to death,
Almost too small for the mists to bother with.

(from 'Finisterre', Sylvia Plath)

I feel like I should revisit some of the places I've been to but have not yet written about, and explore them again through poetry.

Japanese poetry is a largely unknown world to me as yet, but I found this beautiful translation of a Kobayashi Issa haiku, by Robert Hass. It also strikes a poignant note as it involuntarily brings up thoughts of the 2011 tsunami.

The snow is melting (Kobayashi Issa, translated by Robert Hass)


  1. Your summary of reactions to Lost in Translation echoes through one small theme of my life.
    I was recommended it by a friend when it was released and so I went to see it, seeing Girl with a Pearl Earring first.
    I'm not much of a film fan, it must be said, but having seen the Vermeer tribute, I thought Lost in Translation was one of the worst of the few films I've ever been to see. If I had wanted to wait an hour and a half to listen to a Jesus & Mary Chain record, I could have done so at home and saved myself a few quid.
    I don't mind if nothing much happens in a film but I'd prefer it if it seemed to mean anything and was in French.
    Our difference of opinion became one of our few disputes until my friend was having lunch in the canteen at Liverpool University a couple of years later and overheard very much the same debate going on at the next table to hers between a boy and a girl. Although I don't like the idea that some things are 'girl' things while others are for 'boys', it did begin to look that way.
    And, a few years more later, yes, opinion is still divided. Unfortunately, I'm not willing to look at it again to see if I want to reconsider.

    I might have seen you at the Parnassus Heaney reading, I don't know. I don't usually introduce myself to total strangers on the off chance. It was a great event, though.

    1. Hi David - thank you for stopping in! Your comments about Lost In Translation made me laugh. They certainly reminded me of some other reactions I've heard... I hate to admit it, but you might have a point about the "girl" vs "boy" reaction, based on what I've heard. However, the friends who first had me watch the film were male, so... Anyway, it definitely seems to inspire strong reactions.

      I was definitely at the Continental Shifts reading at Parnassus so it's possible... I'm glad you enjoyed it - I certainly did, and all the Parnassus events I was fortunate enough to attend! I don't know if you've seen this yet but Bill Manhire linked to your blog post about that event, on a post he made on the Carcanet blog about Parnassus!!/2012/08/bill-manhire-poetry-parnassus.html

  2. Japan fascinates me so much, that's probably why I have so many Japanese friends (ok, 2). I want to go to Japan with them one day because I'm afraid everything would be too different for me to take in by myself.

    I like Lost in Translation - further reinforcing the whole "girl thing" that was mentioned! It's just like you said, it's possible to feel isolated even at home. Both Charlotte and Bob feel isolated in their marriages.

    What is amazing is that a movie with this theme managed to be funny at times, like the scenes where Bob interacts with Japanese people (the director of the commercial and the Tv show host), or just when he is in an elevator and everybody is much shorter.

    I better stop before I start quoting the movie ("Loja Moore"). xx

    PS: Loved "How to build your dream garden" - so unusual.

    1. It's a very quotable film. "Lip my stockings. Lip them! LIP MY STOCKINGS!" I find it hilarious, too. Moving, funny, realistic, I just have to love this film. I really don't understand why everyone doesn't. ;)

      Yes, I love the Kapka Kassabova poem, so evocative, and I want to explore the "place in poetry" thing further.