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Scene to be Seen: LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003)

Written by Christopher Beaubien • August 06, 2010 • Start the Discussion!

In light of Roger Ebert’s latest inclusion of Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece Lost in Translation (2003) into his Great Movies archive, I have selected one of its best scenes with dialogue I hadn’t understood completely. Until now.

No, it is not the inaudible whisper before the movie’s end. I don’t ever want to know what Bob (Bill Murray) said to Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) before they parted ways. That is between them and it is none of my business.

The scene in question is the awkward taping of the “Suntory Time” commercial. Like Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt before him, Bob Harris is one of many American actors being paid big bucks for promoting a product strictly for Japanese television. Not knowing a word beyond “saki,” Bob is at the mercy of a hyperactive director (Yutaka Tadokoro) and his kookily incompetent interpreter (Akiko Takeshita). The director passionately delivers lengthy instructions while the interpreter summarizes. This is serious business, but their struggle to communicate is as funny as a misunderstanding between Abbott and Costello. They’re all floundering, but there is no condescension. The human comedy works because the characters are sincere. We really feel for them and laughter alleviates the tension.

I was intrigued to find out more about this tidbit that Ebert wrote about:

There is wonderful comedy in the film, involving the ad agency’s photo shoot for the Suntory Scotch commercial and Bob’s guest shot on the “Japanese Johnny Carson.” But Coppola remains firmly grounded in reality. The Japanese director seems to be spouting hysterical nonsense until you find a translation online and understand what he’s saying and why. He’s not without humor. The translator seems to be simplifying, but now we understand what she’s doing. There’s nothing implausible about the scene. Anyone who watches Japanese TV, even via YouTube, knows the TV show is straight from life. Notice the microscopic look Murray gives the camera to signal “just kidding.”

You can read his complete review here.

There’s a translation online! Why didn’t I think of Goggling it in the last seven years? I love this scene so much that it has become a infectious meme when I’m faced with either trying to explain something to someone or the other way around. My mind usually echoes Ms. Takeshita’s voice, “More… intensity!” The scene works just as well as any scene could without knowing what the Japanese are actually saying. However, discovering what they are saying is just as rewarding. A great deal of thought and wit went into their dialogue. Could we expect any less from Ms. Coppola? She is truly at the top of her game.

“Suntory Times” Scene with English Subtitles

What Else Was Lost in Translation?

Motoko Rich originally published the translated text on September 21, 2003 in the New York Times.
(http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/21/fashion/21LOST.html)

DIRECTOR
(in Japanese to the interpreter)
The translation is very important, O.K.? The translation.

INTERPRETER
Yes, of course. I understand.

DIRECTOR
Mr. Bob-san. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then
there is a bottle of Suntory whiskey on top of the table. You
understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the
camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the
words. As if you are Bogie in “Casablanca,” saying, “Cheers to you
guys,” Suntory time!

INTERPRETER
He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?

BOB
That’s all he said?

INTERPRETER
Yes, turn to camera.

BOB
Does he want me to, to turn from the right or turn from the left?

INTERPRETER
(in very formal Japanese to the director)
He has prepared and is ready. And he wants to know, when the
camera rolls, would you prefer that he turn to the left, or would
you prefer that he turn to the right? And that is the kind of thing
he would like to know, if you don’t mind.

DIRECTOR
(very brusquely, and in much more colloquial Japanese)
Either way is fine. That kind of thing doesn’t matter. We don’t have
time, Bob-san, O.K.? You need to hurry. Raise the tension. Look at the
camera. Slowly, with passion. It’s passion that we want. Do you
understand?

INTERPRETER
(In English, to Bob)
Right side. And, uh, with intensity.

BOB
Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.

DIRECTOR

What you are talking about is not just whiskey, you know. Do
you understand? It’s like you are meeting old friends. Softly,
tenderly. Gently. Let your feelings boil up. Tension is important!
Don’t forget.

INTERPRETER
(in English, to Bob)
Like an old friend, and into the camera.

BOB
O.K.

DIRECTOR
You understand? You love whiskey. It’s Suntory time! O.K.?

BOB
O.K.

DIRECTOR
O.K.? O.K., let’s roll. Start.

BOB
For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.

DIRECTOR
Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut!
(Then in a very male form of Japanese, like a father speaking
to a wayward child)
Don’t try to fool me. Don’t pretend you don’t understand. Do you
even understand what we are trying to do? Suntory is very exclusive.
The sound of the words is important. It’s an expensive drink. This is
No. 1. Now do it again, and you have to feel that this is exclusive.
O.K.? This is not an everyday whiskey you know.

INTERPRETER
Could you do it slower and…?

DIRECTOR
With more ecstatic emotion.

INTERPRETER
More intensity.

DIRECTOR
(in English)
Suntory time! Roll.

BOB
For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.

DIRECTOR
Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! God, I’m begging you!

In an interview, Ms. Coppola said she wrote the dialogue for the scene in English, and then it was translated into Japanese for Mr. Tadokoro. The scene, she said, came out of her own experience promoting her first feature film, “The Virgin Suicides,” in Japan. Whenever she would say something, she said, the interpreter would seemingly speak for much longer. “I would think that she was adding to what I was saying and getting carried away, so I wanted to have that in the scene.”

In the scene, Ms. Coppola said, Mr. Murray never did learn what the director was saying. “I like the fact that the American actors don’t really know what’s going on, just like the characters,” she said.

Frankly, it’s not clear that even if Bob-san had understood what the director said, it would have helped.

Ms. Coppola said she purposely gave the director “lame directions,” adding, “He wasn’t supposed to be the best director.”

Lost in Translation would be out of place on the Comedy shelf, however, the “Suntory Time” scene as well as more than a dozen got more giggles and belly laughs out of me than most of the official comedies released that year. (Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa (2003) was one of the few proud contenders.) It is a compliment that a film rich with humour due to its wise human observations doesn’t just stop there. Lost in Translation is an acute human drama and a mood piece. It’s so bittersweet that it stings. My heart wells up over the rare, delicate connection that Bob and Charlotte make in this time and place. They can never replicate that ever again. Thank God for that fire alarm…

LOST IN TRANSLATION US Trailer

LOST IN TRANSLATION Japanese Trailer

Sean Connery is pleased with Suntory Whiskey.

“Shaken, not stirred.”

More Films by Sofia Coppola:

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999) Trailer

MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006) US Teaser

MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006) US Trailer

THE DUCHESS (2008) Trailer

I know it’s not a Sofia Coppola film.
I just love that build up to Georgiana Cavendish!

SOMEWHERE (2010) Trailer

Sofia Coppola fingerprints are unmistakeably hers. These are such poignant films…

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