Japan is undeniably one of the most well-known countries in Asia. Oftentimes, Japan and its culture are depicted in pop culture and fictional works, including Hollywood films. While most Hollywood movies use Japan as a decorative element in their plot, some of them actually place Japan in the core of the story. Let’s take a look at two such movies!
Often regarded as one of the best movies of the 2000s, Lost in Translation stars Bill Murray as Bob Harris and Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte. With numerous accolades including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2003, this movie tells the story of an aging actor, Bob Harris, and a Philosophy graduate, Charlotte, in Japan.
Bob came to Japan for an advertising job, while Charlotte followed her husband who came to Tokyo for some photography project. In addition to feeling lost in their own lives, both felt isolated and alienated in an Asian country which has very different cultures compared to America. These lonely similarities between them actually pulled them together. Through their one-week relationship, we can see how they transform from just being strangers to a having a special connection.
Written, produced, and directed by Sofia Coppola, the movie relies more on visual expression rather than the script. The filming took place in Tokyo and Kyoto which overflows with culture and history.
It is a romantic-comedy film with a funny depiction of how Bob and Charlotte’s conversations with the local Japanese get “lost in translation.” The romantic connection between Bob and Charlotte is somehow vague and their relationship is very much left to the viewers’ interpretation. The ending was somewhat bittersweet – just perfect.
Technically, Letters from Iwo Jima is a Hollywood film since it was produced and directed by Americans. However, more than 97% of the cast are Japanese and almost the entire film was in the Japanese language, aside from the American soldiers’ dialogues.
Directed and co-produced by Clint Eastwood, it is a companion piece to his Flags of Our Fathers, which depicts the same battle from the American viewpoint. Both films were shot back to back. Surprisingly, this companion film was more successful and received numerous prestigious accolades compared to the main film!
A war film released in 2006, this movie stars Watanabe Ken and Ninomiya Kazunari from the boy band Arashi as the main leads. The movie is a loose account of the invasion of Iwo Jima by the US Army during the Second World War, with a mix of real and fictional characters. It depicts how the Japanese soldiers countered their invaders and offers a close insight into the daily life of a Japanese soldier.
This movie was filmed primarily in California and Los Angeles. The actors and crews only made a quick one-day trip to Iwo Jima for some on-location shots as the filmmakers had to be given special permission by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to film on the island, where US Marines and Japanese soldiers are currently laid rest. With its almost-black-and-white, low-saturation visual, the film further provides the feels of the Second World War.
Letters from Iwo Jima also received praise from Japanese audience for not stereotypically depicting the Japanese as in most Hollywood movies.
It is sad that only movies heavily laden with Japanese elements such as Tokyo, ninja, geisha, samurai, etc. are usually recognized. I believe that there are many beautiful sides to Japan that we have yet to see. Hopefully, more movies of the kind mentioned in this article will be made in the future, as Hollywood usually serves as a bridge between cultures and countries.