A Study of Orientalist Elements Present in Modern Film: A Case Study of Lost in Translation



Orientalism is ever present in our modern culture. It is readily available in the medium of film. This research paper set out to find what type of motifs, imagery, music and symbols were used to convey the meaning of orientalism in a modern film, namely, 2003’s Lost in Translation. Although previous studies have found the presence of Orientalism in modern film, not many have used a semiotic analysis. Instead, they have used plot summaries and comparisons. Using a semiotic analysis with the aid of the films mise-en-scène, I found how Orientalism manifests itself in the motifs, imagery, music and symbolism of film. I also found that although we have the tools to find Orientalism in film, we do not have the tools to counteract it through Said’s theory. This is because Orientalism is something that is to be understood and not solved. The use of other theoretical frameworks such as cultural appropriation can be used as an effective way of understanding and counteracting Orientalism in modern film. However, it is also important not to demonize the West for its lenses that are directed to the East, as this in turns ‘others the West in a way similar to how Orientalism states the West dehumanizes the East. Orientalism on its own is insightful, but nothing more.

Keywords: Orientalism, Modern Film, Lost in Translation, Semiotics, plot structure, motifs, Imagery, Mise-en-scène, Edward Said


Orientalism, since it’s conceptualization in 1978, has become an important concept in many areas of social science. One area of study that it manifests itself most readily is within the confines of film. Slavoj Žižek (Fiennes, 2006) describes film in saying that “It doesn’t give you what you desire. It tells you how to desire” because “our desires are artificial. We have to be taught to desire”. The desires we are taught to desire in this case is the exotic ‘orient’. Whether that desire is a sexual one, or a fearful one, is down to the interpretation and style of a films perspective on the orient. There is a need for analysing film for the presence of orientalism as Said (1978) states, the oriental world has been given its identity and intelligibility by the West, without the orient’s input. This consolidation of knowledge and power over the Orient is ever present in cinema and to understand how it is stylised and presented is important for understanding the unconscious or conscious decision by directors to include these orientalist elements in their films.

This study analysed Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film, ‘Lost in Translation’, and found the presence of orientalism in its motifs, imagery, music and symbols. The film was both critically acclaimed and criticised for its portrayal of Japanese culture. It was marketed as a comedy for a Western Audience, but failed to garner much attention in Japan, and this is evident in the fact that it’s Japanese distributor, ‘Tohokushinsha Co.’, delayed its release in a single Tokyo theatre. While Western critics praised the film, Japanese ones complained it further entrenched images of stereotypes and was in some regards offensive (King, 2005). The frame a director has does not simply contain actors who speak dialogue, with transitions to more dialogue. The frame is the director’s playground and good cinematography utilizes lighting, actor positioning, props, music and transitions to create symbolism to create greater meanings. It is in this manner that I want to show that cinematic means have been used to convey Orientalist meanings in films through a semiotic analysis in order to recognise the symbolism behind the meaning.

Literature Review

Perspective on Orientalism

There has not yet been a systematic approach to analysing Orientalism in film. Instead, there have been reviews of certain aspects of cinema which exhibit certain tendencies of Orientalism. (Kleinen, 2003, Kitamura, 2009, Carta, 2011, Fleming, 2012, Glassmeyer, 2012). These studies have found many different aspects of Orientalism in cinema but they ultimately refer back to the source of Orientalism, namely Edward. W Said’s work. His definition of Orientalism is somewhat sporadic for the purpose of defining many aspects of the deep nature of Orientalism, but Orientalism can be defined as the othering of Asia by distorting the reality of the orient through the lens of the West. In other words, The West can penetrate, wrestle with and give shape and meaning to the ‘Asiatic mystery’ without the Orient giving their input. Thus, the dichotomy between East and West in this sense is the monopolization of knowledge and power (Said, 1978). However, Said’s work on Orientalism doesn’t possess the mechanics to decipher whether something is Orientalist or not. This has presented some issues in the conceptualization of the concept in academia (Carta, 2011). It has also allowed a lot of freedom in interpretation and exploration of the topic, but it is somewhat less rigorous in its conceptualization. It is still fluid enough to allow many researchers to explore areas that Said had not, namely, in film studies.

For this study, it is important to understand that ‘Lost in Translation’ was written from a Western perspective and was not intended for a Japanese audience. The director used Japan as a narrative to explain the story of two Americans in an Oriental land and not as a narrative to explain Japan in any meaningful way (King, 2005). This sense of ‘Westernizing’ Asia consists of fashioning an historically specific ‘fantasy’ in which members ‘imagine’ themselves ‘Western’. This ontological process creates a binary identity from the West and the East (Yegenoglu, 1998). The nature of binary identity leads ultimately to ‘othering’. Othering is reductive and is similar to stereotyping in the sense that it defines people into determined cultural groupings which are usually defined not by the ‘other’. Othering can be simply defined as a denial of history (Pickering, 2001). This denial is often the result of a deficit of the knowledge of the East and in the cases of many films, a deficit of the psyche of protagonists.

Loneliness, The Motif of the Exotic Land

The motif of loneliness can be seen as the focal motivation for the presence of Orientalism. Rubinfeld (2001) states, there is a formula that a romantic comedy, such as Lost in Translation, follows. This formulas shape is directed by the motif of loneliness and the process is as follows: Firstly 1) there is ‘an accidental meeting between’ our protagonists that could lead to ‘potential romance’, 2) there is an ‘internal or external obstacles’ to the recognition and declaration of their mutual love, 3) there is an eventual overcoming of these obstacles, and finally 4) a happy ending or some type of resolution (Rubinfield, 2001). What brings the protagonists together in romantic movies, in this case, is loneliness. The romantic entanglements between characters alleviate the feelings of low self-esteem and alienation (Kochetkova, (2010).  The motif of loneliness which is present in romantic films is only more deeply confounded in Lost in Translation as the protagonists are further left with the feeling of loneliness because of their alien cultural surroundings, namely ‘Neon Toyko’. It is in this new environment that the characters experience acculturative stress as they go through the process cultural adaption. This stress is what can lead to othering the ‘orient’, as it is far easier to avoid the anticipated pain of being out of a state of normality in a new culture by ‘selective attention’, ‘denial’, ‘avoidance’, and by exhibiting ‘cynicism’ and ‘hostility’ toward a ‘new external reality’ (Kim, 2008). This new external reality leads to loneliness, which is expressed as Tokyo in Lost in Translation.

Othering and Dehumanization

Identities of East and West, along with Othering have manifested themselves deeply in modern cinema today. One aspect of Westerners travelling is that they become self-conscious of themselves. In cinema, this presents itself as ‘white people’ experiencing the shock of ‘self-alienation’ as they are viewed by the ‘Other’. This in some way ends the privilege of ‘seeing, without being seen’ (Kaplan, 1997). Through this veil being lifted, the West contrast itself with the orient to create a sense of superiority. Said (1978) makes it clear that orientalism produces ideas that create a ‘hegemonic description’ of the objectified Other. The Other is mute while the West creates a stronger identity through contrasting themselves with the Other. Schein’s (1997) research into how minority women in China were othered found that they were othered for the purpose of being hyper-sexualized for ‘urbanites’. They were viewed as not wearing tops and ‘unmarried young people’ would partake in ‘socially sanctioned orgies’.

Othering in other words, is a denial of history and the denial identity (Pickering, 2001).

One extreme of ‘Othering’ occurs in war films. Kleinen’s (2003) found that a common theme of post-Vietnam films was that the soldiers and GI’s were fighting a just war with one hand, and having the other tied behind their back by politicians. The Vietnamese perspective and suffering was rarely explored and they were often ‘othered’ as being nothing more than props to shoot. According to Kleinen (2003).  1979’s Apocalypse Now, exemplifies orientalism in cinema, as the orient corrupted a high ranking American to turn native and become as mysterious as the orients that worship his leadership and he fulfils his own ego by living his fantasy of the orient. This is on par with Said’s (1978) description of how Lord Balfour described how the British (West) understanding the Egyptian (Orient) better than they understand themselves. The ‘Yellow Peril’ as described by Kawai (2005) is very present in Vietnam war films as the genre, even though it contains some cinematically important films, ultimately betrays Vietnam to stereotypes of barbarity and deviousness on the part of the Viet Cong. Othering in war films heavily distinguishes ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a way to dehumanize the enemy into nothing more than barbaric child-like creatures whose sole purpose is to be an enemy.

Sentiment and Fantasy

Said (1978) defines Orientalism as there being ‘Westerners and there are Orientals. The former dominate: the latter must be dominated’. In this sense, cinema has been used a means to convey this sense of dominance, whether it is a conscious decision or unconscious one is difficult to judge. This sense of dominance presents itself in many ways. Glassmeyer (2012) discusses the use of a westerner to pacify (and dominate) an orient King in “The King and I”. This conveys the convention that Orients are incapable of governance without the pacification and direction of a westerner. This is at odds with the westerner claiming benevolence in their intentions. This plays off the fact that in the King and I, there is the Western ‘I’ (Anna), and the Orient King. The King is portrayed as irrational and is seen in the mind of the West (As Said (1978) describes the Orient in the words of Lord Balfour) as gullible, devoid of energy and initiative. It is through this dominance that a fantasy is born between the East and West.

In M. Butterfly, the French protagonist ‘Gallimard’ is enchanted into a state of fantasy of the East. This fantasy is ultimately his prison of cultural ‘conventions’ and ‘stereotypes’ (Kondo, 1990). He is a victim of his own perception as he denies reality in way of imprisoning himself in a state of ignorance to allow for his fantasy to come to fruition. Othering is the result of a fantasy that is imbedded in the psyche of the West. This fantasy can be for finding oneself, in the case of Lost in Translation, or by finding tranquillity and becoming more orient than the orient. The Last Samurai exemplifies this point of being lost in the orient culture and finding oneself. The notion of the ‘Western Samurai’ is based off positive images of Japanese culture being portrayed as ‘noble’, ‘honourable’ and ‘civilized’ than modern western cultures (Shin, 2010). This distortion of Japanese culture ignores the reality, which is that Japanese culture, and Asian cultures have their drawbacks and problems and it is only by ignoring reality and focusing on the aspects of a said culture that are mystified or respected, can this fantasy be sustained.

But not all fantasies are necessarily positive. Kawai’s (2005) research into the ‘Yellow Peril’ explains how the West fantasies Asians as a ‘yellow’ horde whose power, if left unchecked, could destroy the West. Although these fantasies seem varyingly different, there is usually an interplay between the two that the orient is a mystical figure, but they lack the modernity to be nothing but barbarous. Without the barbarian, there can be no mystique. Fantasy, in other words, is not so much a narrative that seeks to ascertain ‘desire’, it is rather a setting for desire, where the ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’, ‘self’, ‘other’, ‘part’ and ‘whole’ meet (Williams, 1991).


Issues with Orientalism and Cinema

This research paper analysed the 2003 film, Lost in Translation for the presence of Orientalism in the film’s plot structure, motifs, imagery, music and symbolism. Lost in Translation was chosen as it was a critically acclaimed film, while at the same time there were many critics that were critical of the ‘Othering’ and ‘Orientalism’ present in the films plot. However, when initially researching for an appropriate research method, I could not find anything concrete. According to Metz (1974), different dialects of film have different ‘dialects of analysis’, and as such, the analysis of a given film depends on the nature of the film. This presented me with the problem of finding a mode of research that could effectively analyse and convey the presence of Orientalism in Lost in Translation. The use of Orientalism as an undercurrent theme in film is nothing new and it is not surprising to find films that have been studied for such a purpose. Said (1978) states that anyone who writes about the orient must include some type of narrative, structure, images, themes and motifs to contain the orient. With this in mind, I chose an effective methodology to decipher the structure of the film, which in turn analysed Orientalism that was present. This breakdown will allow for further analyses of the film’s images, motifs and music.

3.2 Analysing the Plot

Kochetkova’s (2010) method was used to analyse the plot structure. This method was an appropriate form of analysis because Lost in Translation is a romantic comedy and explores many of the same motifs as Kochetkova (2010) did in his analysis of the films “Sleepless in Seattle”, “As Good As It Gets” and “You’ve Got Mail”. This approach to analysing modern comedies was useful because I used to analyse the structure of the film based on the following.

Plot Summary: The Plot Summary is a breakdown of the film in its most basic terms to give a quick oversight to answer who are the characters, what is happening, when is this happening, where is this happening and how is this happening.

Plot Structure: The structure of the plot is important in understanding the many aspects of film. To analyse this, Freytag’s Pyramid was utilized. This pyramid explains that there are five acts in a film. (Rolfe, Jones & Wallace, 2010).


To best map the 5 stages of the film, the data of analysis will be screenshots (N=value). Screenshots of the film will allow for deeper analysis of the imagery, while at the same, aid in mapping the 5 stages of the film. Screenshots will be chosen based upon their significance for their symbolic connection to Orientalism through signs and symbols, as discussed next. This interaction between the imagery and structure will effectively allow me to draw on some conclusions for RQ.1 and subsequent questions.

Analysing Imagery and Music for Orientalism

A semiotic approach is an effective method of analysis for the study of film because as Kochetkova (2010) states ‘semiotics portrays film reality’ as a ‘representation’ of some culture’ that is ‘based on the system of symbols’ which interpret the ‘reality of human life’.  Metz (1974) refers to semiotic analysis as the way that connotations of symbols in cinematography denote semiological material. He refers to American gangster films in that the ‘slick pavement of the waterfront’ represents ‘hardness and anxiety’ because the dim lighting and technique of shooting emphasize this. The signifier of denotation (physical form of the sign) is a result of the lighting as it converges to form a signifier of connotation (the meaning from the physical form). As a result of this symbolic meaning, we as the audience perceive it as a real spectacle. If the shot used different lighting or included the smiling face of a child, the impression would be completely different. (Metz, 1974). However, there is very little consensus between theorists. The ‘scope’ of semiotics and ‘core concepts’ or ‘methodological tools’ also have very little consensus.

The simplest explanation of what semiotics is exactly, is the study of signs, and this is what I intend to analyse in Lost in Translation for the presence of orientalist symbolism (Chandler, 2007).  A semiotic analysis of the Mise-en-scène of Lost in Translation will be used a well to aid in the semiotic analysis process. Mise-en-scène can be defined as being a ‘collection of visuals used to create a frame’. The production of these frames creates a ‘ephemeral feeling’ that can make a director’s style uniquely their own (Cassidy, 2016). Mise-en-scène can be analysed in many ways including; dominance in the shot (Character placement), lighting, shot proximity, angles, colour values, staging positions, composition, form and subsidiary contrasts (Welsch, 1997).

As for the music in the film, it will be analysed in conjunction with the imagery that is collected, as part of Langkjaer’s (2015) textual analysis approaches for understanding the perception of music in movies. In this analysis, imagery interacts with music to compliment the imagery which in turns intensifies the music. Imagery and symbolism are enhanced with the use of music and analysing music will allow for a deeper understanding of the presence of Orientalism in the film.

Issue of Analysing Orientalism

Analysing Orientalism in film presents its own challenges. According to Carta (2011), Orientalism does not possess the mechanics to decipher whether something is Orientalist by nature or not, thus, a semiotic analysis of films through the medium of Orientalism is quite subjective in nature. However, the visual text is the result of ‘intentional strategic choices’ from the ‘resource systems regulated’ by the given context and as such, nothing in film is accidental, it is planned (Boeriss, Holsanova, 2012). Images are the product of how the director wants them to be perceived. Just like in cinema, the frame we see has been produced to convey meanings and symbols. Even though a semiotic analysis might be subjective, this does not mean that it cannot yield useful information on Orientalist symbolism present in film.

Research Questions

RQ.1 How has Orientalism manifested in the Structure of the plot?

Answering this research question will open greater avenues of research and will aid me in answering the following research questions:

RQ.2 How has the motif of loneliness been conveyed through Orientalist coding in the film?

RQ.3 What fantasy of Asia is explored in the film? What type of imagery, music and cultural artefacts were most focused on in the shots to exemplify this?

RQ.4 How has Othering dehumanized the Orient in the film? In what way, can this been seen?


Lost in Translation Plot

Lost in Translation is a film about two Americans who are stuck in their lives. Bob is a middle-aged actor who is using his waning years of fame to shoot commercials. Charlotte is in her early 20’s and recently graduated from University with a degree in philosophy. Like Bob, she is married and feels alienated from life. They are both going through a crisis of identity and direction in life. Japan acts a conduit for these feelings. Their surroundings of Tokyo reflect how little they know of themselves as they know little to nothing about Tokyo. Everything is new to them when they are together. Bob and Charlotte’s friendship blossoms into something deeper, but it never comes to fruition to become a sexual relationship (That tension is broken by the Lady in Red).

Instead, they admire each other and come to the realization that it is only because they are in Japan. They are attracted to each other because they are both lost. Once they leave this ‘stuck’ phase of their life, like leaving Tokyo, they will not have the same feelings for one another. As such, the conclusion of the film sees Bob whisper into Charlotte’s ear on a busy Tokyo street and as the audience, we cannot hear what they say, but it is not important. They have become unstuck and can move on with their lives. What they do after is not relevant. Orientalism is very much present in the film as the setting of Tokyo is used as a springboard to project their feelings of alienation of life.

Plot Summary (N)

Over 157 screenshots (N=157) were collected. These screenshots were then analysed to pinpoint the films plot in a Freytag Pyramid and to also allow for analyses of the film’s use of imagery and music to portray orientalism.


What stands out most about these current findings is that most the film is in the Rising Action stage of the film. This is hugely significant and will be discussed in the results.

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. They are matched with the imagery (N) that they occur in.

(S=1): Intro / Tokyo – Richard Beggs: This is the only part of the soundtrack that exhibits any oriental music and it occurs at the beginning of the film. It is still quite ambient and plays on the fact Bob has just arrived at the airport (Post Intro Scene)

(S=2): City Girl – Kevin Shields: This song is melancholy and is representative of Charlotte’s personality, in that it is not mainstream. It is an alternative rock song. (Intro scene)

(S=3): Fantino – Sebastian Tellier: This song is representative of Charlotte’s loneliness as she spends her time inside her hotel room.

(S=4): Tommib – Squarepusher: This song is representative of Charlotte’s loneliness as she looks out of her hotel window at a city of tens of millions and feels alone. It is ambient (N=62-63).

(S=5): Girls – Death in Vegas: This song plays as Bob enters Tokyo’s main districts. It is sombre and reflects Bob’s fascination and exhaustion (N=1-3).

(S=6): Goodbye – Kevin Shields: This song plays prior to Bob leaving (N= 147) and uses a mixture of sadness and optimism as his tension is gone and he can now return to normality.

(S=7): Too Young – Phoenix:  After being kicked out of the bar and running through the streets, Bob and Charlotte go back to their friend’s home and engage for the first time, with some fun. They would not have done this without each other. (N=71-73)

(S=8): On the Subway – Brian Reitzell & Roger J. Manning: Charlotte makes her way to a temple and uses the subway system. The song personifies her feelings of perplexity and fascination (N=14).

(S=9): Sometimes – My Bloody Valentine: This song is similar to Kevin Shields other contributions to this film’s soundtrack as he is the lead singer of My Bloody Valentine and many of the same musical codes are present in this song. It reflects their sombre triumph of enjoying themselves (N= 80-81).

(S=10): Alone in Kyoto – Air: The is one of the few times that a protagonist is engaged with traditional Japanese culture and the music creates a sense of wonderment that is not felt in the city of Tokyo, which protrudes loneliness. Even if the imagery places a dominate shot on how lonely Charlotte is, she is at least alone in her own wonderment (N=111-118).

(S=11): Shibuya – Brian Reitzell & Roger J. Manning: As Charlotte walks through Shibuya, the Times Square of Tokyo, an electronic music beat is played to personify her loneliness and Japan’s feeling of modernity.

(S=12): Just Like Honey – The Jesus and Mary Chain: The is the outro music (N=157). It indicates a happy ending, but that cannot be known because we do not know what Bob says to Charlotte that makes her smile and end her tension.

Results and Discussion

Before discussing the results, it is important to mention how the Orient was situated in the Western mind. Said (1978) referred to the Orient as being a ‘European invention’ which has been designed to be a place of ‘romance’, ‘exotic beings’, ‘haunting memories’, ‘landscapes’ and ‘remarkable experiences’. All of these elements were found in Lost in Translation and are expressed through the research questions. The first research question deals with ‘remarkable experiences’.

RQ.1 How has Orientalism manifested in the Structure of the plot?

The structure of the plot is heavily set on the slogan of the film that ‘everyone wants to be found’. Both protagonists are lost in Tokyo and want to be found. 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. The film’s structure was stuck in the rising action stage. A testament to both the character’s psyche and the film’s struggle to break loose from the conflict of disillusionment. 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. 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 isn’t simply because the film is based in Tokyo, but how Tokyo is characterised as a symbol of loneliness. This is the most obvious orientalist aspect of this film and it is shown in the imagery and musical codes of the film.

RQ.2 How has the motif of loneliness been conveyed through Orientalist coding in the film?

The Mise-en-scène in each significant shot (N=1-157) presented clear motifs of loneliness that likewise personified Orientalism. Scenic views of Tokyo are used as transitions between shots. (N= 9, 11, 18, 22, 32, 48, 57, 62, 63, 80, 82, 100, 106, 141, 142).


These scenic views of Tokyo from the window of the hotel are always accompanied by a significant change in emotion. Charlotte and Bob enter a state of melancholy and loneliness when there is a transition of Tokyo’s scenic view. 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 (1978) put it, designated their identity by the West. It is no longer a city of millions of people who lead different lives. It is nothing more than an amalgamation of the protagonist’s loneliness and urgency to resolve it and it is othered into a metaphysical symbol of orientalism that is induced by the presence of loneliness.

The musical coding enhanced this symbolism. When certain musical codes (S=1-6 & 8-11) were used in the background of scenic views of Tokyo, or during shots where the protagonist is alone among crowds of people, it further symbolized the imagery of Tokyo as being lonely. 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. The loneliness is only abated when the two protagonists interact, as seen in (N=71-73) with the musical code (S=7). Certain imagery did not use musical codes as they would interrupt the images meaning such as (N=72).


It seems that, with the exception of (S= 7&12), music is a signifier of loneliness. 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

RQ.3 What fantasy of Asia is explored in the film?

The fantasy explored in this film was one of self-discovery by the protagonists. They were ‘completely lost’ and stuck in life and needed something to motivate themselves again. At the beginning of the film, Bob is eager to leave Japan, but by nearly the end of the film, Charlotte says “I don’t want to leave” and Bob replies “well don’t, stay here with me, we’ll make a jazz band”. 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. This is seen as Charlotte visits a temple (N=14-17).


When Charlotte returns home to call her friend, she states she felt nothing. The temple was a meaningless fantasy of a mystical ‘other’ she didn’t want. Bob similarly is greeted with ‘premium fantasy’ prostitute that his advertisers paid for. She tries to initiate a rape fantasy and then a damsel in distress one, but Bob only wants her to leave and wrestles her away (N=23-26). Bob and Charlotte are fighting with the images and stereotypes of Japan that is expected of them to enjoy. Charlotte’s trip to the temple is something most foreign tourists enjoy and Bob’s fantasy prostitute engages in a fantasy of allowing him to dominate her. This is quite contradictory to Said’s (1978) theory on how the West wants to dominate the East. 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. In a state of homeostasis and in a country with English as a native language, there would be no need for them to interact. It is through Tokyo’s effect on their already distressed psyche that these two characters meet. 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.

RQ.4 How has Othering dehumanized the Orient in the film? In what way, can this been seen?

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. Between (N=12-13), Bob is shooting the Japanese commercial for the brand of whiskey he is endorsing. The director gives him a long list of instructions and this is translated simply to one sentence by the interpreter. The joke is that the Japanese language is absurd or that in some way Japanese is so distant from ‘our’ English, that it lacks intelligibility.


In actuality, the joke was that the interpreter didn’t translate the directors meaning correctly and she was the problem, not the Japanese language. 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.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.

   Rich, (2003, September 20)

Likewise, when Charlotte visits the hospital with what is a suspected broken toe, the daughter explains everything in Japanese, even though she clearly doesn’t understand. We as the audience are left with the same confusion as Charlotte and it seems illogical that the doctor would converse in Japanese to someone who doesn’t understand.


The Japanese in this sense are voiceless and thus undergo a process of being an ‘Other’. 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.

The othering of women

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. This is first introduced when Bob’s premium fantasy arrives to his apartment. 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. Just as in (N=24), they do not want this fantasy and immediately leave.



This is in stark contrast to what Charlotte sees in Kyoto. The woman wears traditional clothes and is almost ‘white and pure’. 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.


The Lady in Red (N=6) represents the hyper-sexuality of Western woman, while Charlotte is pure, albeit innocent girl. The Lady in Red is used by Bob to offset his sexual tension with Charlotte and unlike (N=24), he accepts the fantasy and escapism. Charlotte is thoughtful, deep thinking and has problems about where she is in life. She is presented as a complex character, and not simply a symbol of ‘purity’ as (N=115). 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.


Japanese culture in Lost in Translation was used as a symbol to represent the protagonist’s sentiment of feeling lost and alone. 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. Edward Said’s concept of ‘Orientalism’ is ultimately found in the film. Symbols of domination, fantasy and othering are always present. What was not found through my analysis and Said’s work is a solution. Halliday (1993) states that a pertinent issue with analysing Orientalism in the arts is that this type of ‘imperialism’ must be ‘matched’ by a strategy to overcome it. 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. The narrative in Lost in Translations shares a lot in common with the 1953 classic film ‘Roman Holiday’. Both narratives are based on the ‘chance meeting’ between two protagonists in an ‘unfamiliar city’ and the two characters ultimately go their separate ways out of duty to a higher purpose (Rubinfield, 2001, Murphy, 2006). However, unlike Lost in Translation, the residual effect of Roman Holiday, was increased tourism (Stabiner, 2016, October 18). 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. It is obvious that there were ‘cultural unequals’ in this film, as presented in the theory of cultural appropriation. Namely the Japanese culture, as it is appropriated by the dominate Western one. The Japanese have no control over their representation (Ashley & Plesch, 2002). Their representation was twisted to create a comedic film, wherein which they are the joke.

During the controversy caused by the ‘Kimono Wednesdays’ in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2015, protestors rallied against what they called ‘Orientalism’ and ‘cultural appropriation’. Visitors were able to wear Kimonos and take pictures to best capture their own image of Camille Monet’s painting, ‘La Japonaise’. 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, 2015). Therefore, when it comes to tying Orientalism to other concepts, it is important to define whether something is ‘appreciation’ or ‘appropriation’ of the cultural artefact (Valk, 2015). 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 (2015) 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.



  1. Ashley, K. M., & Plesch, V. (2002). The Cultural Processes of” Appropriation”.Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies32(1), 1-15.
  2. Boeriis, M., & Holsanova, J. (2012). Tracking visual segmentation: connecting semiotic and cognitive perspectives.Visual communication,11(3), 259-281
  3. Carta, S. (2011). Orientalism in the Documentary Representation of Culture. Visual Anthropology24(5), 403-420. doi:10.1080/08949468.2011.604592
  4. Cassidy, K. (2016). Understanding Mise-en-Scène. Videomaker, 30(7), 58-59.
  5. Cattrysse, P. (2010). The protagonist’s dramatic goals, wants and needs. Journal Of Screenwriting, 1(1), 83-97. doi:10.1386/josc.1.1.83/1
  6. Chandler, D. (2007).Semiotics: the basics. Routledge.
  7. Eco, U. (1976).A theory of semiotics (Vol. 217). Indiana University Press.
  8. Fleming, D. H. (2012). Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier. Film-Philosophy16(1), 251-255.
  9. Fiennes S. (2006) The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, United Kingdom: Mischief Films & Amoeba Film
  10. Glassmeyer, D. (2012). ‘A Beautiful Idea’: The King and I and the Maternal Promise of Sentimental Orientalism. Journal Of American Culture, 35(2), 106-122. doi:10.1111/j.1542-734X.2012.00801.x
  11. Halliday, F. (1993). ‘Orientalism’and its critics. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 20(2), 145-163.
  12. Hinton, L. (2009). The enigmatic signifier and the decentred subject. Journal Of Analytical Psychology54(5), 637-657. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5922.2009.01811.x
  13. Kaplan, E. A. (1997). Looking for the other: Feminism, film, and the imperial gaze. Psychology Press. Chicago
  14. Kawai, Y. (2005). Stereotyping Asian Americans: The Dialectic of the Model Minority and the Yellow Peril. Howard Journal Of Communications, 16(2), 109-130. doi:10.1080/10646170590948974
  15. Kim, Y. Y. (2008). Intercultural personhood: Globalization and a way of being. International Journal Of Intercultural Relations, 32(4), 359-368. doi:10.1016/j.ijintrel.2008.04.005
  16. King, H. (2005). Lost in Translation. Film Quarterly,59(1), 45-48. doi:10.1525/fq.2005.59.1.45
  17. King, H. (2010).Lost in translation: Orientalism, cinema, and the enigmatic signifier. Duke University Press.
  18. Kleinen, J. (2003), Framing “the Other”. A critical review of Vietnam war movies and their representation of Asians and Vietnamese, Asia Europe Journal 1: 433.
  19. Kochetkova, M. A. (2010).Semiotic Approach to the Analysis of Interpersonal Communication in Modern Comedies (Doctoral dissertation, Bowling Green State University).
  20. Kondo, D. (1990). “M. Butterfly”: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity.Cultural Critique, (16), 5-29. doi:10.2307/1354343
  21. Langkjaer, B. (2015). Audiovisual Styling and the Film Experience: Prospects for Textual Analysis and Experimental Approaches to Understand the Perception of Sound and Music in Movies. Music & The Moving Image8(2), 35-47.
  22. Metz, C. (1974).Film language: A semiotics of the cinema. University of Chicago Press.
  23. Murphy, A. (2006). Traces of the Flâneuse. Journal Of Architectural Education, 60(1), 33-42. doi:10.1111/j.1531-314X.2006.00058.x
  24. Pickering, M. (2001).Stereotyping: The politics of representation. Palgrave.
  25. Rich, M. (2003, September 20). What Else Was Lost In Translation. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/21/style/what-else-was-lost-in-translation.html
  26. Rolfe, B., Jones, C. M., & Wallace, H. (2010). Designing dramatic play: story and game structure. InProceedings of the 24th BCS Interaction Specialist Group Conference (pp. 448-452). British Computer Society.
  27. Rubinfeld, M. D. (2001).Bound to bond: gender, genre, and the Hollywood romantic comedy. Praeger Publishers.
  28. Said, Edward W.Orientalism. Penguin Books, 1978.
  29. Schein, L. (1997). Gender and Internal Orientalism in China. Modern China,23(1), 69-98. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/189464
  30. Shin, M. (2010). Making a Samurai Western: Japan and the White Samurai Fantasy in The Last Samurai. Journal Of Popular Culture43(5), 1065-1080. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2010.00787.x
  31. Stabiner, K. (2016, October 18). In Rome, Using ‘Roman Holiday’ as a Guide. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/23/travel/roman-holiday-film-rome-italy-hepburn-peck.html
  32. Valk, J. (2015). Research Note: The “Kimono Wednesday” Protests: Identity Politics and How the Kimono Became More Than Japanese. Asian Ethnology,74(2), 379-399. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43799246
  33. Welsch, T. (1997). Teaching Mise-en-Scène Analysis as a Critical Tool. Cinema Journal36(2), 101.
  34. Williams, L. (1991). Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess. Film Quarterly,44(4), 2-13. doi:10.2307/1212758
  35. Yegenoglu, M. (1998).Colonial fantasies: Towards a feminist reading of Orientalism. Cambridge University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s