Tonoharu Part Two: Excellent graphic novel about an English teacher in Japan

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See my review of Tonoharu Part One

Tonoharu is Lars Martinson's 3-volume graphic novel about a young American who gets a job as an English teaching assistant in a small Japanese town. It's a story of isolation, frustration, and mystery, with just the right amount of black humor to keep it from being depressing. Dan Wells, the main character, is a recent college graduate who gets a job at a junior high school in the town of Tonoharu. The teachers and staff at the school are mostly standoffish, and because his contract requires him to stay on campus all day even when he has nothing to do, the resulting boredom combined with the language and cultural barrier are at times almost unbearable. The few foreigners that Dan gets to know are too weird to connect with in a meaningful way. And an American girl he meets and becomes smitten with seems to want to have as little to do with him as possible.

As time goes on, Dan establishes something of a social network (including an affair with a female teacher at his school who visits his apartment to have sex with him), and he is introduced to a baffling family of seemingly wealthy Europeans living in an old Buddhist temple.

I'm happy to be able to show you the following exclusive excerpt from Tonoharu Part Two, which is now available. The preview is made up of two sections of the book: pages 31-35 and pages 49-56. Some pages in the middle have been omitted because they didn't relate to the year-end party scene.

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Lars Martison: Page 50, Panel 1 shows a Japanese teacher wearing a santa suit and a black man mask. This was based on something I witnessed at a year-end party, where a Japanese teacher wore a mask in the likeness of Bob Sapp, a popular K-1 fighter in Japan. Party stores in Japan sell masks in the likeness of popular celebrities, both Japanese and foreign; I'm sure there was no racist intent.

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Lars: Page 52 -- I wanted to use real Japanese pop song lyrics, but after doing a bit of research, I decided it wasn't worth the risk of getting sued, or the hassle of trying to secure the rights (especially since most readers wouldn't know the difference anyway). Maybe I'm paranoid, but a lawsuit is the last thing I need. So I created original "parody" lyrics based on the songs I wanted to use.

Page 52, Panel 2 was based on "UFO" by Pink Lady, and panel 3 is based on "Chase the Chance" by Namie Amuro. Both seemed like songs female Japanese teachers in their 30s might sing. For panel 4, I really wanted to use the theme from "Ghostbusters". I don't know why, it just somehow seemed like the perfect song for a reluctant Dan to solemnly sing. But again, I was afraid of getting sued, and a parody version in this case would have just been distracting. So I very reluctantly settled with the public domain song "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain."

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Lars: Page 53 -- I really wanted the sad song the teacher sings to be real (even though, again, most people wouldn't know the difference). It was really hard finding an appropriate song with lyrics that are in the public domain, but after much searching I finally did. [Ed. Note: YouTube took down the video that Lars linked to.]

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Buy Tonoharu on Amazon: Part One | Part Two


    1. That fans of that movie would also like this book doesn’t make me want this book.

      Well, that’s what the comparison is there for, I guess. But what does that have to do with your link?

          1. I think prior expectations had a lot to do with who liked that film and who hated it. If you were hoping for a wacky mid-80s-style comedic performance from Bill Murray then the film definitely didn’t deliver, but as a bittersweet story about life, relationships, disappointment and allowing oneself get lost in the unfamiliar I think it was very well done.

          2. It was the writing, and the directing. The gags didn’t work. Once you stop buying into the idea that these deep characters deal with all their intercultural interactions at the 3rd grade level, you stop buying into the movie.

        1. Only if you didn’t like the movie. If you did like the movie — as I did — then the comparison is saying that the comic is worth reading. I’m fine with that.

          What isn’t clear is whether you’re saying that the comic is racist. If you have an opinion of your own, please state it plainly; we’ll have a much more interesting conversation that way. Or less frustrating, anyway.

    2. I thought Lost in Translation was parodying the stereotypical view of Japanese, not buying into it.

  1. The last time I went to karaoke here, I couldn’t find anyone who could sing “UFO” for me. Everyone was in their 20s though. Kids these days got no sense of history.

  2. If there were a digital version I’d buy it… Especially as i feel I could connect rather well to the main character as a New Zealander working deep in Central China. Please get with the digital age authors – you’re losing sales (well – at least 1 sale…)

  3. Every American I know who has lived in Japan, myself included, found Lost in Translation to be quite true to the experience. Not at all racist. The Japanese love to create — and act out — the kind of caricatures shown in the movie. It’s a culture of masks, and there is no shame in wearing them.

  4. There’s a similar one with an artist in North Korea.

    It’s called “Pyongyang” by Guy Delisle and it’s great!

  5. No, I’m not saying the comic is racist, but I am saying that the movie is racist.

    Can anyone be bothered to read the link I provided, which explains the movie’s Eurocentric arrogance better than I can?

    Here’s a snippet:

    The Japanese are presented not as people, but as clowns. And the performances are flawlessly comic. Yutaka Tadokoro, as the mop-headed hipster, directs Bob for a commercial with the precision exuberance of Seiji Ozawa conducting Stravinsky. Fumihiro Hayashi, as a call girl, plays hilariously off straight-man Murray, demanding that he “lip my stocking!” and in doing so, elevating the tired joke about how the Japanese confuse L’s and R’s to high comedy, not to mention the unbridled absurdity of her solo date-rape tussle on the floor of Bob’s hotel room. And finally, Matthew Minami, real-life TV star of Matthew’s Best Hit TV, is disturbingly unforgettable as a dayglo, amphetamine-boosted update of a Japanese archetype-the silly, teahouse homosexual. The timing of all the lines, gestures, and editing is impeccable, but the hilarity is rooted entirely in the “otherness” of the Japanese people. We laugh at them, not with them. This is why the film is accused of being racist. . . .

    Lost in Translation relies wholly on the “otherness” of the Japanese to give meaning to its protagonists, shape to its plot, and color to its scenery. The inaccessibility of Japan functions as an extension of the alienation and loneliness Bob and Charlotte feel in their personal lives, thus laying the perfect conditions for romance to germinate: they’re the only ones who understand each other. Take away the cartooniness of the Japanese and the humor falls flat, the main characters’ intense yearning is neutralized and the plot evaporates.

    No Mark, I can’t go along with the idea that Coppola’s film is just parodying stereotypical views of Japanese people. There just aren’t the right kinds of clues for that in the film–which treats the white American characters in an entirely straightforward, three-dimensionalized, realistic manner–to read the stereotypical and cartoonish representations of Japanese-ness as satire. The persistently foreign two-dimensionality of Japanese people all functions as a mere backdrop in the narrative service of a plot about two central white characters. It’s patently using-characters-of-color-as-backdrops-merely-to-tell-us-something-about-the-central-white-characters all over again.

    1. “There just aren’t the right kinds of clues for that in the film — which treats the white American characters in an entirely straightforward, three-dimensionalized, realistic manner…”

      It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the movie, but I thought the guy who played the husband (the photographer) was not real at all, and intentionally so. I’ve met asshole photographers before, and this guy was a satirical distillation of them. Then again, it seems like you have given this film a great deal of thought. I haven’t, so my opinions should not be taken as seriously as yours.

  6. Anon, I’ve read a lot of Guy Delisle, and I like him very much. Gotta say, though–sorry–that he doesn’t do all that much to scratch beneath the surface of North Koreans in that book. And I won’t buy the excuse that “he couldn’t because the North Koreans wouldn’t let him do that, and that’s the bloody point, mate.”

    His book on Burma/Myanmar is somewhat better in this respect.

  7. Wow. That captures my experience here uncomfortably well.

    That really is what it’s like, at times, at least. It can be pretty lonely and alienating.
    However, I’m really hoping that’s the nadir of the book, because for the most part I love my life, and I love my job here.

    Whilst I’ve felt and acted like Dan does in this excerpt, it’s not the larger part of the experience.

  8. Hmm, I think perhaps we’re getting off topic, but I’ll bite. The film wasn’t a comedy. The Japanese people were exaggerated versions of Japanese stereotypes – stereotypes which are rooted in reality (as all stereotypes are).

    They’re exaggerated – and therefore can easily be interpreted as racist – to bring out Bill Murray’s alienation and loneliness in this unfamiliar place. Spending a lot of time in Asia if you’re a white guy from the US or Europe who doesn’t consume a lot of Asian media is shocking, unless perhaps you stick to a guided tour or something.

    The way the filmmakers chose to illustrate this was by exaggerating things. With culture shock, in your mind you tend to exaggerate the differences. Things aren’t really *that* strange, but it seems like they are because it’s *so* different from what you expect. In reality it’s not strange, it’s just different. But it takes a lot to get over a lifetime of cultural expectations.

  9. Honestly LIT doesn’t even scratch the surface of what it’s like to live in Japan as a foreigner. Two wealthy people living in hotel rooms doesn’t say much about anyone. LIT is better off as a japanophile’s exaggeration of life for foreigners in Tokyo, if even that.

  10. LIT isn’t about life in Japan as a foreigner. It’s about the relationship between Scarlett’s character and Bill’s character. And it’s about life as an expat who is totally uninterested in Japan. They spend their time shopping and hanging out at their expensive hotel, not getting to know the country.

    The movie could have been set anywhere sufficiently foreign.

  11. I love this comic. I was in Dan’s shoes for 4 years and I can attest that it is absolutely accurate. He’s nailed the details of an assistant language teacher position in Japan perfectly. The cliche of this job is ESID – every situation is different – but reading this now I realize how similar our experiences as an ALT are in this position. Thanks for posting it, Mark!

  12. I seriously don’t understand why anyone would move to Japan without speaking the language. Have you ever heard of English teachers going to Ecuador or Peru and then whining all over the internet about how isolating it is to not understand anyone, because they didn’t learn Spanish?

    The fact that most of the “English teacher in a foreign country feels bad” stories I’ve seen are about living in Japan says more about the kind of people that move to Japan than it does about the country itself.

    A Japanese person moving to France to teach Japanese would face much more in-your-face racism than a white person in Japan, and would certainly face isolation and feel/look like an outsider no matter how good their French was. The only reason many people I’ve seen posting here (not necessarily on this post) think of the Japanese as racist and xenophobic but don’t ascribe the same label to average Europeans is that most of them are white and wouldn’t face any discrimination if they went to Europe.

    Anon #14 said “The Japanese love to create — and act out — the kind of caricatures shown in the movie. It’s a culture of masks, and there is no shame in wearing them.”

    Seriously? I’m so sick of hearing how Japanese people wear masks and hide their true feelings in public, as if that is in any way unique to that culture or a foreign concept in ours. Do you change the way you speak depending on who you are talking to? Boss vs. kids vs. waitress? Then you are doing the same thing. That’s just a normal part of social interaction, not some kind of psyche-damaging hiding of the “real” self. Everybody adjusts their behavior when dealing with different people, and it’s thickheaded to pretend that doing so is disingenuous, unnecessary, “fake,” or a cultural anomaly.

    People should be more realistic with their expectations before moving to Japan. Obviously you are NEVER going to blend in, considering that it’s a very homogeneous country. Before you get upset at this fact and decry it as a result of racism, consider that an Asian person in America (multi-racial country, long history of immigration, sizable Asian population, supposedly more enlightened about race) will also not blend in, and even if they are 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation they still get asked which country they are from and if it was hard to learn English. Of course these issues are often avoided if they live in an area with a large Asian population, but anywhere else it does happen.

    I think many of the problems foreigners have in Japan are really due to interpreting situations through their own cultural lens, or going too far with the “I’ve read tons of books about Japanese culture and behavior” and reading way too much into every interaction. And if you move there and don’t know the language well, don’t know much about popular culture, aren’t familiar with any of the media that Japanese people your age grew up with, don’t follow current events, and basically don’t have anything in common with anyone you meet, how can you possibly expect to be welcome with open arms, or even have a decent conversation with someone?

    I know that many people who do speak/read/write Japanese well face the annoying fact that most people greatly underestimate their language abilities. But even this is hard to sympathize with, considering the large number of foreigners in Japan who DO have bad language skills and are often illiterate. The number of foreigners in Japan is small, and the number that can function fully in the language is even smaller; it’s only recently that there has been an increasing number of people dedicated enough to become completely literate and who try to speak without a foreign accent. With that in mind, it’s only natural that random people you meet are going to assume you are one of the less-than-capable ones until proven otherwise, and it’s not something to be offended at. It’ll take a longer history of average foreigners being good at Japanese before this perception shifts.

  13. On the one hand, I wish the Japanese was translated. On the other, it’s a nice bonus for those who speak Japanese (not me).

    But is the whole comic so sad or is that just the excerpt? I guess I should buy it and find out.

    As to Lost in Translation, I think the lead characters were alienated not only from the over-the-top Japanese, but also from their own over-the-top American compatriots! Bob’s toxic wife sending him carpet samples in the mail, and faxing passive-aggressive notes. The distant, possibly misogynist photographer husband. The crass US pop star who thinks pronouncing karate with the accent on the last syllable makes her enlightened.

    The heroes find just as much serenity in Japan (Kyoto?) as incomprehensible brouhaha, but they must always contend with being outsiders. They are either overwhelmed by the people around them, or incapable of respectfully entering a more appealing, serene world. The title refers to more than the language barrier.

  14. My Japanese coworker thinks there is nothing remotely racist about Lost In Translation. She even became confused by the question because it sounded so strange to her. That makes it not racist ^^

    I think being overly sensitive to racism implies a level of actual racism. Some people treat cultures like they are protecting a mentally challenged child.

  15. Thanks Beaver, I’ll keep in mind that whenever a lot of non-white people in one group point out that something is racist, if a white person has a friend who says it’s not, well then–TA DA!–it’s not.

    I’ll also keep in mind that the real racists are those who perceive racism. Real insightful, that.

    Btw, did you bother to read the link I provided before dismissing my charges against that tired, cliched, Eurocentric, arrogant, and yes, racist movie?

    1. Honestly you basically proved Beaver’s point. It wasn’t a white person saying it wasn’t racist, it was a Japanese person. Shouldn’t the people supposedly being offended have to be, you know, offended, before it’s actually offensive? Or should some crusader of another race just come in on a stallion and rail against the offenses these poor people are suffering, even if they are not actuially suffering?

      In other words, if a white guy (or girl) decided it’s racist against Japanese, and Japanese don’t agree, who is right? Seems in your wold, the white is. Great logic there, champ.

  16. I find it funny how someone would get the idea that Lost in Translation was racist considering it had less to do with Japan then it had to do with life. Look at it this way, Sophia is very smart like her father, she used the backdrop of a foreign city as a type of isolated island for the characters to develop in. It was a movie about life and love, not about culture. The characters didn’t live there, nor did they speak the language. They were only there for a short time anyway. I can see how someone from there would see it as racist, because they would feel the scenes in the movie were somehow aimed at them, mocking them or making fun of their culture or something. The truth is, it’s nothing of the sort. I’ve been to Japan as a solder a few years ago. Didn’t speak the language, was only there a short time (Joint military exercise, a kind of exchange program). Unlike the teacher in this story who lived and worked there, the movie was about the characters, about life. It was not about experiencing different culture

  17. Nice art, but that’s about it.

    I always find it interesting when someone who lived/visited there comments on the disconnect. Thankfully I cannot relate.

    Having lived in Japan for a year as a foreign exchange student (1995) & later for another year as a teacher, I was never lost in translation. I would move back in a heartbeat if it wasn’t so expensive to own property in/around Tokyo.

    Sorry, but I found it very easy to blend into Japanese culture. I basically blew-off the other exchange students/teachers (some of whom just gave up and went back home mid-year), studied Japanese diligently and ‘did as the Romans do’.

    My host family was Japanese, my girlfriend was Japanese, my friends were all Japanese, my studying/eating/social habits were Japanese, my mannerisms were Japanese, I *spoke* Japanese almost all of the time – thus my life was Japanese. My friends & girlfriend viewed me as Japanese. People actually thought my host-sister and I were related (and I don’t look Japanese). To this day I still feel half-Japanese and have visited twice.

    Maybe this a skill some people don’t have? Maybe some people don’t try hard enough? Maybe my parents raised me to be more independent? I don’t know. I’ve just never understood the whole ‘wow this culture is so wildly different’ notion…

    For the record though, love Bill Murray :)

  18. Disclaimer: I studied Japanese in Tokyo for a year as part of my degree, lived with a host family, worked as an English conversation teacher at a university and ran practical English classes at the community centre. My Japanese is OK, except for reading/writing, at which I suck. I spent some time with fellow gaijin at uni, some with Japanese people, and some at home with Japanese host mum and dad. I currently plan to go back there and teach ASAP (within practical bounds).

    This seems very reminiscent of a few people I knew who spent all their spare time complaining and none doing anything about it. The guy is hardly helping matters by conversing purely in English, and if he’s so damn homesick what’s he doing living abroad anyway; I cannot help but get the feeling that he’s the root of his own problems. If anyone takes anything from this, it’s that you have to get off your arse and take the initiative yourself. I had some help to start with, but once I got out and tried, I loved what I was doing, I was made welcome and doors opened for me. I felt deeply touched by the way my students and staff contacts accepted me and helped me out.

    Possibly the art is very much exacerbating the depressing side of this. Japan is a colourful, visually sumptuous country, with IMO the best national appetite for subtle details in the world; if this were in lifelike colour and had a high level of detail, I bet the protagonist’s dolorous nature would cease to be even superficially touching and appear more like what it should really be seen as – rather teenage and self-indulgent.

    Re: Lost in Translation – the Japanese setting is simply a commonly understood representation of the concept of cultural alienation. It doesn’t ultimately matter that the minor characters are Japanese; the whole point is that they are not like the main characters. The issue at hand, as the article seems to conclude, is that the film itself isn’t racist, just arrogant. Basically, Lost in Translation is ‘Western Orientalism of Japan: The Movie’, and orientalism may be based on arrogance and cultural ignorance, but it’s certainly not racism. I’m a bit concerned that millie fink didn’t fully read the article she linked to.

  19. orientalism may be based on arrogance and cultural ignorance, but it’s certainly not racism.


    Too bad Edward Said’s not around anymore to set you straight on that.

    If Orientalist stereotypes about another race aren’t racist, than what are they? Mere arrogance instead?

    Orientalism is the kind of “arrogance”–a racist arrogance–that E. Koohan Paik is talking about. Paik doesn’t need to spell out that that arrogance is racism because it’s obviously racism.

    Paranatural wrote,

    Honestly you basically proved Beaver’s point. It wasn’t a white person saying it wasn’t racist, it was a Japanese person. Shouldn’t the people supposedly being offended have to be, you know, offended, before it’s actually offensive?

    But a lot of Japanese (and other East Asian) people are offended. Do you know what “Orientalism” is?

    My point about the “But my Japanese friend said!” comment is that just because one Japanese person isn’t offended and/or doesn’t seem something as Orientalist doesn’t mean that it’s not Orientalist. Many of those people whom the West used to call “Orientals” don’t like being represented by Orientalist caricatures at the service of a white-centered story; the fact that one doesn’t mind it doesn’t change that, and it doesn’t erase racism.

  20. I for one liked Lost in Translation, but it has to be taken at face value. Of course only the Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansen characters are fully fleshed-out. They are the leads, and LiT is above all a story about cultural isolation. To more fully develop the Japanese characters may have assuaged some people’s concerns of racism, but it does nothing for the plot and would probably undercut it. Sofia Coppola chose to make a drama, and a rather good one at that. And while there is a place for anti-racist viewpoints and cross-cultural understanding, this just wasn’t the movie for that.

    My wife disliked LiT, but for a different reason. She objected to the portrayal of an older man involved with a younger woman. Hey, what can I say, that kind of thing pushes her buttons, and in this case it ruined the experience for her. I suppose it might be the same for those who are very sensitive to perceived racism, but all I saw was a movie that worked.

    And yes, I did read every word of the linked article.

    1. “Okay, I get it. If y’all don’t see it, well, then it’s just not there, right?”

      Well I think it can come down to a matter of perception. If we were talking about a minstrel from the 1920s with white people in blackface, then yes, we cand and should objectively call it racism. But what are we to make of a scene of Bill Murray in an elevator with shorter Japanese people? Is this an insulting stereotype, or is it an honest recognition that the average Japanese tend to be shorter than the average American? Is it played cynically just for laughs, or is is it meant to move the plot forward by showing one more reason why Bill Murray feels like an outsider here? For me, this scene just didn’t meet the critera for racism.

      Being aware of racism is important, but when we start viewing everything through the filter of “is it or is it not racist” then we risk blinding ourselves to other truths.

      I will say this, all this discussion has got me interested in seeing LiT again, with an open mind towards some of the issues brought up here.

    2. Sigh back atcha, Millie. Before we get into this, let me get my own biases out of the way: African American, east coast elitist-institutionalized, spent 10 years in Japan (teaching at an English conversation school, teaching sociology [in Japanese and English] at a Japanese university, recording commercials, doing technical translation). I’d say that I was fluent (reading/writing) by the time I left Japan; I’d say that I’m conversationally fluent now.

      Forward, then:

      With all due respect, I don’t think linking to an article or two means anything other than that you agree (or, at best, want others to agree) with the perspective presented by the authors. And that’s fine. You (and the writers of the articles you’ve chosen) have every right to wonder if, purposefully or in an eurocentrically blind manner, Lost in Translation is guilty as charged. And several other folks have every right to say such things as, “Sorry, Millie: I just don’t see it.” The fact that they don’t see it doesn’t always mean that the racism *you* see doesn’t exist–it might simply be that they, in a completely, “You know, sometimes I just want to see a movie and not think too much beyond that” way, simply don’t view or remember things the way you do (or did). That’s not meant to say that it’s not possible to see LiT as racist; it can be meant to say that it’s also possible to see LiT as an imperfect slice-of-life movie…and nothing more.

      I lean a little towards Blaven’s assertion: it’s a matter of perception. Yes, I can watch LiT and see racism, if I want to do so. But (and yes, I’m going to play *that* card…right…about…now) trust me, sometimes it’s actually okay not to see racism (or sexism, or any-other-kind-of-ism) in everything. (One man’s opinion; as always, your mileage may vary.) “But I’m not talking about ‘everything;'” you say. “I’m talking about LiT!” And I say, ‘Okay; I can see where you can see it. I’ve watched it, too, several times over. I *can* see it; but for whatever reason, the movie hits me differently, and I don’t.’ Maybe I’m too Eurocentric; maybe I’m too ‘white’ (there’s that east coast elitist bit, Oreo-lizing me); maybe I’m too desensitized to racial issues beyond my own; maybe Obama’s election has moved me to the point where I’m beyond race.

      (I kid; I kid.)

      Or maybe, for me, I just chose, and choose, to see LiT as a movie–whatever that means. But that’s just me. You (and several other folks) seem to see things differently. I can respect that, and you, without this all turning into a “You’re racist if you don’t see the racism in this film!” version of The Numbers.

      Some people are going to look at what you’ve written/referenced, watch LiT again, and walk away muttering to themselves, “Damn. I can’t believe I didn’t see that. Lost in Translation is just @#$%ed up.” I won’t be one of those people. (At least not today.) That’s okay.

      You might be right; I might be, too.

      We cool?

    3. Without commenting on your basic premise, I will mention that it’s just as easy to say, “if you DO see it, it’s there.”

      Anyway, I don’t think the movie would show American-born people of Japanese descent as being anything other than American. So the word shouldn’t be racism, should it? Isn’t racism about… race?

      Maybe it should be called cultural elitism, which is a lot less of a hot-button word.

      And it is, in a way, saying how funny they are over there and how strange it all is. But I don’t get the impression that they were saying that it’s worse or better. Just that it’s different and funny to us. Believe me, the stuff we do is often funny to them, too.

      I like the movie, and it brought back strong memories of feelings I had over my nine months in Korea. I thought that Bill Murray’s character was sometimes less respectful of the Japanese than I would have been. But that’s not unrealistic or offensive. His character in Stripes also did stuff I wouldn’t condone.

  21. First, this Tonoharu doesn’t look very good because the main character seems depressed, jaded, and just plain lame. That doesn’t lead to a very fun or great life in any country. The whole “I’m a misanthrope” thing works better when you are alienated from your own people. If you are in a foreign country and not willing to make the effort, then you’re not just alienated, you’re something worse: responsible for your own failure to figure things out.

    Same for LIT, and that includes the director as well as Murray’s character. As someone who lived in Japan for several years and went to see the movie with my girlfriend — a Korean who lived there even longer — I found the movie quite dull. Just a snapshot of a rich guy with no curiosity, depressed, mixed in with a bunch of shots of Tokyo. Big whoop. It would have been fine as a short, but there just wasn’t enough there for a full-length feature film.

    My girlfriend said it could be used as a video to promote tourism for Japan, because the director seemed to think just turning on the camera in Tokyo was meaningful in and of itself. And that’s probably right for someone who has never been to Japan and doesn’t know the language or culture at all. A land of mystery! Until you make some effort to get to know someone, that is.

  22. Honestly this seems about as tiresome as LIT, for similar reasons. It’s not (just) about the stereotyping of Japanese, but about the willful isolation from the culture you are immersed in. This guy in the comic, like the oblivious American characters in Lost in Translation, seems to have no real interest in the Japanese culture around him. The author seems to both want to establish how different those crazy Japs are while at the same time show off his 日本語 skills…it would be simple to translate and use the sorts of conventions comic artists use to indicate a different language is being spoken, but by presenting it this way, he is erecting a barrier between we English speakers and the Japanese.

    I spend a lot of time with Japanese folks, both my friends here in the U.S. and friends in Japan, and they are no more or less complex than Americans. Yes, there are conventions in Japanese culture that are—surprise!—different from those Americans grow up with. But Japanese are all individuals and have their own interests, fears, neuroses, joys, etc. The idea that Japanese (or any “other”) are somehow so different from Americans (or any Westerner) that we cannot fundamentally relate is an idea that does no one any good, and lends itself well to the sort of foolish stereotyping and cultural myopia that goes on in crap such as Lost in Translation. This comic, at least as far as the selection shown here, as well as Lost in Translation, seems to wallow in that notion for no good reason. The author of this comic is especially guilty since it seems he has a good awareness of Japanese culture, but obviously hasn’t reflected on his knowledge in any depth. I can say this does not make me want to buy this comic. It’s disappointing.

  23. Gotta second a lot of the remarks above. Living in Japan for 10 years now, I can confirm that the way Japanese react to you and treat you really is a reflection of how you try to interact with them–just like with any other people in the world. If you’re a dud, people will treat you like one. If you make any attempt at all to get to know people and interact, even if you don’t speak any or much Japanese, you’ll find that people are friendly and generous–if anything, being foreign gives you an exoticness that opens a lot more doors than it closes if you seem at all approachable (if you’re closed off into yourself, people will be afraid to approach you). Saw the same thing with the other ALTs in my area: who had a great time in Japan and who hated depended just about entirely on the individual’s personality. And the people who hated it the most were the ones who were going to find it just as bad living as adults in their home countries for the first time once they got back.

  24. Many of the Japanese people in Lost in Translation are just playing themselves pretty straight. If you think they’re being racist, maybe it’s you that has a problem with seeing Japanese as “other”.

    Other Japanese people in Lost in Translation are acting, playing characters that are similar to other characters they play already on TV or in movies. If you think that’s racist, maybe the real problem is that you expect Japanese actors to conform to your expectations of what’s acceptable for them to express through their work.

    Non-Japanese people in Lost in Translation are also parodies, or simply unsympathetic. But of course there’s no problem with that because only non-white people can be “other” — if you’re not white.

    Neither Bob Harris or Charlotte are supposed to be admirable. Both of them are selfish and self-absorbed. Bob tells tired jokes like he blows off fans, cheats on his wife, acts cranky, etc.

    Sophia Coppola has any number of Japanese friends in the fashion and entertainment industries, and she spends plenty of time there. There’s no way she’s racist towards the Japanese. I can imagine people who think this way going to Japan, seeing a drunken salariman, and chewing him out for portraying a racist stereotype of Japanese as “other”.

    There are jokes that miss, I admit. I think the “high class prostitute” bit should have been cut, for example. That is much more of an “idea of Japan” than something that might actually happen in my opinion, even cutting slack for the parody aspect of the movie.

    Actually on topic, I recognize this mood very well from my years in Japan. I never really had a problem with isolation because I’m a big Japanophile and learned the language as fast and well as I could, and also I don’t need that much company. But the atmosphere in the comic is excellent and I think true to life for some people I knew.

  25. Oh yeah… Lost in Translation isn’t orientalism. Orientalism has an element of romanticism.

    Charlotte is searching for some kind of romantic excitement from Japan at the start of the movie, but as she tearfully tells her thoughtless LA friend (lots of parody LA characters in this movie — “other” for those not from LA?), she goes to a temple but “doesn’t feel anything”. On the other hand, Bob hates everything about Japan.

    The two connect when they go out with Kitamura Nobuhiko, Hiromix, and Sophia Coppola’s other Japanese friends and have a normal evening that isn’t particularly Japanesey at all. Their issues aren’t addressed by romanticized Japanese culture (or parody American self-help tapes) but by ordinary friendship.

    Charlotte going to Kyoto isn’t orientalism either. Being into Japanese stuff as a foreigner doesn’t make you an orientalist.

    We actually have an orientalist art gallery in the city where I live in Switzerland. It’s right next to a luxury hotel, and I think the main customers are rich Arabs!

  26. Beaver, and t2,

    Well said! I couldn’t believe Milly Fink’s rant about stereotyping etc in Lost in Translation was serious. LIT was so much better than 99 percent of Hollywood movies, many of which contain genuine racism which really IS worth getting fired up about.

    One college seminar too many perhaps?

    As for Tonoharu, I think it is the non-Japanese character (ie the author) who emerges looking most in need of self-analysis but full marks to him for an honest depiction of his own confusion and inability to fit in as well as he would have liked.

  27. Lost in Translation was spot on. I’ve lived in Japan since 1987 and thought LiT captured the essence well, of some of the zany stuff that goes on here, as well as the strange feeling of loneliness despite the crowded conditions.

    Not all Japanese are as over-the-top as some of those characters, of course, but there are indeed people like that. Especially like that ass of a TV CM director.

    I have had people make aggressive and stupid comments about me in my presence, thinking I do not speak the language. I get to see their facial expression when I unleash the Japanese, which makes it worth it. I have even been in a couple meetings over the years where foreigners were being referred to using old derogatory WWII slang for us, right in front of me with the speaker knowing full well I’m fluent. This was suffixed by a “oh, ah, that does not include you, kogurii san”. Hah! Gladly, it does not happen every day.

    This comic looks to be exactly my experience as well. The author has done a fair reflection of the experience here, I believe. Interesting, and I think I will buy it.

    Rick Cogley
    Yokohama Japan

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