- The Japan Fad in Global Youth Culture and Millennial Capitalism
In the Hollywood hit of 2003, Lost in Translation, Tokyo is the backdrop for a tale about modern-day angst and cultural dislocation. As shot by the film's director, Sofia Coppola, the screen fills with scene after scene of a searingly beautiful Tokyo: neon-lit Shinjuku, a pristine sushi bar, the quietude of a temple, a nightclub's jagged excesses. All of this is filtered through the perspective of two American travelers who are as lost in this foreign culture as they are in their personal lives back home. Strangers when they first meet, the two connect over shared insomnia and malaise. Both are reluctant visitors to a country that neither one is interested in; both find Japan utterly strange. Yet the strangeness inspires not only gaffes and gaps in cultural (mis)communication but also intimacy between the two. By the time they part, Japan has acquired a new attractiveness and meaning for them. Yet neither character exhibits greater knowledge or understanding of the country: they are as clueless as when they first checked into their hotel. Indeed, the film's audience shares the same position, as strangers "lost" in a culture that, while quirkily and sensuously beautiful, is foreign and outside "translation."
In 2004 ABC aired an episode of the long-running children's television show, Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, with a story that referenced Coppola's [End Page 11] movie. Titled "Lost and Found in Translation," this story of a cross-cultural encounter is played with a twist: here the protagonists will not only lose but also find their way in(to) a different culture. The episode opens in the United States with the rangers—teenagers who morph into superheroes to fight alien monsters and defend the earth—in their everyday garb, working on a social science project comparing two cultures. On television, they discover a program from Japan that turns out to be a version of Abarangers (that season's variant of Power Rangers) dubbed into English. Two of the three Americans are riveted, fascinated by the cyborgian upgrades and fighting stances of the Japanese rangers. But the third dismisses the foreign show as inauthentic, saying that they "got it all wrong" and discounting the enemy as a "guy in a rubber suit." His pals, however, remind him that it's just a TV show and urge him to use his imagination. Sitting back and watching more, he gets into the action and admits that it's "kinda cool." The episode ends with a message about cultural difference voiced by the new convert. "We're not so different after all, just a slightly different interpretation." Returning to his homework assignment, he announces the title to the others: "Japanese versus American Culture—Closer Than We Think."
Both the above stories, produced by U.S. cultural industries in the new millennium, feature Americans who are discomforted in their encounters with a foreign culture. In both cases, that culture is Japan; in both cases, the discomfort is dispelled. The reasons for this, however, are different. In the former, a blockbuster movie for and about adults, the characters are dislocated from home in a cultural milieu they feel lost in. But, in what has been called a love story, the couple uses the alienness of Japan to bridge their own personal alienation in the company of one another. And, in this, the setting could be anywhere, reviewers have suggested, and Japan acts more figuratively than literally to signify a sense of dislocation in the world at once uneasy and potentially pleasurable. The story line in "Lost and Found in Translation"—an episode for a children's television show featuring kids—is quite different. Here, the tale is set in the United States, where the foreignness Americans confront is on the screen instead of the street. Fictional and unreal, the ranger escapades constitute popular culture: something that American youth take very seriously. And it is in these terms that the U.S. rangers [End Page 12] on the show come to read and appreciate the differences of their Japanese counterparts. Bearing a style that the Americans find cool...