Thursday, January 22, 2004

Further thoughts on Lost in Translation, and on Tokyo.

Okay, I think I am willing to concede that I perhaps was a little overcritical of the photography in Lost in Translation when I first wrote about it. A group of bloggers went to see it in central London on Tuesday night, and I tagged along and saw it again. And while the photography is dark, and I still don't really like it, I am willing to concede that there is more subtlety to it than I thought the first time and that it does reflect the mood of the characters, although it is still too murky in places. Certainly, though, my reaction to this is slightly personal. I don't see Tokyo as dark. I see it as about the least dark city I have ever been to. For one thing, there is so much light bouncing off so much concrete. There are so many lights. There are so many noises. And while the film captures the foreignness of the lights and noises, it does not picture my Tokyo (one that in the end I find slightly less foreign than Sofia Coppola does, I think).

The things I praise about the film - the two central performances, the sense of mood, the quality of the music, I continue to praise, a lot. After The Virgin Suicides I knew it would have great music, so I actually bought the soundtrack CD in Tower Records Shibuya - perhaps my favourite record shop in the world and also one of the best places in Tokyo for buying the sorts of English language books that people like me would want to buy - and I therefore have the Japanese special edition CD. In this case this is necessary somehow. It would be fun to go and see Lost in Translation again at Cinema Rise in Shibuya - the ultra-hip independent Japanese cinema that made Sofia Coppola a big name in Japan long before she was in the west - but it hasn't opened there yet. (Apparently they had lots of other films booked that they had to show first. When I was in Tokyo in November they were showing The Brown Bunny so I tend to think that it would be better if they just got to it. But I digress...). In particular, there is a scene in the movie in which Bill Murray films his whiskey commercial, and the humour comes from the fact that the things being translated to and from Japanese consist of three words in English, and lengthy speeches with lots of passion and gesticulation in Japanese. They are not subtitled - the fact that the characters and the audience do not understand the Japanese is the point - and I would therefore be fascinated to see how a Japanese audience responds to them. Is this scene still funny, or does it not work. Getting it to work for both audiences who do not speak Japanese and audiences who do (and who are seeing subtitles of the English dialogue) would be quite impressive. (It would also be interesting to see how a Japanese audience respond to the perhaps slighly caricatured portrayal of the Japanese in this film).

I don't think I am likely to visit Tokyo again for at least a year or two, so I don't think I am going to be able to see the film with such an audience. This is a shame. And of course there is another reason why this is a shame.

At a party just before Christmas, I found myself chatting to Natalie Solent and Jim Bennett about compulsory purchase, and whether it is necessary and/or a good thing to get infrastructure built. Bennett mentioned to me that Tokyo had been built without compulsory purchase, and the city had still got built. He also mentioned that I should read the book Tokyo: City at the End of the World by Peter Popham. This was a fine recommendation, as it is a wonderfully good book. I am fascinated at the structure of cities, and how they grow from smaller towns, groups of villages, and nothing at all, and this is fundamentally what the city is about. Althout the book does talk about the development of the private railway system in Japan (and the value capture financing that simultaneously makes railways profitable and gets an immense amount of real estate developed) it is more concerned with real estate development, and how that occurs without value capture.

More than that, though, the book explains Tokyo's structure. The lack of permanance that means that Japanese people have a different attitude to the age of buildings than do westerners and Europeans in particular (Tokyo was destroyed by an earthquake in 1923 and again by bombing in 1945) is central, but so is the lack of compulsory purchase. (The clump of skyskrapers in which the hotel in which most of Lost in Translation is set is west Shinjuku, which was built after a reservoir was filled in, as there was no other way to obtain that large a piece of empty land in a political environment in which there was no compulsory purchase). And the structure of central Tokyo is driven by a series of circles around the Imperial Palace. What is really interesting about this is that it is generally not visible to people who are on the ground. The Imperial Palace is a huge no go area in central Tokyo as far as the public are concerned, but one which is largely irrelevant to modern life. Paying no attention to it (as is normal) you just wonder why the bit of Tokyo you are in is shaped the way it is, and there seems no good reason. In order to see the structure you have to look at it on a larger scale than any normal person would. And this book helped me too see things this way, for which I am enormously grateful, as well as many other things about Tokyo that I did not understand. (Including, for instance why there are generally no street names). I need to go back and look at the city again. Except that I am unlikely to be able to do this soon. And, to be honest, there are other places that I really do want to see again before too long and which will come first, most notably the Pearl River Estuary in China and certain parts of India, particularly Mumbai and Kolkata.

(Still, though, the book did not tell me definitively that there was no compulsory purchase involved in the building of Tokyo's railways. It spent most of its time explaining that there was no compulsory purchases for real estate development. I think this may be so, but I do not know for sure. I know that there were tremendous issues getting a second runway built at New Tokyo International Airport (Narita) due to rice farmers who would not sell, and I tend to think that an airport would fall under the same rules as a railway, but if anyone can definitively answer this question, I would like to hear from them.

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