Tokyo calling

Tokyo calling

New Hollywood blockbuster Lost In Translation gives whisky a status that it has rarely enjoyed in film before. Dominic Roskrow reports.

News | 23 Feb 2004 | Issue 37 | By Dominic Roskrow

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It’s being hailed as fledgling director Sofia Coppola’s coming of age. Critics have favourably described it as Tokyo’s answer to Brief Encounter. There are whisperings that actor Bill Murray’s role will get him an Oscar nomination.Even the soundtrack – the first significant work by independent icon and former My Bloody Valentine front man Kevin Shields for more than 10 years – has had the media reaching for superlatives.But just seconds in to Lost In Translation you are left in no doubt that this is first and foremost a whisky film. Or at least half of it is.From the opening images of Bill Murray in a Japanese taxi looking ruefully at images of himself on billboards through to the reception from Suntory representatives who meet him when he arrives at his Tokyo hotel, whisky features large.And not whisky in the recognisable American movie sense we’ve grown accustomed to; as a symbol of white trash rebellion and non conformity, or as the essential accompaniment to some loser’s descent from acceptable society to the gutter.No, this is whisky Japanese-style; as a status symbol representing sophistication and class, as the drink of choice in the best hotels, as the natural companion for anyone nursing a drink alone when lost in the vacuum that is international business travel.For those of us who care about such things (and admittedly there aren’t many of us and we’re probably a bit sad) Lost In Translation is an important film because it gives whisky a respectability it has rarely enjoyed in film.Sofia Coppola, the daughter of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, is held up as an example of Hollywood’s future; a young, bright, attractive female director.And she’s chosen to go where few American directors have dared to go in the past; she has associated her romantic male lead with hard liquor. And done so in a positive and influential way.Hell, she might even make drinking whisky sexy. Who would have thought it. Lost In Translation is the story of Bob Harris, a world-weary and fading Hollywood actor who has been paid $2 million to advertise Suntory whisky.He has been flown to Tokyo for a week’s filming and finds himself in high class Nomansland – an international business hotel with a soulless and impersonal bar. He is restless and bored, unhappy and out of touch with the domestic life he has left behind in America which intrudes into his loneliness at inappropriate moments. He knows he has sold his soul for money and despises himself for it.In scenes which hint at the initial ennui he conveyed in Groundhog Day, he flits between hotel bedroom, bar and television set unhappy and lonely, but rarely alone. And for that time, the first hour or so of the film, Suntory whisky – “for relaxing times, make it Suntory time” – is his almost constant companion.The film changes gear when Murray meets a young and attractive woman, the new wife of a photographer working with a rock band in Tokyo and feeling as directionless as Murray. From here on in everything, including the whisky, fall away as Murray and soon to be massive new actress Scarlett Johansson are drawn together by their circumstances, natural chemistry and mutual isolation and disorientation.It is all beautifully filmed, capturing the excitement of Tokyo on the one hand, and its slightly frightening strangeness on the other. And Murray is immense throughout. But for the film to work Murray has to combine his disillusion with life and his advancing years with a glimpse of a softer
side, a personality that a young woman might be drawn towards.Coppola chose to make his reason for being in Tokyo a whisky advert. And decided to make Murray’s character a whisky drinker by choice. That in itself is a major statement.“When I saw him in Rushmore that sensitive side of his broke my heart,” she said of his casting recently. “I always thought he was funny and cute, from Groundhog Day and Tootsie and stuff, but when I saw that I realised he had this other side. There was something to his character that I just related to.“I also knew that he was smart. There’s something really endearing about him. He has a kind heart.”For the film’s Suntory advertising campaign he is presented as a model of sophistication, sipping whisky “like James Bond” in bow tie and Tux.Compare that to the last time Suntory was spotted in a Hollywood blockbuster.In Spiderman, as the hero and the Green Goblin battle it out with pumpkin bombs and flying skateboards in some city centre, Suntory is advertised on the side of a building.It’s worse still for American bourbon Maker’s Mark in the same film. As actor William Defoe’s character descends in to the madness that will create the Green Goblin he rants and raves while waving a bottle of Maker’s Mark at the screen.Compare that to the quiet way in which Murray is portrayed as the older male unintentionally masking his attractiveness but through props such as his whisky, revealing hints of it to Johnasson.Whisky as sexy? Well we might be seeing a trend here.It’s no coincidence that the Japanese advert makers ask Murray to pose like James Bond, because in the last two Bond films whisky has featured as a drink of choice for the super spy. It’s as if as a product he draws a line between the sophisticated and ‘mature’ sex symbol and the new wave of up and coming young pretenders.Not convinced?In a recent light-hearted survey by William Grant & Son’s public relations company a whopping 83 per cent of women interviewed said that men drinking malt whisky were ‘sexy’– easily the top answer.The point here isn’t that whisky makes you sexy. It’s that whisky’s status is being given a highly positive makeover.In effect, whisky is being dragged out of the gutter that the American media in particular has put it in, and is being dressed down as a symbol of style and sophistication.This is all the more amazing when you consider how polarised on such matters America is becoming under George Bush.With the tobacco industry all but dealt with, there is a growing view that if it can turn away from the war on terrorismfor 10 minutes the fundamentalist Christian far right is likely to turn its attentions to hard spirits.Opinions have become entrenched, with the middle ground losing out to the ‘for’ and ‘against’ Bush camps. So much so that the controversial heavy metal maverick Marilyn Manson declared that he preferred to live under Bush because he provided a catalyst for radical and rebellious art and music.He has a point; America is creating some of the bawdiest and most delinquent rebel music in years, and it all seems to be whiskey-fuelled; artists such as former Whiskeytown front man Ryan Adams, southern preachers’ sons Kings of Leon and Louisville’s My Morning Jacket all speak and sound like they know the inside of a bourbon bottle.They are reinforcing polite America’s view of whiskey as the fuel for delinquency. Meanwhile in Japan, whisky represents the very opposite.It’s a seismic shift, and one that could reflect a movement of the balance of cultural power from West to East. Certainly, rarely has Tokyo enjoyed a more sympathetic and comprehensive portrayal than the one it receives in Coppola’s film.And it won’t do the reputation of Suntory any harm, either. Lost In Translation might be a romantic comedy and it might gently mock Japan’s strange customs.But it says much more about the ignorance and abrasiveness of America than it ever does about the quirkiness of modern Japan.Certainly Suntory has high hopes. The film doesn’t open there for another couple of months and is currently just hitting the screens across Europe, so it’s far too early to judge whether Suntory’s starring role will benefit it.But according to Suntory’s International Liquor Division’s general manager Shinya Natsuyama, there is hope that awareness of the company in general – and Hibiki in particular – will grow.The relationship between the company and Sofia Coppola came about through Francis Ford Coppola, who has actually appeared in a Japanese-only advert for Suntory Reserve.“We thought that this film would help to raise the interest in whisky in the long term,” he says. “We were not involved in the actual film making and its contents.“Suntory recognises the importance of communication with consumers and tries to convey the goodness of whisky with brand images that reflect sophistication.“Suntory does indeed employ celebrities who suit the image of our brand.“We’ll have to see if this film increases our sales in Japan when the film is finally released here.”Whatever the direct outcome, Lost in Translation and Suntory might, between them, have started a trend away from the tight almost censorial nature of modern America to the refreshingly vital approach of the Japanese.Certainly Bill Murray’s been happy discussing the fact that he enjoys drinking alcohol in interviews, and whether this is as a result of this film or just the reaction of an experienced actor who couldn’t care less what middle America makes thinks of it, who knows?But whatever else, whisky’s enjoying a spot in the limelight at the moment, and it’s for positive reasons. It’s a good time. It is, to coin Lost in Translation’s phrase, Suntory time. 
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