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Lost in Translation is Twenty!

Bill Murray Lost in Translation
Suntory Time

A recent article in the Japan Times revealed Sofia Coppola's 2003 film, "Lost in Translation," has celebrated its twentieth anniversary, and it's astonishing how time flies. This film was the first that truly resonated with some of my off the wall experiences in Japan. Throughout its duration, I found myself nodding in recognition, thinking, "Yes, I've lived that moment." Whether it was the dimly lit, smoky ambiance of the Shibuya Air Bar, navigating the eclectic vibe of the teaches of Peaches, endless nights of Karaoke, or indulging in spur of the moment conversations about information security at the Park Hyatt New York Bar with an old friend, while an emerging talent serenading in the backdrop — it all felt so familiar.

A particular element from the movie that struck a chord with me was the portrayal of Hollywood icons endorsing products in Japan. Since my arrival in Japan in 1989, the ubiquity of celebrity endorsements was fairly new to me. Growing up in North Carolina, the only parallel I could draw was the 50/60's television and music icon, Jimmy Dean, glorifying country life with sausage or the great Orson Welles, selling no wine before it's time.

Spotting an American icon on Japanese television, from time to time, provided a giddy sense of comfort and connection. In an era where I grappled with understanding the local TV content, these familiar faces became my anchor to something known.

Hollywood Meets Japan: Bill Murray, Suntory, and the Stellar Line-up in Japanese Commercials

Lost in Translation" wasn't just a tale of two souls connecting amidst the sprawling Tokyo cityscape. It also touched upon an intriguing intersection of Hollywood glamour and Japanese advertising. Through Bill Murray's portrayal of Bob Harris, a waning American actor visiting Tokyo to film a whisky advertisement for Suntory, the film wove a narrative highlighting the cultural juxtapositions faced by many Westerners in Japan.

This portrayal, though fictional, is grounded in truth. Suntory genuinely collaborated with Hollywood greats, including Sean Connery and Kevin Costner. A standout from an earlier era, and before my arrival was Sammy Davis Jr.'s impromptu act in 1974 for Suntory.

Here's a few that you may enjoy:

1. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Mr. Olympia and Skynet killing machine, himself appeared in wacky ads, endorsing products ranging from energy drinks to instant noodles.

2. Harrison Ford: Trading in the whip and Fedora for a relaxing glass of Kirin beer in the role of Mr. Beer.

3. Nicolas Cage: Beyond Hollywood dramas, Cage sung jingles about Pachinko machines in Japan.

4. Tommy Lee Jones: A long-time ambassador for Boss Coffee, Jones became a familiar face to many Japanese as he studied life on earth as an alien.

5. Leonardo DiCaprio: Before dream-hopping, DiCaprio asked if Orico credit cards were OK.

6. Jodie Foster: Said Yes to a Honda Civic commercial stint in the '90s.

7. Ben Stiller: The comedic genius mixed things up with Kirin Chu-hi .

8. Cameron Diaz: was on a Softbank mobile plan.

9. Bruce Willis: Outside Die Hard's adrenaline-fueled world, led the rebrand for Eneos gas stations, and poked fun at a companies challenges of leveraging big star power with Daihatsu.

10. Keanu Reeves: Reeves, with his typical cool demeanor, featured in a Suntory Reserve whiskey ad.

11. Peter Falk: When he wasn't bumbling about solving crime, he took on tending bar in a series of commercials for Suntory,

Other honorable mentions for whisky: Spaghetti Western great Lee Van Cleef discussed his friends, Paul Mason pitchman Orson Welles speaks about perfection for Nikka, and ( Orson Welles, and the greatest NG take ever ) once upon a time Mickey Rourke really was smooth as the whisky he drank. Any of these could have been the baseline for Bob.

12. Charlie Sheen: before Good Time Charlie got the blues, he was king of cool and selling Italian shoes for Madras Modelo.

13. Meg Ryan: America's sweetheart showcased her charm for Mitsubishi.

14. David Beckham: Not exactly a Hollywood star, but a legend nonetheless, ventured beyond sports to promote Meiji chocolates.

15. Britney Spears: Around the time Spears was flying high in her music debut she used her kawaii power to like some UHA gummies.

16. Jean Reno: Ditched his assassin for hire persona, and amusingly became Japan's favorite anime character, Doraemon, for Toyota.

17. Jane Wiedlin: Go-Go's co-founder and rhythm guitarist, showcased her solo hit Rush Hour for Shimadzu medical imaging.

18. George Clooney: Showcased his brush talent, and was feeling refreshed with Kirin.

19: Jean-Claude Van Damme: Had a wake up call with Lotte Black Black gum.

20. Brad Pitt: The best for last. I've always told folks, if you want to sell jeans you put Brad Pitt's arse in them, Edwin Jeans.

So why do the Japanese like to use international stars in their commercials?

Japanese advertisers often employ international film stars in their commercials for several reasons:

1. Perceived Prestige: International film stars, especially those from Hollywood, carry a sense of prestige, luxury, and global appeal. Associating a product with a well-known foreign celebrity can elevate its status in the eyes of consumers.

2. Differentiation: In a crowded advertising market, using an international film star can make a product or service stand out. It distinguishes the brand and provides a unique selling proposition.

3. Cultural Aspirations: Western celebrities, in particular, can symbolize a certain aspirational lifestyle or values that resonate with Japanese consumers. They can evoke images of luxury, cosmopolitanism, or other desirable traits.

4. Mass Appeal: Big-name international stars are recognized globally, and their fame often transcends borders. Their popularity can help in capturing a broad demographic of consumers.

5. Trustworthiness: There's a perception that if a renowned international star endorses a product, the product must be of high quality. Their association acts as a stamp of approval, fostering trust among potential buyers.

6. Memorability: Commercials with international celebrities are more likely to be remembered due to their distinctiveness, leading to better brand recall.

7. Western Influence: Japan has a long history of integrating Western cultural elements with its own. Using international stars in commercials is an extension of this cultural exchange, where Western icons are blended into Japanese contexts.

8. Intrigue and Curiosity: Japanese consumers may be intrigued by seeing their favorite international stars in unexpected roles or contexts. This element of surprise can make the commercial more engaging.

9. Narrative Flexibility: Advertisers can create unique and imaginative stories with international celebrities, ranging from humorous and whimsical to stylish and sophisticated. This flexibility allows for a wide array of creative possibilities.

In essence, using international film stars in commercials aligns with Japan's broader cultural appreciation for global icons, combined with strategic marketing advantages that such celebrities bring to the table.

Hollywood stars in Japanese ads show a mix of cultural respect, smart marketing, and mutual goals. "Lost in Translation" displays how East meets West, especially through celebrity ads, emphasizing cultural differences and the universal appeal of famous faces. The movie highlights how cultures mix and adjust. As the world becomes more connected, famous personalities continue to connect different cultures, showing our shared interests and the lasting impact of film and fame.


Coppola and Suntory: A long history

Francis Ford Coppola collaborated with Akira Kurosawa for a Suntory whiskey commercial in the 1980s. It's a notable instance of two legendary directors from different parts of the world coming together for a commercial endeavor. In the commercial, Coppola is seen visiting Kurosawa on the set of one of his films. They share a moment of mutual admiration before toasting with Suntory whiskey. It's a simple but impactful commercial, underscoring the respect and camaraderie between two great filmmakers while promoting the brand. The collaboration between such prominent directors for an advertisement is a testament to the importance and appeal of celebrity endorsements in Japanese advertising during that time, as international and local celebrities were frequently used to promote products.

This year Sophia Coppola revisted Suntory Time and directed Suntory's 100th anniversary commercial spot featuring Keanu Reeves.


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