Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation presents a love story between two Americans staying in Tokyo, Bob Harris played by Bill Murray, and Charlotte played by Scarlett Johansson. Their relationship is fueled by their feelings of displacement and alienation during their stay in Japan, and provides an exploration of complex human emotions, such as boredom and loneliness. Lost In Translation confidently splices humor and sadness, playing with our stereotypes and expectations.
The central relationship is explored from the contrasting perspectives of a woman in her early twenties and a middle-aged man, each afflicted by different yet parallel doubts about the course of their life respectively is taking or has taken. Charlotte is a bored yet restless character, whose curiosity fuels the meandering scenes in which she wanders the streets and temples of Tokyo. She personalizes her hotel room by hanging origami decorations from the ceiling in an attempt to make this foreign place she is ‘lost’ within into a ‘home’. Bob is a humorous and tired movie star in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial.
The subplots that follow Bob and Charlotte individually into the city, reinforce their need to forge a relationship with each other, to communicate their problems, their fears, and insecurities. We follow Charlotte around the crowded neon-lit streets and malls of Tokyo, to her occasional departures into the calm of gardens and temples, and her restlessness within her hotel room where she reflects on her marriage and how her life lacks direction. We also view brief snippets of her marriage to her husband Jon, whom seems to want to spend as little time as possible with her. We follow Bob to his endorsement commitments for Suntory Whiskey, and to the hotel bar, gym and golf course, where he contemplates his faded career and stagnant marriage. We are also provided a number of scenes in which Bob talks with his wife over the phone, which reveal a deep underlying dissatisfaction with his marriage, and add a melodramatic texture to the film.
After crossing paths repeatedly in the artificial environment of their luxury hotel, Charlotte and Bob finally talk in the hotel bar one evening, which leads to their joint explorations of the city. They pass witty conversation, with their feelings seemingly reaching each other on a five second delay.
The Karaoke scene is a pivotal point in the movie, in which Bob and Charlotte hint that they feel a connection. They use the songs they choose to define who they are for the other and what they want. It is the point at which Bob realizes that Charlotte is his dream of an uncomplicated future, and Coppola lovingly shoots a wisp of a smile across Bob’s face as he watches Charlotte perform Brass In Pocket in a frosted pink wig.
Coppola’s direction is acutely assured in it’s awareness of loneliness, in capturing the solidarity of the two leading characters in their explorations of a foreign landscape, and their undefined relationship that forms out of a mutual feeling of isolation and longing to connect with other people.
Coppola has seemingly used and exaggerated typical Japanese stereotypes present in American culture, to create an alien situation Bob and Charlotte find themselves navigating, presenting the two focal characters as outcasts, allowing both of them to ‘find’ each other and forge a relationship that would probably never have happened in their home surroundings. Although the stereotypes of Japanese people concerning size, manners and language, could be viewed as racist, these stereotypes are clearly placed in the film in order to provide a more believable alienation in order for the relationship to be forged, and to add a comical edge to the movie. Bob and Charlotte's shared bemusement with the oddities of Japan, clearly help fuel their rapidly evolving friendship. The major difference Coppola decides to focus on is the language barrier. Language, or the ways in which we communicate, and the techniques of communication used within Lost In Translation, are clearly primary concerns for Coppola. At times the film communicates through what is not said. Sometimes instead of the use of words, close attention is payed to ambient noise and sound, like the noise of air conditioners and fluorescent lights becoming part of the milieu, a melodic electronic score, body language, and spliced editing of both solitary figures, and crowded streets and arcades. The language barrier provides a literal interpretation of the title ‘Lost In Translation’, but also allows for an interpretation of being lost on a more expansive scale, of being unable to communicate to others, whether they speak your language or not, of being alienated to technology, and to the cityscapes billions of us inhabit throughout the world.
Lost In Translation connects the dots between three standards of yearning and taboo explored individually in other movies, such as; Brief Encounter, Before Sunrise, and In The Mood For Love. Films about characters trapped, and in transition, in a moment of evanescence that fades before the participant’s eyes. Lost In Translation is in this sense a tragedy for Bob Harris, and to a lesser extent for Charlotte, in that they are both in seemingly stagnant marriages, and find a more perfect relationship with each other, yet the age gap between the two of them and their transient circumstances disallow them to eventually be together, either as friends or lovers.
Coppola’s choice of setting in Tokyo, one of the worlds largest ‘international’ cities, is interesting concerning the relationship that develops between Bob and Charlotte. People living in contemporary urban areas navigate a semi public/semi private space, as does the tourist. The transient non-places of travel, as explored in Marc Auge’s text Non-Places: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Super-modernity; allow opportunities unprecedented in human history to meet and interact with ‘strangers’ from around the world. Lost In Translation is as much a love story as it is an exploration of tourism and our relationship to the post-modern cityscape.
Coppola’s intentional emphasis on how the two focal characters relate to technology in Lost In Translation is possibly used to highlight how the inundation of electronic stimuli can cripple people’s ability to forge real and meaningful relationships. Bob and Charlotte are both ‘looking to be found’ (as the movie poster states), to relate to another person. Charlotte and Bob leave the confines of their automated and sterile hotel rooms in search of this, looking for something real, even if at first they are not sure what they are looking for, they eventually find each other.