Updated: Jan 15, 2022
Sofia Coppola, writer and director of Lost in Translation (2003), has described the film as her own personal love letter to Japan, and it captures the visual majesty of the country in vivid terms. At the same time, it doesn’t shy away from highlighting cultural idiosyncrasies. The film whimsically depicts the minor inconveniences tourists face if they happen to be over 5’6, and the more obvious difficulties in overcoming the language barrier. At the time of its release, there was some gentle criticism regarding perceived negative depictions of Japan, and the Japanese in general. This is capricious nonsense, likely proffered by those who believe every film incorporating a separate culture should function as an anodyne puff piece. This is a notion as witless as it is insulting to the culture in question. One of the more egregious characters in the film is the Japanese director of the commercial starring Bob Harris (as played by Bill Murray). He is a stereotype, but one aimed entirely at faceless hacks who act like megalomaniacs in the presence of a star. It’s also entirely possible that Coppola was having a little fun at her own expense here.
The outsider’s perception of Japan is important, as Lost in Translation is a profoundly beautiful piece of visual storytelling. The film very deliberately juxtaposes the splendour and serenity of ancient Japan with the bustle and cityscapes of modern times. This is the reality of how a stranger perceives this remarkable country: two sides of a coin, each as remarkable as the other, but very different. I’ve personally had the pleasure of visiting Japan, and on the first day I arrived in Tokyo, I was fortunate enough to sample both exquisite natural beauty and cultural history. In the evening however, I bore witness to a sprawling, neon and concrete jungle that was both astonishing and unforgettable. This is a typical dichotomy, and in a similar way the burgeoning relationship of Bob and Charlotte (as portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) is depicted through the living, breathing reality of Japan itself. At first it truly is overwhelming, but as they adjust to the contrasts and eccentricities, their subsequent escape and silly adventures and escapades - alongside the contentment they find in each other’s company - provides both nourishment and renewal.
The film is naturalistic in its construction, seeking to appear as spontaneous as possible, and provides a masterclass in controlled screenwriting, for which Coppola was rightly honoured by the Academy. She conceived of the film with only Bill Murray in mind, and it arguably represents his finest hour. He imbues Bob Harris with a wry charm and the lingering wisp of hopefulness that defines true melancholia. He is captivating, and the relationship he cultivates with the emotionally tenuous Charlotte, who is beautifully realised by a raw but tenacious Scarlett Johansson, is sweet, funny and entirely believable. Their emerging intimacy is captured in stolen, tender and deliberate moments. It is perfectly pitched in its restraint and curiosity, and gorgeous for its refusal to succumb to the temptations of excess. Only once, via the honey trap in red, does the narrative threaten to embrace cliché. Even this serves a broader purpose, allowing Bob and Charlotte to understand (in glaring terms) just how much they value the time they’ve had together.
Coppola deserves enormous credit for displaying such poise. She trusted her abilities as a director, and deliberately maintained a detached, almost documentary-like technique in filming. She obviously had great faith in her actors, and this lack of interference allowed them to encourage and challenge each other. Coppola used very few rehearsals, and encouraged the actors to improvise aspects of their physical and spoken performances, which very obviously played to Murray’s strengths, but Johansson is his equal throughout. The mutual isolation Bob and Charlotte feel in the hotel is what draws them together, and once free of their gilded cage, the relationship plays out amidst a magical place that like them never sleeps, yet remains only too fleeting.
Lost in Translation is as close to perfection as any film can feasibly achieve. It is filmmaking at its truest, with the camera acting as a silent but penetrating guide, whilst simultaneously showcasing an unforgettable backdrop. It relies on the intensity of the lead performances and its unique setting to tell an enduring tale of two people who are lost, finding one another, and rediscovering themselves; even if only for a brief moment. The film recently celebrated its fifteenth birthday. Another eighty-five years from now, when the film reaches its hundredth birthday, Lost in Translation will remain as vibrant and as well-crafted a motion picture as it was upon its original release. We still won’t know what Bob whispers in Charlotte’s ear as they finally part, but then perhaps we shouldn’t. Such knowledge would constitute an invasion. It is a perfect, private moment, frozen in time. Lost in Translation is indeed absolutely timeless, and deserves to be seen yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Lost in Translation begins provocatively, with a daring image that pays homage to a daring painting. We later find out this is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), and the painting hangs in her hotel room. An actor, Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray), arrives for a commercial shoot in Tokyo, suffering severe jetlag, and is efficiently and courteously shown to his hotel room. Bob receives constant faxes and FedEx packages from his wife, reminding him of things he has forgotten to do and birthdays he has forgotten to attend. He is past his prime and knows it. Charlotte is unhappily married to John, played by Giovanni Ribisi (who has cornered the market in playing spineless slime-balls). He treats her as an afterthought, and so Charlotte wanders alone in the bustling, unfamiliar city, disillusioned by and detached from her husband’s life. When Bob and Charlotte both wake up one morning, they are unaware that their lives are about to become inextricably linked. As these characters are introduced to us, an inescapable sense of loneliness pervades.
Following an hilarious sight gag involving Bill Murray taking a shower, the film begins to draw their lives together. Bob films his commercial and attends photo sessions, subjected to badly translated requests to exude more intensity or be more mysterious – to channel Ol’ Blue Eyes or Roger Moore. It is only a matter of time before a mutual bout of insomnia results in Bob and Charlotte finally meeting in the hotel bar. Here begins a chaste love affair, where both they spend time together, striking a balance between Bob’s mid-life crisis and Charlotte’s search for a meaningful life.
Murray can play this kind of character in his sleep, that of deadpan weariness. One does get the impression it is not too dissimilar from his own persona. It helps that director Sofia Coppola’s Academy Award Winning Screenplay was written specifically for Murray – really, all he had to do was show up and be Bill Murray. That may be disingenuous, but ultimately, it is a remarkably restrained performance, showing a rare sweetness and charm that is not often required of other characters in his catalogue. Johansson immaculately portrays a character trying to find her way in the world – she has been a writer, a photographer, a philosophy student. A particularly revealing exchange results in perhaps the most profound line of the film where Bob reassures her that wherever life leads her, she will “figure it out without worrying about it.” Throughout, Johansson effortlessly holds the screen, matching Murray beat for beat in what is ultimately a two-hander between the leads.
It seems fitting that most of Lost in Translation takes place in or around the hotel. The film shows how hotels can be unfamiliar places where one can feel lonely in a crowd. As Bob is driven through Tokyo to his hotel, he sees a Japanese advertising billboard with his face on it. Channel surfing in his hotel room, he happens upon an old TV programme of his dubbed into Japanese. Key scenes show Bob talking to his wife on the phone. These moments accurately depict how two people can seem so out of step with each other when one is on the other side of the world. Charlotte and her husband, on the other hand, are out of step with each other whilst being in the same room.
Lost in Translation is bittersweet. It seamlessly blends the meticulously scripted and the playfully improvised, combining a mature and poignant melancholy with sight gags, funny lines and winning performances. One almost intuitively knows the outcome of their fleeting relationship, but the satisfaction comes from watching how they provide each other with small glimpses of happiness. When I first watched it on release, I didn’t get it. Now I do.