Lost in Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, is a tender portrait of loneliness, culture shock and friendship. The film, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, was nominated for numerous awards when it came out in 2003, with both actors winning BAFTAs for their performances. Billy Murray plays Bob Harris, an actor that yearns to be ‘doing a play somewhere’, but is instead filming adverts for Suntory whiskey in Tokyo. While there he befriends Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte, who is staying in the same hotel. She is a recent graduate of Philosophy and has followed her husband to Japan, while he pursues his photography career. The chemistry between Bob and Charlotte feels authentic, which adds to the charm of Lost in Translation.
Both Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s acting is superb in these roles. Murray in the role of the tired, older actor with a strained marriage and Johansson in the role of the young wife that feels lost. The title perfectly explains their situation. While shooting the advertisement for Suntory whiskey, as well as making a guest appearance on a TV show, Bob is put in situations of culture shock, specifically in relation to language barriers. The director for the advert and the host for the TV show are an antithesis to Bob’s demeanor. The depictions of Japanese people in the film are meant to be humorous to further connect Bob and Charlotte in their surroundings, but it has been noted that these stereotypes make the Japanese a caricature in the film. I think that this is due to Coppola’s focus on Bob and Charlotte, which leaves little time for other characters to be fleshed out. Furthermore, the exaggeration of Japanese culture could be to further enforce the culture shock the two are experiencing, whilst highlighting their failures to fully comprehend Tokyo and its people.
Bob and Charlotte’s characters are not only lost in translation in relation to their being in Japan, but are also lost in the other ways in which their characters are being misunderstood. There is a disconnect between them and their respective spouses and both feel aimless in life. The dissatisfaction and emptiness in them leads to their insomnia and subsequent visits to the Park Hyatt Tokyo bar, in which they first converse. Both desire something more fulfilling and the relationship that builds between the two is able to fill this void and eradicate their loneliness, even though only temporarily. The pair respect each other and their connection feels romantic, but in its purest form. Scarlett Johansson was only seventeen when shooting Lost in Translation, yet she was able to bring a depth and maturity to Charlotte’s character that provides a great foundation for the film.
The film breathes and pauses to allow for character development. Sofia Coppola won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation, and it’s the simplicity of the plot that focuses on these two ordinary characters, over a short period of time, that makes the plot feel relaxed and natural. I actually found the film to be quite soothing and calming. Not only due to the script, but also the cinematography by Lance Acord. The colour grading gives the film a serene aesthetic, with gorgeous tones and colours.
The use of cityscapes in the film, and the Tokyo setting is integral to the fabric of the film. The characters are constantly looking out of windows at the bold, neon lights. Both Bob and Charlotte are voyeurs of the city, and they look at it as the unfamiliar. There’s a detachment from the external, the mass of people in this vast city, to the isolated main characters. They are removed from the outside world, as they remain within the hotel for a majority of the film. Yet this fast-paced city also offers moments of spontaneity and exploration for the two.
Lost in Translation explores a romantic, fleeting period between two characters that need this time. The cityscape imagery, look of the film and fantastic acting gives this film its character.