Lost in Translation: Aliens in Tokyo

EVERYBODY WANTS TO BE FOUND.

lostintranslationSofia Coppola, the daughter of esteemed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, was about to direct her second film after debuting with The Virgin Suicides (1999), and she still wasn’t sure if she had her star. After going to Japan to start shooting, Coppola and her crew did not even know which flight Bill Murray was going to be on. This was no great surprise since Coppola had spent so much time trying to woo the famously elusive star for the film.

In the end though, Lost in Translation was completed and it elevated its director to fame, revived Murray’s career and helped establish Scarlett Johansson as a new star to be reckoned with.

Bob Harris (Murray) is an American actor who usually appears in action movies. His career is winding down and he travels to Tokyo, Japan, to shoot a commercial for Suntory whisky. Charlotte (Johansson) is another American in the city, a college graduate who’s married to a celebrity photographer, John (Giovanni Ribisi). He dives headfirst into work, and Charlotte feels left out; as John seems to focus more on the models he’s working with, Charlotte begins to question what she’s doing with him in a foreign country and where her life is headed. At the same time, Bob maintains sporadic contact over the phone with his wife of 25 years; there’s no passion left in their relationship, only concerns about the kids and unimportant matters like choosing the color of wallpaper. Bob and Charlotte eventually meet in the hotel bar and recognize each other’s need for a break…

Confused encounters with Japan
In her breakthrough to a wider audience, Coppola borrowed heavily from her experiences as a twenty-something visiting Japan. All the insecurities and frustrations that a person of that age has is channeled into Charlotte’s character. And all the wide-eyed, confused encounters with various aspects of Japanese big-city culture is on display for two reasons. Part of it is about simple entertainment, because it is undeniably amusing, but part of it is also about having cultural clashes serve as a nifty illustration of the confusion and loneliness that the story’s two leads are going through. Bob and Charlotte feel alienated because of her youth and marriage troubles and his midlife crisis.

Some people saw in the depiction of Tokyo and Japanese culture a typically Western attitude. While it’s true that very little of what we see of Japan looks attractive, the feeling of alienation is a more important effect to achieve for Coppola. Some will interpret this as racism, but I’m not buying it. We’re viewing this from Bob and Charlotte’s perspective and that’s what the movie is about – their isolation. You could also see this film as a variation on the old favorite Brief Encounter (1945). There is something sweet about these people’s attraction, which grows into a deeper understanding. Watching the story unfold is both romantic and depressing, a fabulous achievement in itself, but also very funny at times thanks to Murray’s appearance, which was ad-libbed in several scenes.

Cinematographer Lance Acord emphasizes the loneliness and sadness with slightly desaturated colors and well composed shots of impersonal hotel rooms and neon-glaring views of the city at night.

Sofia Coppola’s movies always feel like personal projects. This is not automatically a good thing; you can pour your heart into something and it can still come out as… nothing. The movies she has made recently have been largely disappointments, good-looking but empty. Lost in Translation, her most personal, is brilliant. Let’s hope she finds her way back to the sincerity of it.

Lost in Translation 2003-U.S. 105 min. Color. Produced by Sofia Coppola, Ross Katz. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Cinematography: Lance Acord. Editing: Sarah Flack. Cast: Bill Murray (Bob Harris), Scarlett Johansson (Charlotte), Giovanni Ribisi (John), Anna Faris, Fumihiro Hayashi, Catherine Lambert.

Trivia: Co-executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola.

Oscar: Best Original Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Actor (Murray), Actress (Johansson), Editing. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Actor (Murray), Screenplay. Venice: Best Actress (Johansson).

Last word: “My dad and Kurosawa did a Suntory commercial which they shot at our house in San Francisco. But going to Japan, you’d always see ads of people like Kevin Costner or someone promoting coffee. It’s this heightened, Japanese idea of Western culture. And I was cracking up the whole time during that shoot. That was a real photographer, and I was sitting with the photographer and I would say things to him and he would repeat it to Bill, so he was yelling things like, ‘Rat pack!’ at Bill, and Bill would respond. And Bill improvised that entire scene.” (Coppola, The Daily Beast)

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