Lost in Translation

Sophie Coppola’s Lost in Translation provides an interesting companion piece to Ozu’s Tokyo Story. In a literal sense, both are Tokyo stories as each occurs primarily in Tokyo and is played out over the space of a few days. Each takes the substance of its narrative from the relationships in the characters’ lives. But whereas Ozu looks inward, Coppola looks outward. In place of a static camera focused resolutely on the actors is a view that moves to encompass what is happening around them as well. Instead of the slow moving look into domestic life in the 1950’s is a glimpse into a fast-paced and exciting (if somewhat decadent) night life occurring half a century on. And finally, in place of a melancholy look into multiple, predetermined family relationships lasting a lifetime is a hopeful look into a single friendship based on happenstance that lasts only a few days. 

Lost in Translation introduces us to Bob and Charlotte, played superbly by Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson. Bob, an aging movie star reduced to cashing in on his fading celebrity, self medicates to escape the indignity and absurdity of his situation. Meanwhile, Charlotte, a young newlywed, searches in vain for some sort of mooring from which to face a future awash in possibility. A meaningful connection between them seems unlikely. And yet it forms nonetheless, as beautiful, delicate, and full of grace as a Japanese origami. Brought together by the circumstance of staying at the same hotel, they bump into each other, first in the elevator and then again at the bar where their eyes meet and a connection is made based on nothing more than a shared amusement at the the nightclub act’s overly dramatic rendition of Scarborough Fair. They may be at different stages in life, but they are kindred spirits as reflected by this and other incidents in the film, and when they come together they fall quickly into a familiarity reflective of friendships forged over a much longer period of time. That this familiarity does not strain the credulity of the audience is testament to Coppola’s achievement.  She does a brilliant job of focusing on details that underscore the intellectual core forming the basis of their affinity without ignoring a muted though not altogether non-existent sexual attraction that exists between them. 

If Tokyo Story is about the sadness of fading connections, Lost in Translation is about the hope and possibility of forming new ones, if only temporarily and at the underpinnings of chance. We might well imagine that distance has played a part in dividing Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama from their children in Tokyo Story.  Clearly, the simple fact of proximity plays a part in bringing Bob and Charlotte together. Moreover, for this brief time at least, they are notably exempt from obligations that would normally stand between them.  In Tokyo Story, Koichi and Shige cannot simply turn away from the biddings they receive to attend sick children and cut hair. Charlotte, on the other hand, has accompanied her husband precisely because at this stage in her life she has nothing else to do.  Bob, too, has been granted a day off, and quite unexpectedly they find themselves free to orchestrate what Bob refers to as a “prison break.”  This prison break will not last long.  They know it, and we as the audience realize it too.  But while this realization carries with it an element of melancholy, it does not permeate as it does in Tokyo Story.  While we know that Bob and Charlotte must soon return to the troubles they have escaped only briefly, we also know, instinctively, that they are immeasurably enriched from their experience, and that this enrichment will make things easier for them. 

Extra Thoughts I Couldn’t Fit In and Links: 

I don’t know, of course, what Bob says to Charlotte at the end, but having watched Lost in Translation right after Tokyo Story, I feel certain it wasn’t “isn’t life disappointing?”

Roger Ebert


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