Sofia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’ surrounds the experiences of Bob Harris and Charlotte, American tourists in Tokyo. Transcending the expectations of its romantic comedy genre, it delves into something much deeper; the overwhelming impact of globalisation on both the local and individuals. Bob Harris is a Hollywood actor whose faltering career has led him to accept an offer to shoot a commercial for Suntory Whiskey while Charlotte is in Tokyo for her husband’s work as a photographer.
Both characters are established with a lack of connectedness to both their surroundings and people around them, whether it be the Japanese, or their spouses. With Bob’s wife, Lydia, communicating through loveless and often deprecating faxes and Charlotte’s husband John perpetually distracted by his job commitments and dismissive of her attempts to get his attention, much like Bob’s Lydia, seemingly more attached to technology than Charlotte, illustrated by his excessive amounts of photography equipment.
Throughout the film, Bob and Charlotte seemingly find solace and genuine connection in one another. Contextually speaking, Coppola’s choice of setting is meaningful to the relationship between the film and globalisation. With its sophisticated technology creating opportunity for export, allowing a rate of economic growth, Japan is arguably the best example of globalisation in the late twentieth century. Coppola establishes this through the long panning shots of the city at night that could almost be interchangeable with a city like New York.
Its recent acceptance and partial adoption of Western culture made way for business relationships and heightened economy, having been denied for many centuries due to both geographical barriers and deliberate government policy. However, Coppola reflects on how traditional Japanese culture has become rivalled through the karaoke scene and Bob being greeted by hotel employees wearing suits, a far cry from the kimono. Made in 2004, Coppola’s inspiration was clearly drawn from the changing World around her; the early 2000’s introducing economic globalisation.
The effect of globalisation on traditional concepts being blurred is a consistent theme throughout the film, exemplified in why Bob is even travelling to Japan; to shoot the Suntory whiskey commercial, reflective of the prevalence of Western culture as casting an American actor would be more appealing to the Japanese population than a local identity. The globalisation of communications is also relevant to Bob’s casting and emphasised by his interaction with the director of Suntory advertisement, one of the most meaningful scenes in the film.
The Suntory commercial immediately recognises a sense of alienation and misunderstanding with Coppola intentionally distancing Bob from the Japanese crew to emphasise the ‘distance’, physical and figurative, between them. The director asks Bob to pose like James Bond and the rat pack, meaning that such Western symbols would have meaning to Japanese audiences that could’ve only been developed through globalisation of media.
Globalisation of communications can be identified in almost any scene, illustrated in the first five minutes, when Bob is driving to the hotel from the airport and he looks at Tokyo through his window, a Tokyo that Coppola has intentionally focused on, the technological hybrid of cultures. The audience looks at a scene that could be anywhere, with the Japanese translation on signs being one of the only noticeable differences from major cities throughout the English-speaking world.
This modern imagery of Tokyo city is a recurring symbol in the film, interestingly in high proportion to traditional Japanese scenes, of which there are a few. The chaotic Tokyo cityscape juxtaposes a still Charlotte, sitting in the hotel window when she can’t sleep at night; representative of the jet lag that she struggles with when navigating the global while her husband contrastingly sleeps soundly, showing an embracement while Charlotte retreats.
Coppola conveys a distinct disconnection in this scene, both to her sleeping husband, unaware and unconcerned that she is wide awake, and the city that she doesn’t interact with; presenting the audience with an interesting confrontation when considering globalisation, are we ‘living’ or so disconnected that we simply participate? This seems to be a source of Charlotte’s disengagement, as even when given opportunities to interact with fellow Americans, remaining detached, frustrating John when she mocks Kelly saying ‘why do you have to point out how dumb everyone is all the time?
Bob does this too, through dismissing his two American fans at the bar which simultaneously emphasises the meaningfulness of Charlotte and Bob’s connection, given that they’re both so seemingly selective, and globalisation through him not being able to escape his local fame and fans in the global setting. One of the most prolific scenes is when Charlotte is stumbling around the Tokyo underground, tight framed with her face partially obscured and looking daunted by the amount of people around and looking ‘lost’, relating to the poignant tagline ‘Everyone wants to be found’.
It is in this scene that she mindlessly wanders into a Buddhist temple and observes a traditional ritual. However the rich spirituality of this scene only highlights Charlotte’s personal sense of emptiness and she doesn’t ‘feel anything’. This scene is one of the few that conveys maintenance of Japanese tradition; seemingly untouched by Western influence, yet the ease of Charlotte’s access can be considered as a possible perversion, evidence of blurring traditional concepts.
Coppola’s insightful characterisation of Kelly Strong is both entertaining and thought-provoking, her ‘bimbo’ behaviour will initially make you laugh then mourn the shallow world that allows people like her to thrive and represent us internationally. Her publicity interview is reflective of both her superficiality and how the local Japanese knowledge, values and cultures have become global when, in an effort to appeal to the Japanese media she is responding to, she ignorantly discusses reincarnation and its relationship with her film ‘Midnight Velocity’. Lost in Translation’ simultaneously conveys a range of responses to globalisation and the changing reality it presents, with Charlotte’s husband John scoffing at the band he photographed that day and how they were made to look like the Rolling Stones while the women practicing ikebana maintain their cultural traditions as well as allowing Western intervention through appreciation of the art, not subversion.
Retreatment and embracement of globalisation is embodied in Bob Harris through accepting to do the Suntory advertisement for two million dollars but commenting that he “should be doing a play”; creating a divide for the character, who feels that rejection of the globalisation, would be more fulfilling. This concept is subtle throughout the film, but exists, that in a World so ‘full’, it’s easy to become ‘empty’.
Beyond making social reflections and statements about the implications of globalisation on the local and individual, the film’s success as a romantic comedy and the unexpected chemistry between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson cannot be overlooked. While he lives up to his expectations of hilarity, Ghost Busters star, Bill Murray’s harrowing portrayal of a fifty-something failed actor will resonate within you for days.
Fascinating from the very first scene, and not just because it’s Scarlett Johannson without pants, Coppola conveys the realities of life and love that most movies of the genre try to avoid confronting; the reality of a failing marriage or a failing career. What keeps you up at night is the haunting truth of ‘Lost in Translation’. Coppola astutely examines the intricacies of and confronts us with life, love and loneliness.
We’ve all experienced the claustrophobia of feeling empty in a World that’s so ‘full’, the disorientation of being somewhere foreign, questioning someone familiar, looking at life wondering where you went wrong at fifty or whether you’re going wrong at twenty. Whether you’re Charlotte, sitting, looking out the window, craving a different view, or Bob, refusing to look any more and rather staring at the complementary hotel slippers falling off your feet; ‘Lost in Translation’ will make you think about the past, present and future. And what the hell Bob said to Charlotte.