Sleepless in Tokyo: Bill and Scarlett, alone together

By Nicholas Baer

The key word in the title of Sofia Coppola’s quietly perceptive and subtly comedic new film Lost in Translation is the first one. Bob and Charlotte, two American characters who form a unique bond while in Tokyo, begin the film “lost” in both a physical and spiritual sense. At its heart, Coppola’s film beautifully portrays how these two unlikely characters form an intimate connection based on their shared dislocation.

Bob Harris (the pitch-perfect Bill Murray) is an unhappily married B-list actor, who is in Tokyo filming a whiskey advertising campaign. Charlotte (the expressive young actress Scarlett Johansson) is a recent graduate of Yale with a philosophy degree, who is accompanying her celebrity photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) while he photographs rock bands.

Director and screenwriter Sofia Coppola, with the help of editor Sarah Flack, makes the film initially disjointed and choppy, effectively conveying the characters’ sense of disorientation, as well as the episodic, unstructured nature of their lives. By spending time studying these “lost” characters as they experience culture shock, Coppola establishes that she is less concerned with advancing the plot and more concerned with developing her protagonists’ sense of dislocation.

Many early scenes in the film emphasize this sense of transplantation, using sight gags and framing to convey that the protagonists are truly out of place. In one such sight gag, Bob stands in a crowded elevator filled with Japanese businessmen—a foot taller than the businessmen. Later, when Bob and Charlotte occupy the frame together for the first time, they stand out as the only two Americans in an elevator of Japanese people; they exchange smiles and nods of recognition, and an unspoken connection develops between the two. The implication here is that in their natural environments, the two would have no reason to acknowledge each other’s existence, but in the foreign mise-en-scene, they are the only Caucasians in many of the frames and are thus naturally drawn together.

In addition to their physical disorientation, Bob and Charlotte are in a state of spiritual limbo. In Bob’s first scene, he is sleeping as he is driven into Tokyo, and the film’s very first image, against which the opening credits appear, is that of Charlotte’s backside as she lays down on her hotel bed. Thus, both characters begin the film asleep, both literally and spiritually, and Coppola utilizes a motif of sleep throughout the film to suggest the characters’ inner states.

Bob is in Tokyo to offer his name and face to a whiskey advertising campaign for $2 million, and this plot element emphasizes the disparity between his personal life and his persona. Whereas he feels small, dejected, and out of place throughout the film, his images on billboards—reflections of his persona—are larger than life. This contrast between his real character and his persona is emphasized at the beginning of the film, when he is being driven into downtown Tokyo. Slouching and looking small and depleted in the backseat of a taxi, he is startled at the sight of an enormous image of himself on a billboard amidst the skyscrapers and bright lights of Tokyo.

By placing two Americans in a foreign country and inundating them with the blinding lights of the country’s pop culture, Coppola shows how the characters come to realize some of the absurdities not only of modern Japanese pop culture, but of any modern, technologically-imprinted culture. Tokyo is ingeniously chosen as the setting for a film about two lost souls, in effect literalizing the characters’ senses of spiritual dislocation by adding a language and cultural barrier to their situations. The implication here is that we mindlessly accept our everyday physical surroundings to such an extent that only from a distance can we recognize the ubiquitous absurdities within our cultures. Although Coppola finds disparities between American and Japanese cultures, she makes no implication that one is any more respectable than the other. In fact, as the film progresses, Charlotte moves beyond the blinding lights of downtown Tokyo and finds unique, culture-unspecific beauty in a wedding processional.

The characters’ progressions from feelings of shock and alienation at the absurdities of their pop-cultural surroundings to their eventual appreciation of the beauty of Tokyo are emphasized by the film’s soundtrack, which uses grating, indigestible pop music, characters’ off-key karaoke performances of well-known pop songs, and original music by Brian Reitzell and Kevin Shields. The original music, which is particularly memorable in a scene in which Charlotte ventures to a mystical Japanese garden, conveys the sense of wonder experienced by the characters as they gradually come to find meaning in their lives. The usage of vastly different music on the soundtrack effectively contrasts the fake nature of pop culture with the wondrous culture found in long-standing traditions and natural beauty.

Although the characters are eventually able to find relavence in Japanese culture, they find more universal meaning in each other. The aforementioned sleep motif in the film helps to convey this message. Bob and Charlotte both experience insomnia and frequently see each other at the hotel bar during the somnolent hours of the night. The sleep motif comes full circle when, after a long night of sharing each other’s company, they sleep in each other’s presence. As they are transported back to their hotel in a taxi, Bob soundly sleeps in the backseat (recalling the first scene in the film). Later, Bob carries a sleeping Charlotte to her hotel room and tucks her into bed. Bob and Charlotte’s ability to sleep together signifies the spiritual fulfillment that they find in their interpersonal connection.

Coppola is not just concerned with the bond formed between Bob and Charlotte, but also with the universality of human connection. She frequently distances the camera from her protagonists, as evidenced in two separate scenes in which Bob and Charlotte display physical affection for each other. In the first of these scenes, the characters lay in bed together, fully clothed and atop the sheets, enjoying each other’s company. Coppola uses a distinctive overhead shot as Bob affectionately grasps Charlotte’s foot. This overhead shot briefly distances the camera from the characters, portraying the unspecific and universal nature of their intimacy. Very late in the film is a scene in which Bob and Charlotte consummate the meaning of their platonic relationship with a hug and kiss on a busy street in downtown Tokyo. Before and after showing their kiss, Coppola’s camera shows not only her two subjects, but also the hundreds of people by whom they are surrounded. The implication here is that what Bob and Charlotte have found in each other is a universal connection between two random people whose paths have crossed.

The film ends in a manner similar to the way it began, with Bob exiting the city. The concluding images, point-of-view shots from Bob’s taxi of Tokyo’s buildings and highways, give one the sense that Bob and Charlotte’s lives will not change much at all, although they will now share memories of each other.

Lost in Translation is about more than the just the fates of its two protagonists: It is about finding meaning in a relationship or a connection with someone else. The two soul-searching characters come to the realization that the meaning of their lives can only be quantified by the number of people with whom they connect while alive. This realization makes the film’s conclusion not bittersweet, but, rather, compellingly life-affirming.