There’s an old adage in Japanese — “mono no aware”, or “the transience of life”. It’s the idea that nothing is forever, and that’s precisely what gives anything value. Everything comes to an end at some point — whether it’s your childhood, summer, school, or even your life. But that doesn’t discount its importance, and in fact, allows it to rise up beyond the irrelevance that would be forever.
Lost In Translation is what I’d describe as a tragic comedy about two lost souls wandering aimlessly around a Tokyo hotel, falling into conversation about their marriage, happiness, and the meaning of it all. I say it’s tragic in the sense that nothing changes for them at the end, but they find renewed purpose after meeting each other. So maybe it’s not tragic after all?
Our story follows Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a retired movie star who’s now doing whiskey commercials for the money — and absolutely hates himself for it. “Do I need to worry about you Bob,” his wife asks, “Only if you want to,” he says. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is here in Tokyo for her photographer husband’s work. Infatuated with his own self-importance and success, her husband leaves her to go on a work-related trip — because obviously if she came, she wouldn’t have a great time. On the phone with her friend, Charlotte blurts out, “I don’t know who I married.”
Don’t be fooled though, Lost In Translation is a comedy. It’s a comedy about the clash of mannerisms that our beloved movie star encounters in Tokyo, where white gloved women are bowing and thanking Murray every turn of the way for no reason whatsoever. A comedy about the prostitute that comes over to his room — whose melodramatic approach confuses him as she forces him to “lip” her stockings. Bill Murray negotiates his comedic and sardonic side brilliantly, bringing his character to a balance that renders him as someone who is both happy and sad. Someone who is funny, and has the potential to be the life of the party, but he does that for a living — and is too tired and sad now to do it for free.
Charlotte is a woman of exceptional wit and dry humor, probably director Sofia Coppola’s fantasy of what a Yale philosophy graduate would look and seem like. She’s straight-spoken, but also both eccentric and fascinating — listening to soul-searching CDs, reading Nietzsche, and practicing ikebana to pass the time away.
Charlotte is in her 20s and Bob is in his 50s, a classic set up for your mid-autumn Hollywood romance where you can take five years off a man’s life for every million dollars in income. Yet Lost In Translation is far too thoughtful to fall into that trap, and Coppola’s genius lies in how she guides the relationship between our two characters beyond any scope of classification. They’re not lovers or friends, but somewhere in the middle that defies the responsibilities and expectations of both.
Our heroes stumble upon each other in lobbies, elevators, and restaurants at the grand Park Hyatt where they’re staying, but only in brief smiles and nods. It’s only at a late night whiskey session at the New York Bar that they fall into conversation. It’s funny how a stranger understands the bittersweet transience of life better than your wife.
Together they have the conversations that only strangers can have. To be able to talk about life without all the messy details that would obscure the essence of it. It’s refreshing for both of them, and these are the kind of conversations that leave me fantasizing about running away to a foreign country — with the hope that maybe there, I can find myself.
What really brings our characters together is this mutual understanding of being lost. Lost in the alienating, neon-lined backdrop of Tokyo, but also lost in the direction or meaning of their lives. They’re both stuck — and they’ve resigned to the idea of being stuck. Bob’s wife is a drone, mostly worried about the carpet hues for the study, and Bob’s seemingly existential crisis is a bother for her. Charlotte’s newly-wed, but has the marital problems of someone twice her age.
Their togetherness is what keeps them from being alone or feeling stuck, they go to karaoke, drug parties, and pachinko parlors again and again, wandering through the alien metropolis of Tokyo that’s become their avenue for self-exploration. Yet despite all they go through, they never end up in bed — Coppola is too thoughtful for that. She wants them to share something as intimate as their feelings rather than something as generic as their genitals.
Coppola’s fluid, organic frames of handheld film-making render the story with an ease that’s intimate and authentic — leaving behind the discoloration that excessive editing seems to bring. Each scene is filmed beautifully, almost immaturely, but leaves the viewer with a sense of austere freshness only possible in the indie genre. It’s truly a visual treat.
“Mono no aware” comes to mind because our characters know they’re in Tokyo for only a week, and that their relationship will end after the week is over. But that’s okay, all things meaningful end at some point, and that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important. In fact, the relationship only works because there’s a shared understanding that it’ll come to an end soon. It allows them to be honest with each other. Yet that’s precisely where the beauty of it comes from, the transience of it all. Life doesn’t end happily ever after, but maybe that’s not what a happy ending should look like in the first place.
Lost In Translation — United States. Directed by Sofia Coppola. First released September 2003. Running time 1hr 42min. Starring Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, and Fumihiro Hayashi.