Lost in translation

Lost in Translation (2003) explores themes of isolation and human connection; written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the story follows the chance meeting of two people, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob Harris (Bill Murray), who feel adrift in the vast neon-lit sea of central Tokyo. Charlotte, a graduate of philosophy, and married to a workaholic photographer, John (Giovanni Ribisi), encounters Bob, a worn-down movie star who is endorsing a whiskey ad, and getting away from his daily life. They strike up a conversation in the lounge bar of Park Hyatt, and Charlotte invites Bob to join her and a few local friends; they head out into the city, get chased out of a club by a man with a laser toy gun, and sing karaoke until the small hours.

Charlotte and Bob are an unlikely pair—feeling alienated from their own culture, the time they are spending in Tokyo must seem somewhat unreal, and this opens up new possibilities. Suffering from jet-lag induced insomnia, they talk about their lives the way strangers can, openly and abstractly, exchanging innermost thoughts about what they want from their lives.

Bob: Can you keep a secret? I’m trying to organize a prison break. I’m looking for, like, an accomplice. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out? 
Charlotte: I’m in. I’ll go pack my stuff. 
Bob: I hope that you’ve had enough to drink. It’s going to take courage. 


Coppola has stated that the idea for Lost in Translation was sparked by her experiences while working in Japan; the script was developed from her impressions of Tokyo, and the cinematography was designed around the photographs she took during her stay. Much of the film was shot dogme-style, (using natural light whenever possible, shooting on location) partly due to the restrictions of filming in Japan, which also gave the lead actors the space and freedom to improvise. The score, supervised by Brian Reizell, works very well in adding tones to the story and atmosphere, featuring Kevin Shields and Phoenix among others.

“I remember having these weeks there that were sort of enchanting and weird,” says Coppola. “Tokyo is so disorienting, and there’s a loneliness and isolation. Everything is so crazy, and the jet lag is torture. I liked the idea of juxtaposing a midlife crisis with that time in your early 20s when you’re, like, What should I do with my life?”

It’s interesting to note that the title of the film itself, Lost in Translation, is layered with meanings: the most apparent link being the setting of two Americans trying to come to terms with cultural differences, and the comedy springing up from misunderstandings. But the experience of Charlotte and Bob feeling detached, amplified by the foreign environment, also reflects the uncertainty caused by both of them being in a transitional phase of their lives. Perhaps the city becomes for them a crossroad of their lives, where they find hope and reconciliation. One more definition, to quote Robert Frost, is that “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” 

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