This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Sophia Patfield.
Sofia Coppola’s 2003 smash hit Lost in Translation is an incredible escapist film that has become a must-watch for fans of the modern independent cinematic art form. Featuring Scarlett Johansson as lead character Charlotte, a recently married young woman quickly realising that she doesn’t really know her husband, and Bill Murray as Bob, a faded actor with his own issues, Lost In Translation is a tale of isolation, romance and finding inner peace within the hustle and bustle of a modern metropolis.
Coppola’s work on this story of distinctly different individuals forming an unlikely friendship which slowly blossoms into an even less likely affection made her the first American woman to ever be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars, the film going on to win for Best Screenplay at the 2004 awards as well as collect 3 BAFTAs and 3 Golden Globes. In the years since, Bill Murray has described Lost In Translation as his favourite of all the films he’s starred in, and with universal themes presented so delicately it has become a favourite of many a film fan and critic too.
The film’s authentic immersion in Japan’s capital city of Tokyo offers an unlikely hellscape turned dreamscape that is handled with all the respect such a bustling and important city deserves. Using such an ancient yet modern place reaffirms themes of isolation and its opposing togetherness as being soft but ever-present, the presentation of which is a concise example of Coppola’s directorial talents.
In this analysis, I am going to look at how cinematography, dialogue and acting each come together to illustrate the romance at the heart of Lost In Translation’s other worldly adventure through the streets of Tokyo, analysing the relationship between the environment and each individual character, as well as to their fledgling relationship to one another, in order to discover what makes this history-making Sofia Coppola release so beloved.
Relationships With and Without Romance
The relationships explored in Lost In Translation are a massive credit as to why the film was and is so popular. There are plenty of relationships going on in Coppola’s narrative, but I’m going to focus on that of Bob and Charlotte’s, as well as Charlotte and John’s.
It has been commonly rumoured that Coppola based Charlotte and John’s marriage on her own marriage and was therefore able to show an unhappy relationship from a personal perspective. What is unique about John and Charlotte’s marriage is that it is only very slowly breaking down, and that it seems to be through no fault of either person. John leaving Charlotte alone in the hotel room is something that is repeated throughout the film, which clearly emphasises that there is a gap building between them, but he does so to fulfil his professional and artistic duty, something she can respect. This, being coupled with their small disagreements and encouragements to do things independently of one another, creates a powerful message that these people are clearly not as well suited as they might have one day thought themselves to be.
Adding onto this strain is Anna Faris’ character Kelly. It is hinted throughout the film that John is having an affair with Kelly, but she actually serves more as a reminder to Charlotte that she has so little in common with John. When they first meet in the hotel lobby, Charlotte becomes invisible to John and clearly has nothing to add to their conversation. This is mirrored later when they are all in the bar together and Charlotte is completely disconnected from her husband and his group of friends. These moments are small but powerful and help the chasm between John and Charlotte become more pronounced, thus growing room for Charlotte’s relationship to Bob.
Bob and Charlotte’s relationship is an unlikely one, but that’s what makes it all the more real. They purposefully meet with one another and both enter it only wanting friendship, but their bond over the loneliness they both feel grows that friendship organically and realistically into romantic love. This realism is helped by how many of their scenes included improvised dialogue as Coppola wanted them to interact naturally. In terms of their narrative arc, realism is once again central to their presentation, the couple not receiving their happily ever afters but instead an emotional goodbye kiss as both part ways. For them, their marriages and their lives must go on away from Tokyo and away from one another; a much more realistic conclusion to a narrative than the typical Hollywood tropes of the genre.
An aspect of their relationship that is often interpreted to be less realistic is the age gap. Although it’s never explicitly said in the film how old either of the characters are, Scarlett Johansson was nineteen during filming whilst Bill Murray was fifty three. Often when relationships with this sort of age difference are shown on screen, either the men will be shown as manipulative and creepy, such as in Lolita (1962), or the women will be shown as money hungry (not to mention the sexualisation that often comes with this trope). However, the very real friendship and connection between them, forged by their naturalistic dialogue and Coppola’s immersion of the couple into their surroundings together, banishes all ideas that either one of them is manipulating the other for some sort of gain, and therefore nullifies the possibility of their relationship seeming unrealistic – the performances of lead duo Johansson and Murray being paramount to achieving this.
Romantic Feelings from Isolation to Togetherness
Something we’ve all felt in our lives is the isolation that Coppola explores in Lost In Translation, but also the togetherness that can form from it. Johansson’s Charlotte is the most obvious signifier of physical isolation since, for almost the entire first half of the film, we watch her get left alone in her hotel room, clearly bored and only occasionally leaving the hotel. Even in the moments when she is out in Tokyo, Coppola’s style makes it seem as though she is incredibly disconnected from everything around her. One moment in particular, when she decides to visit Jugan-Ji temple, she is away from the stereotypical and perhaps more westernised Tokyo, and she is shown observing rather than interacting with her environment and its people. This moment shows that she is not only isolated from people she knows but also the culture that she is used to, and so her moments alone in the city are emphasised by her lack of knowledge of the culture, the language, the locality and the people.
Bob’s isolation is different to Charlotte’s as his is much more of a mental kind. He is constantly surrounded by people who recognise him and people he’s working with. He is never left alone and, when he wants to be left alone, people often start conversations with him about his career. Despite all that, he is detached from these people and doesn’t want to be around them; they see him as his star persona and not himself. This being intercut with phone calls from his passive-aggressive wife make it difficult for him to enjoy time in Tokyo as he feels guilty for not being at home with his family.
In the moments before the two characters meet, the world around them is presented as romantic, but this only fuels their loneliness and our acknowledgement of it. As the narrative progresses however, Bob and Charlotte create a romantic togetherness, immersing themselves in their surroundings both physically through their actions and visually through the choices of Coppola and her team.
From the moment they see one another in the lift, you know the connection between them has already started. Even though Charlotte later forgets this moment due to the ongoing stresses of her life, it clearly stays with them both. All their small meetings before they go out together, such as in the bar and in the baths, only solidifies this further. When they do finally decide to go out with each other, you realise that despite their differences they have for the first time found someone they each want to be around. Their first night out together is their first moment of total Tokyo immersion, allowing Charlotte to be around friends and people she knows. For Bob, this time acts as a break from the constant stardom he experiences elsewhere, their time together allowing him to be a regular person and simply enjoy himself. Their reckless drunken behaviour on their night out shows a more care-free and happier side to both characters that we haven’t seen before, and shows the audience that they bring out the better side of one another.
A Romantic Vision of “Real Tokyo”
One of the first things to catch your eye when watching Lost In Translation is its cinematography and particularly the way it captures Tokyo. Japan’s capital city is synonymous with bright lights and vibrant colours, as seen in Hollywood movies like The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and has a dense population of around 14 million people that is so often presented as overwhelming with its population tightly packed in to impossibly busy streets, so it’s not a place often associated with romance and is even more infrequently used as the stage for an American romantic drama.
In embracing the city during pre-production (Coppola photographed the city intimately ahead of conceptualising her feature) and embellishing its more intimate and communal spaces, Lost In Translation acts in opposition to the stereotypical presentation of the city available in other media, showing a laid back community in every day, albeit romanticised, settings. We see people on the subway and in the arcades, we even see a man running beside a van of cheering women – this is, in fact, a political advertisement commonly used in Japan; the man is the candidate himself – and this all acts to gift character and life to a city otherwise thought of as impersonal, offering a vision of something less otherworldly and more relatable, a space in which you could imagine yourself living.
Indeed, Coppola’s stylistic signature is ingrained into the very fabric of her movie, one particular moment of genius illustrating how initially overwhelming and later how at one with Tokyo her central characters are courtesy of her famous “outside of the car” shot, reflections of Tokyo’s bright lights softened by the vehicle’s rain speckled windows, the harshness of the city dimmed.
These moments act in conjunction with one another to not only emphasise the vision of the city that Coppola is looking to build, but they also function to soften our own hardness to the couple at the heart of her narrative, the film’s homely visual palette enticing us into their world, encouraging our immersion. During Charlotte and Bob’s first night out together, for example, Coppola films with a soft focus in a colourful bar, and later shots in Charlotte’s friend’s house use unnatural lighting in a similarly as soft focus to evoke romance through colour. At one stage, the softness of the palette is disrupted by the sharp focus of a green laser coming from the threatening presence of a BB gun, the moment acting more to illustrate Coppola’s distinctly conscious choice of colouration and presentation rather than any form of narrative progression.
Through her own photographed inspiration, Tokyo becomes a place for romance to form, taking on the tones of classic Hollywood in conjunction with the visual cues and narrative functions more often seen in that of Western Europe’s many New Waves; the busy streets taking on a different life as a pseudo-European capital with all the romantic idealism of Paris or Rome. Tokyo in Lost In Translation is a perfect location in which romance can form.
The romance that surrounds the central characters and the whole film arguably stems from the fact that it’s shot on film. The early 2000s was the time when people began transitioning to high definition recording, and Coppola’s father even encouraged her to shoot in high definition as he believed it was the future. She agreed with his sentiments but found film to have a more romantic feel. The movie would have a completely different look if it was shot in high definition, and although sharper picture quality is so often viewed as “better picture quality” by today’s standards, it would have removed the soft romantic edge that film and its connotations to the past provide.
Evidently, Lost in Translation is a much loved film because it refuses to take the easy path that many films take on lots of levels while still embracing what makes each of us so enticed by the ideas of adventure, togetherness and romance. It doesn’t force the unhappiness of Charlotte and John’s marriage onto the audience by having them fight, nor does it force the love of Charlotte and Bob through passionate love making or constant physical displays. It is a romantically realistic film filled with nuances that provide a window into the people and culture of Tokyo while bringing us closer to two unique and human characters.
Lost In Translation is, even close to two decades later, a beacon for unique, interesting and delicate romantic movies, and remains an important moment in history for the long-awaited acknowledgement of women directors in the American film industry.
Written by Sophia Patfield