Righto, we’re going all hipster here and saying we rather like Lost in Translation (2003). Sofia Coppola’s romantic comedy-drama film about friendship. Innit.
Losing it With Lost in Translation
The film is largely about Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an American movie star who’s star status is fading.
Feeling lost in life, he accepts a lucrative advertising deal from Japan and flies out to the city to promote Suntory whisky (that’s actually playing on what Sean Connery did in the 1980s).
After 25 years of marriage, he’s also feeling the strains of that and seems to be questioning his lot in life.
At the super smart hotel he’s staying at in Tokyo, he soon bumps into Charlotte (a young Scarlett Johansson) a college psychology graduate.
The most surprising thing here? This being 2003, you were still allowed to smoke indoors.
Off on a tangent, but smoking rates in Japan are actually super low. Less than 10% of Japanese women do it. And a nationwide ban kicked in from April 2020 prohibiting smoking indoors.
Just as well it was 2003, Charlotte! Otherwise you’d be going off to jail.
She’s also recently married photographer John (Giovanni Ribisi), which she seems to recognise as a mistake.
Jet lagged and suffering culture shock, Bob and Charlotte quickly strike up a strong friendship and tour across Tokyo together.
The pair get up to a mixture of activities. They head on a night out, dine out together, suffer from insomnia, and begin to share more private details about their life struggles.
Meanwhile, Bob completes his commercial requirements for Suntory, battling with a hyper energetic director in the process.
Although for western viewers the director and actor appear to frustrate each other, the real issue is the translator’s poor explanations of what the director says.
In our Japanese writing feature, we mention what’s going on. At the start of the scene, the director actually says to the interpreter:
“The translation is very important, okay? The translation.”
To which she responds with, “Yes, of course. I understand.”
The director then gives his directions, before getting pissed off with Bob delaying proceedings as the translation confusion rumbles on.
From the translations we’ve seen, the director doesn’t swear at the end of his final rant. He just yells, “Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! God, I’m begging you!”
Bearing in mind Japan is a country where saying “konnichiwa” at the wrong time of day causes confusion, it’s no surprise English and Japanese translations are tough going.
Often just translating some Japanese into English is impossible as we don’t have the correct words in the west.
An example? Tsundoku. That’s the act of piling up a book collection, but never reading any of them.
Anyway, back to Lost in Translation’s plot. With the commercial having gone swimmingly, Bob returns to the hotel.
As he bonds further with Charlotte, he’s able to pass on fatherly advice, indicating how the course of life flows. Even if he’s having as confusing a time of it in Japan as she is.
Although there seems to be something of a mutual attraction between the pair, it remains a close friendship.
Even after a brief falling out, they make up as Bob leaves the hotel and sets off back to America.
He spots Charlotte in the crowd and, in a famous scene, whispers something to her to make amends for their tiff. Making for a rather nice and emotional wrapping up of the story.
Bob plops himself back into his taxi satisfied he’s done the right thing and the driver sets off for the airport.
So, yes, Lost in Translation is one of those films where not much really happens. But it’s a funny, sweet-natured work about two lost souls finding each other.
These days it has a bit of a reputation as the ultimate hipster film. But we think it generally manages to avoid being pretentious, instead offering a fun and life-affirming experience.
Bob and Charlotte are very likeable and it’s easy to connect with them. Bill Murray, in particular, is on fine form doing his sardonic shtick to charming effect.
The other big stars are Japan and Tokyo. The city looks magnificent throughout—a neon glowing metropolis of relentless culture and busyness.
However, there were a few reviewers in 2003 who accused the film of Oriental racial stereotyping. Some saying the Japanese are provided no dignity in the film. And they come across as “weird”.
We must say we don’t agree with that. We think the film, if anything, shows the bumbling nature of westerners in a new environment.
It’s Bob and Charlotte’s lack of knowledge (the inability to speak any Japanese, for example) that leads to frustrations.
And, in fact, Bob begins to take thoroughly to the Japanese way of life. Informing his wife over a phone call he wants to stop eating so much pasta and change to light Japanese food.
Anyway, we don’t want to get bogged down in that. As Lost in Translation is an intriguingly accessible film.
For us in 2004, when we finally got round to watch it, the thing proved very effective. At 19 (Charlotte’s age in the film) it was like a parental hand on your shoulder guiding you towards what to do in life.
It has a certain serenity to it we like. A calm assurance, which is perhaps why it’s remained such a popular film over the years.
It’s certainly not for everyone and we’re sure some folks hate the thing. But for us, we do quite enjoy the uplifting trip through Tokyo each time out.
Lost in Translation’s Production
With a $4 million budget, Coppola put together a small crew and the team flew out to Tokyo.
The film was shot in 27 days with little equipment. The script was also concise, with plenty of room for ad libbing.
Bill Murray didn’t actually sign a contract for Lost in Translation. The director hounded him with calls and emails for a year to get him to agree to the role.
So once out in Japan, they had no idea if the actor was even going to turn up.
Luckily for Murray, he decided to complete the project. As it was a significant hit for him and launched him back into the limelight.
The film was a big old sleeper hit, raking in over $100 million worldwide. And winning a whole bunch of awards along the way.
Not bad, eh? It also helped forward Sofia Coppola’s career. The daughter of Francis-Ford Coppola, she’d initially tried acting when she was younger.
But when that was all received terribly badly, she switched to directing. Good decision!