There are a lot of things to like about the 2003 Sophia Coppola movie Lost in Translation: from the dialogue and acting to the way it jumps from awkward comedy to emotional struggles about life and finding yourself. What it does better than anything else is how it explores what it is like to feel lost and alone despite always having people around you, and it achieves this through the urban crawl of modern Tokyo. It is achieved through several layers.
Firstly (and perhaps the one I relate most to) is the comedic contrast of Bill Murray’s tall stature in a country that is typically shorter. And as someone who is taller than Murray (he’s 6’2, I’m 6’5) everything represented in the film on this point is true and then some. But beyond that it demonstrates Japan in two primary ways that I was able to experience while I was over there. Charlotte and Bob’s relationship (whatever level you perceive it as being) is fueled by the fact the inability to connect with anyone else.
You come to appreciate those around you. It might be something as small as making a casual observation, but when everyone around you is speaking in a language you don’t understand, being able to converse, or being able to share cultural differences is genuinely meaningful. Bob and Charlotte spend less than a week together, but the circumstances force that bond to grow deep. Both times I’ve been able to travel to Japan with a group I’ve left with friendships that have aged exponentially because of the circumstances. You grow in that foreign culture together, creating shared memories where the familiarity comes from the person, not the setting.
The other way they capture travelling through Tokyo is shown primarily through Charlotte. Through the early parts of the film it shows her on her own, sticking out as a blonde American amongst a sea of dark-haired Japanese. When you spend time in Japan on your own, you can’t help but feel like the odd person out, doubly so if you aren’t coherent in the language. That’s not to say you won’t run across other travelers, Tokyo is full of them, but it’s easy enough to turn down a street corner and feel like the only one.
It’s a liberating feeling for me personally. I loved being able to look up at advertisements and not know what the text read, or to be surrounded by conversation that you can’t eavesdrop on. But you do feel awfully alone. Just like how travelling with people allows that close bond through restricted connection, being there on your own constantly reminds you that not only do you not know anybody who walks past you, but also you might not be able to talk to them even if you wanted or needed to. Coming from a small city where you can’t go to the supermarket without seeing someone you know, this is a weird feeling.
On this particular trip I stayed in Japan a few days after the main group left. I could appreciate how culturally removed I was being an Australian in Japan as part of the group, but it wasn’t until I spent a few days wandering around on my own, knowing I wouldn’t be returning that night to a hotel full of familiar faces, that I could understand the intense loneliness expressed through Charlotte’s initial journey in Japan. That’s not to say that time spent solo was a bad thing. Quite the contrary. But it challenges you. And while Charlotte wasn’t travelling alone (she was there with her husband), she was disconnected from him enough so that it felt to her like she was abandoned in this foreign place, and just trying to make sense of it all, including herself.
Director Sophia Coppola uses the Shibuya Scramble/Crossing to this effect. It’s a short 30 second scene, all it shows is Charlotte observing the advertisements and buildings as she walks across the street with people going about their business in every other direction. The crossing in real life is pretty amazing when it hits peak hour and the street is flooded by bodies for the half a minute the lights are green. It acts as a valuable shorthand for the pace of Tokyo, and Coppola uses it to capture the feeling of Japan just as she uses the shrine scene in Kyoto or the neon lit Shinjuku night scene. They are prototypical examples of the Japan you would come across if you traveled there today, but while they act as personal moments for Charlotte, they won’t necessarily be where you will have an intimate connection with the country. That depends on you personally.
For me, it was Dotonbori in Osaka. It kept the effect of neon fused Shinjuku, but instead of towering buildings and an expansive city it is more confined, built across a canal and filled to the brim with food vendors. I walked the same lanes back and forth over ten times, just so I could take it all in. The streets were packed with people, and as afternoon turned to evening and the night sky came out, so too did the lights. I’ve always had a fascination with the neon cities often represented by near future sci fi, and while you get that throughout Tokyo, Dotonbori feels closer to the action because so much of it is two to four stories as opposed to ten and up. It surrounds and engulfs you, and it was there that I had the kind of deep personal experience that Lost in Translation aims to represent.
The reason why I think this is worth talking about it simple. Movies that use location, fictional or real, to build a separate character try to capture its essence. In doing so it can sell that place to you. Gotham City has as much personality as Batman and the rest of its inhabitants, and that is why it makes for such a fascinating setting. Scott Pilgrim is filled to the brim with the city of Toronto. And Coppola’s Tokyo is built upon that same concept. It is its own character, and as important to the story as Bob or Charlotte. Filmed through someone else’s eyes (and you could argue it is done by Justin Lin in Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift – same location, but the city’s personality is quite different) and you get a different feeling.
No matter how well as a movie captures a location, the only way you can truly experience it is to actually go there and throw yourself into it. Naively, I didn’t appreciate this concept originally. I had an idea of Japan from the movie and other media, but my first international travel took me there and reshaped that idea. Honestly, I think Coppola does an amazing job. The character beats she uses to define her setting ring true for my experiences. I can see why she chose those particular places in Japan, and it works, but in my hands different locations would have popped up, or the same locations might have been shot in a different way. And this would be true of any of the rest of the group I traveled with.
It is in the small details that this connection rings true. At one point in the movie Charlotte and Bob run through a Pachinko Parlor. It is a short cutaway scene, but it is one that shows off another side of Japan. But it doesn’t prepare you for what it’s actually like inside one of those rooms. Nothing will. The cascade of sound is legitimately overwhelming, like you’re standing by a jet engine that has ball bearings loose inside. Nor can the movie capture what it’s like to feel truly alone despite being surrounded by hundreds of people. It can only provide a glimpse.
As a drama/comedy, Lost in Translation is pretty good. It is at its best as a kind of narrative driven snow-globe. It captures the heart and soul of the city while telling a story about two people’s journey through it, and what they take from it. It gives you a look into one of the most amazing places in the world and encourages you to experience it for yourself, and in doing so, you can create your own narrative with that same world. Lost in Translation is an easy media property to engage with once you’re over there. Unlike a trip to New Zealand for a Lord of the Rings fan, the specific locations aren’t essential (though they are certainly nice), what is instead is the moments. Forming an inside joke with a couple of new friends, working out where the hell you’re meant to be going as rain pours down, or taking a moment as the world passes you by to take a mental image of the fascinating world you’re surrounded by. Lost in Translation’s best trait is the character of modern Japan, and how it goes about defining that.