The movie “Lost in Translation” (2003) is not actually a movie about Japan. It’s a movie about two people who feel lost in life already, only to have that sense of lost-ness heightened when they arrive and meet in Japan.
Charlotte (played by Scarlett Johansson) is the young wife of a big-time photographer. She accompanies her husband to Japan for one of his photo shoots, but finds that he is too busy to spend any time with her there. Meanwhile, Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray) is a past-his-prime actor who is in Tokyo to make a Suntory “Hibiki” Whiskey commercial.
As I understand it, many Japanese people don’t like this movie, feeling that it plays on too many stereotypes about Japanese people and culture. I would respond that it was not the point of the movie to pass judgment on Japan, its customs, or its people. I believe the writer/director Sofia Coppola basically chose Japan as the setting so that the characters would be entirely out of their comfort zones, but still have them able to function at some level in a country as technologically developed as the U.S.
That being said, Charlotte does a lot of personal soul-searching in the story as she visits a Buddhist temple, as she tries her hand at ikebana, as they both try Japanese restaurants, and she goes to explore Kyoto alone. In Kyoto, she obviously appreciates the beauty of the momiji (maple leaves), the Japanese wedding procession, the beautiful shrines and gardens, and even the omikuji (folded paper fortunes) hung on cords. The meaning of these things, however, is apparently lost on her.
The actor, Bob Harris, is another story. Bill Murray’s character has a wry, sarcastic sense of humor. He listens to the Japanese producer/director speak for what seems like minutes. Then, when the translator gives him instructions in seconds, he toys with her, “Are you sure that’s all he said,” which of course brings about yet another equally involved set of instructions, followed by another short translation. This commercial shoot scene is the one segment where the issue of “lost in translation” is most literal.
Bill Murray turns in some really funny scenes in this movie, particularly when his character awkwardly responds to the high-dollar “fantasy woman” sent by “Mr. Kazo” to take care of his needs in the hotel room, and later, when Scarlett Johansson’s character shows him her injured toe in the sushi restaurant.
The movie is filmed in such a way that it contrasts the hurried, crowded, noisy day-and night-life of Tokyo with the quiet tranquility of gardens and golf courses and flower arranging classes. The scenes shot in Kyoto are particularly beautiful.
My guess is that, if anything, “Lost in Translation” would make more Americans and Brits want to visit Japan, not less. If the box office take on this movie is any indication, I know I’m correct, since the movie only cost $4 million to make and 27 days to film while it earned a total of almost $45 million in the United States alone.
You’ll love the scenes as Charlotte and Bob go from nightclub to pachinko parlor to karaoke box and on into the night. A whole lot of snippets of Japanese life and entertainment are presented in the course of this 101-minute film. If you’ve been to Japan before, it’ll make you want to go back. If you’re there now, I’d be curious to know just what you think about it. And if you’re planning to go, it’ll whet your appetite a bit.
Charlotte and Bob don’t figure out life entirely in Japan, but they do gain some perspective. Whereas Bob Harris wants to “break out of” Japan in the early part of the story, by the end he definitely wants to stay longer in the country.
So break out “Lost in Translation,” and have some fun! Oh, the film is rated R, primarily for one unfortunate scene at a risque bar, so be warned if kiddos are nearby.
Sumo Joe Says … “‘Lost in Translation’ is a solid Four Stomps movie!”