When you can’t sleep in Japan at night…
In a Tokyo hotel, two unhappily married Americans spend time together, while his wife is back home and her husband at work.
Lost in Translation (2003) – Official Trailer, thecultbox and photos from Focus Features
The simplest premise of this film. Two Americans, a middle-aged man meets a young woman whilst both are staying in a Tokyo hotel. Both are unhappy in their marriages and the pair connect over shared feelings and experiences in the Japanese capital. However, this is not your clichéd contrived romance by the numbers.
Many of the apparently more contrived scenes have more meaning and depth behind them ending differently. This as tension increases rather than using a more obvious plot device. It includes the enigmatic ending to the movie, which is constantly up for debate and speculation, even now nearly fifteen years after the film’s release at the box office.
The film Lost in Translation (2003) starts with an art-inspired, close up of Scarlett Johansson’s bottom, wearing sheer knickers. For no apparent reason, so for art’s sake why? We then meet Bill Murray – in his Oscar nominated Best Actor role – as middle-aged Bob Harris. Harris is a jaded American movie star who just arrived in Tokyo.
It’s night-time and the city is brightly lit in all colours of the spectrum with vibrant neon coloured ads, including a billboard showing Harris advertising a Japanese whisky. This the reason for his trip. He’s tired, jet-lagged and weary, barely half courteous to his entourage of hosts.
Harris can’t sleep and goes for a drink in the hotel bar, complete with a lounge singer. After the actor is recognised by two American businessmen, he makes his exit. He tries to sleep. However constant demands and reminders are faxed through from his wife back in the States, the noise of the fax machine keeping him awake.
Meanwhile, the owner of the bottom, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a twenty-something woman also can’t sleep. Her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) can, and on waking him, he encourages her to join him in slumber. He falls back to sleep, snoring.
Harris starts his day, then shares a lift with a crowd of Japanese people, noticing Charlotte. It’s a long day for him in the film studio. Feeling he isn’t given sufficient guidance for his part in relation to the lengthier directorial rants, Harris becomes increasingly frustrated with his translator. Harris eventually gets the director’s desired effect, once he hams it up in an all smiley, over the top way.
Charlotte meanwhile is on her tod – as her husband is on a work trip – and spends her time visiting Tokyo landmarks and observing its culture. Returning to her empty hotel room at night calls a friend for company forcing out happiness. Afterwards, she cries, feeling her own increasing loneliness. John joins her shortly after, talks passionately about work. Harris meanwhile has an encounter with an unwanted Japanese prostitute.
One night in the hotel bar, Charlotte spots Harris alone. The American pair exchange a number of furtive glances with each other. Charlotte approaches Harris and strikes up a conversation, unnoticed by her husband deep in conversation with some Japanese acquaintances.
The next day, Charlotte and John bump into Kelly (Anna Faris) a self-obsessed and pretty vacant movie star who has worked with John. John appears animated talking with her, and they arrange to meet Kelly for drinks. Charlotte’s reactions in this scene reflecting her feelings of loneliness and distance from her husband.
One night Charlotte can’t sleep. She goes to the bar where by chance she meets Harris – who also had trouble sleeping – and the pair fall into easy conversation and banter. The next night, John and Charlotte meet with Kelly. As Kelly and John talk work, Charlotte feels increasingly detached from their conversation. She spots Harris at the bar, who in contrast, she talks with at more ease despite the age difference between them.
John then leaves for a few days for a work related shoot, and Charlotte invites Harris out with her and some Japanese friends. Harris’ wife has sent him another text and a parcel with carpet samples for him to choose from, a functional task from which we perceive there is little romance left in his marriage.
Harris arranges to go out with Charlotte. Charlotte meets him in her hotel room and the pair joke about his apparent mid-life, it’s kinda flirty from her and more affectionate banter from him. The pair share a fun night out with her Japanese friends with random encounters, dancing, singing karaoke. As the night goes on the pair warm more to each other and grow closer. They relax, have fun and laugh, something not seen in their scenes with their partners.
Both Harris and Charlotte feel accepted in each other’s company as they enjoy and share more experiences of Japanese culture together. The looks and actions from Charlotte towards Harris here are increasingly flirty almost teasing him. Harris’s affection for her is seen, yet he’s restrained in his actions.
Alone, she puts her head on his shoulder, they share a cigarette and on their return to the hotel, he sleeps. Once there he carries her sleeping to her room tucks her in and leaves. Both Charlotte and Harris grow closer over the next few days as their conversations become more intimate.
Over their time together they share their reasons for being in Tokyo, personal stories, some banter and in-jokes. It’s less flirty from her, yet still feels kinda awkward for them but not in a creepy way. It’s like both have a mutual unspoken attraction and the sexual tension rises through each encounter.
Both don’t want to confront this attraction to themselves or each other. Take the risk. This leads to a tender scene, where they are seen talking to each other on a bed still fully clothed. He talks of his failing marriage and his children, she the disillusionment of her life since graduating.
This movie has many delightful twists to the more contrived romance it could easily have been, instead of more obvious montages, more subtle ways of showing their connection with each other and growing affection are used. Through its plot showing two radically different foreigners abroad, Japan is seen with two different approaches for these individual characters.
It has a beautifully filmed arty feel in Johansson’s scenes befitting her character. However these felt at times like The Sound of Music, it was like an advert by the tourist board of all my favourite Japanese things. With the added bonus of Scarlett Johansson as your guide.
Murray getting more fish out of water scenes showing the apparent problems of a tall American in Tokyo who can’t speak the language. It reminded me of similar situations in clashes of culture seen in Welcome to Sweden (2014-15) and in my own life here in Finland where not understanding what is happening, leaves you confused.
However, their shared experiences in Tokyo are filmed showing the obvious joy and affection they feel as they embrace these joint experiences. There is much written about the alienation and connection themes in this movie.
In a nicer character arc, the film showed at the start both characters do not understand the language and are literally lost in translation. She doesn’t interact with anyone observing Japan rather than interacting with it.
He has frustrations with the language as he tries to interact successfully with his translator, directors and the prostitute. After her fun night with friends and they escape the confines of the hotel, they interact more with the people of the country. In some lovely scenes later in the film, Murray bonds with a Japanese man, her with some Japanese ladies.
Both feel alienated from their partners, Charlotte can’t sleep and her husband can, John talks to her not with her, and he dismisses her putting her down in favour of Faris’ bubblehead Kelly. Scenes with Ribisi show John’s unseeing his partner’s needs and feelings, and the effect of this on Charlotte.
John doesn’t see the loneliness his wife is feeling when he returns her from his shoot. The only affection John shows is for his work and he’s kind of flirty with Kelly. So their work connection with Kelly understandably niggles Charlotte.
Harris’s relationship with his wife appears to be unaffectionate, functional and unromantic. Examples of this are when Harris’s wife sends him carpet samples to decide on a colour for the study and her constant demands by fax. Requests are sent regarding his children, suggesting he has a poor relationship with them too. But his phone call with his son is a touching one.
Both Charlotte and Harris’ partners appear more detached and remote, due to the physical or mental distance between them. Conversely, Charlotte and Harris have more intimate conversations, encourage and listen to each other and share fun experiences and laugh together, sharing a bed with no connotations.
This film is a treat due to the perfect casting in Murray, and there are some great moments in the movie. Murray showing his dry, sardonic humour in improvised dialogue with Johansson and others. The karaoke scene where we watch Murray singing a Roxy Music hit is an absolute delight, as is watching the pair’s feelings for each other increase in this scene when Charlotte sings.
But Charlotte and Harris’ growing attraction and tension, lead to a final scene that watchers of this have speculated on since it’s release. This leading to an event even the principal stars have never revealed or commented on. With the outcome of this film after this up to you to decide, speculate on the theories or simply let it be. But let’s just say, if the end of this picture paints a thousand words…
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 😦 😦😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 /10
Hulk Rating: /10
This was reviewed for the 3rd Annual SEX (Now that got your Attention) Blogathon. Other films with this cast include Match Point, Captain America Civil War and The Other Boleyn Girl with Scarlett Johansson. Giovanni Ribisi is in A Million Ways to Die in the West and Ted. Bill Murray is reviewed in Tootsie and Ed Wood.