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Is Love Translatable?

Most movies that depend on character development to carry the entire story to its successful fruition tend to languish and perish in inattention midway through the movie to an impatient and uninitiated audience. Some of the better versions come off as too artsy-fartsy way beyond the appreciation limits of a layperson. The rarest ones, however, excite enough of the average senses and emotions in order to engage its audience in an exercise of sophistication for details and context without losing its momentum to boredom and incomprehensibility.

Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is somewhere in between the extremes, but leans more toward that of the rare kind. It is culturally immersive, richly detailed and populated with complex and interesting characters. The movie is also replete with clever yet subtle suppositions of what it must be like to be either a famous actor experiencing a midlife crisis or a woman in desperate search for purpose in a strange land. Yet the presentation is deceptively simple which allows everyone to connect with the main characters and make them care enough for the motley problems they face in the story.

Lost in Translation tells the story of international actor Bob Harris, played by Bill Murray and Charlotte, played by Scarlet Johansson, and the unusual friendship that formed between them. The movie begins with several snapshots of their first days of their stay in Japan. Bob Harris has been commissioned to do an advertisement for whiskey when in fact he could be doing a play somewhere. When Charlotte asks Bob about what he is doing in Japan, he answers, “Uh, a couple of things.

Taking a break from my wife, forgetting my son’s birthday, and, uh, getting paid two million… to endorse a whiskey… when I could be doing a play somewhere” (#2). He has a difficult time adjusting to Japanese culture while sometimes he pokes fun at Japanese people. At the onset, the movie reveals that he is married and recently forgot his son’s birthday. Charlotte had tagged along with her husband who had been hired to do photo-shoots in Japan. Her husband is constantly away and does not have enough time for her.

Charlotte decides to enjoy her stay anyway by visiting shrines and hanging out with friends. Still, she finds that these do not help solve her loneliness and boredom. She calls a friend back home, listens to a self-help tape and begins to questions whether she married the right man. The characters of Bob Harris and Charlotte at the beginning were troubled with how to spend their stay in an otherwise foreign place. They are experiencing a serious lull in their lives and fight boredom before they eventually start doubting how they have been living their lives thus far.

After a chance encounter at the bar, they strike a casual conversation which eventually sparked a certain shared understanding between them. Sofia Coppola plays on this unlikely chemistry even more by shifting a variety of angles in the kind of relationship that they develop. Most of the time they are shown merely as friends trying to enjoy themselves in a foreign land, while at some points, Bob and Charlotte share moments of undeniable intimacy. Nevertheless, they share moments together that ease their worries and affirm their positive sides as individuals.

Bob Harris has the wisdom of years behind him which he imparts to a younger Charlotte, who likewise symbolizes youth and energy, which Bob Harris so desperately seeks. Precisely because of the central ideas being cut across in the story, the story has little to do with presenting Japan, its people, tradition and culture in extravagance. The setting could have very well been set in some other country and still the import of the message would not be lost. Japan may have served as an exotic factor in order to play with a bit of humor, but the choice has nothing to do with Japan in particular.

Japan as a foreign setting is more of placing the characters in the proper context where they could enjoy space and anonymity in the crowd. This is not to say that Japan is not the perfect choice, in fact, the movie would not be the same if the setting were elsewhere, but the caveat is that another country with a distinct language and culture might have suited the same purpose and would have probably worked well. The main point is that the movie invested on character development above and beyond anything else.

On this regard, it can be said that Bill Murray played Bob Harris perfectly. At once he expresses indifference, confusion, innocence, a healthy measure of acerbic with and a casual air in his performance and method. What might have been considered bigotry and ignorance in the character of Bob Harris to Japanese customs, his way of reacting to it is altogether seen as playful and even perhaps charming to a degree. Scarlett Johansson likewise combines grace and honesty in her role as the lonely wife of a busy man in a foreign place.

Her character is carefully portrayed as an individual with personal issues and not as a high-browed foreigner who resented Japan. For instance, when she confides to her friend that she feels absolutely nothing when she often visiting Japanese shrines, it was to evince the fact that she is suffering emotionally inside which prevented her from enjoying her stay in Japan. The karaoke scene is also illuminating on that point as it dispels the notion that Bob and Charlotte are spiteful of the Japanese.

It only indicates that because they finally found someone to console them in that they can now make their vacation a bit more exciting and memorable. On the part of Bob Harris, being an actor and treated no less as a VIP, there were perks to his job that bordered around Japanese good custom and implied professional courtesy. In a scene where he had to entertain a solicitous yet clumsy female attendant in his room, the movie touches on the ancient Japanese Geisha custom edited conveniently for the modern audience’s expectation of what it must have been before and what it is like now.

Although it might not be that an accurate picture of the Geisha tradition in the modern times, the movie drew some strength in such a comic episode to buttress the fact that Bob Harris had been ill-at-ease and enervated at the very start of the film. Notwithstanding the fact that he was a married man, there lingers an implied assumption that men like Bob Harris, being the famous personality that he is, must be privy to such occasion and would probably have humored and obliged the premium fantasy sent by Mr. Kazu (#2).

However, despite the passionate insistence of the woman to have her stockings “lipped” and torn, and that they go about the business of hired love-making on a level at par with the sexual dalliances worthy of perhaps another Bob Harris movie, he spurns her advances and replies “I don’t think I like massages anymore” (#2) to the Japanese woman. His unresponsive attitude and nonchalance are strong suggestions that the actor has finally lost his bearings for excitement and adventure at this point. This is not to say that the great things in life for an actor are closely connected with carnal pleasures or that sex fixes everything.

Anent the overarching theme of the movie, his apparent indifference can be traced to the fact that he needs much, much more than a massage, so to speak, but a certain special treatment from an anonymous individual out there to bring him back to life and awake his keen appreciation for the beautiful things, not necessarily pertaining to the satisfaction of the flesh. It is, in other words, nostalgia for something he had lost and a gripping longing for memories of the past to wash over him like silly once again. Coincidentally, the scene that followed shows the casual exchange of glances between him and another woman.

For the very first time, Bob Harris sees the possible solution to his problem, an answer to his questions that have eluded him for the longest time—Charlotte smiling at him in the elevator. The characters of Bob and Charlotte, and the way they were acted out are the highlights of the movie. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation zeroes in to the lives of two individuals who are dying to find a way to create good memories while in Japan. In a perfect combination of Bob Harris’s mid-life crisis and Charlotte’s concerns, and their unlikely mix, the movie gave convincing credence and merit to their relationship.

It had closure in the end which also suggested that they might not probably meet again and enjoy each other’s company because they would not be as anonymous and free when they get back home. Fortunately, the moments they shared are enough to last. The hug at the end of the movie was a bittersweet moment when they had to part ways with the assurance that their thoughts of the other will always be with them. Their relationship is one of the few beautiful things that happen only once in a lifetime.

Thus, it would be less beautiful if they knew that it could happen again. They were strangers from the very beginning, and although their paths have crossed momentarily and nothing will ever be the same for them again, they are and will perhaps forever remain complete strangers to each other—but in a somewhat extraordinarily in-translatable way.

Works Cited

1. Lost in Translation. Dir. Sofia Coppola. Perf. Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson. Focus Features, 2003. 2. http://www. script-o-rama. com/movie_scripts/l/lost-in-translation-script-transcript. html

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