ByAng Bin Yee, writer at Creators.co

It is a rather intrigued shot to begin the film with a woman leans on a bed; her back’s towards the spectators, with a pink semi-transparent underwear centralizing the focal point of a film direction. Overlaying the softness of the colours of the wardrobe presented under the dim light, it is the film title ‘Lost In Translation’.

Opening scene with the title 'Lost in Translation.
Opening scene with the title 'Lost in Translation.

The 2003 film directed by Sofia Coppola shows the diversity and yet alienated experience of the characters Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in Tokyo. As interesting and mystical way as it is to an opening shot, the film itself presents two layers of understanding based upon its title ‘Lost in Translation’. First, the literal indication of lost in translation explicitly delivered to spectator’s understanding, in which also the connotation of the communication barriers between the Americans and Japanese, in terms of language. Second, the metaphorical meaning of lost in translation that lies within the characters of Bob and Charlotte. What is LOST in 'Lost in Translation? It is to propose that they are lost in translating the crisis faced of the stage of life they have gone astray. At the point of time they are situated in the land of the rising sun – what have led them astray is empowered by the stay in a foreign land thus ignited the confusions to be crystallized and reflections are needed; the isolation and alienation of two distinct characters’ encounters; furthermore, solitary.

Babel it is said to be the film, a stitching game of thread and Coppola the ‘needle’ that stitches a beautiful collage of cultural differences of both America and Japan. As the ambassador for Suntory’s Whiskey, also the reason why Bob made his trip to Japan, during the filming process of Bob for the product, the scene has demonstrated the communications barrier happening between the filmmaker, translator and Bob himself. We understand that the accent and the simplified message delivered to Bob is a form of representation; an identifiable cultural differences.

Yet, is Lost in Translation to bridge the distance of cultural ideologies that differ from each other or it is to intensify how diversified human relations could be in the global age? Despite the dilemma, the film shall be the informant to embrace the difference for better understanding of each human being. During the photo shoot, the communication between the photographer and Bob, meaning is somehow delivered as there is universal symbolism such as renowned James Bond 007 in the context of encoding and decoding the message that in the situation, united the East and the West with a mutual comprehension, thus the meaning translated. Furthermore, the friendship of both Bob and Charlotte with Charlie and other Japanese acquaintances blends well with each other that crossing the boundaries of nations, they go through quite an adventure night, they spent in the karaoke and the club. The lone travelling of Charlotte walking through the culture of orientalism in Japan, the monks’ chanting that she initially could not comprehend or the curiosity gaze at the game arcades of how the Japanese play and then later in the film, her perspective enriched along with her encounter of the cultivated friendship with Bob, that she then learned to appreciate. As she is witnessing the newly wed passing her by in Kyoto, the tradition, the subtle action being magnified through close up of the groom reaching out to the bride to enter the threshold of the temple’s entrance, as holy as it is, Charlotte watches, the tranquility, the serenity and the beauty of the foreign land has brought her the certain level of understanding, that somehow a form of translation, providing an answer as she has been listening to ‘A Soul’s Search’ CD earlier in the film.

As for the metaphorical meaning as claimed the second layer of understanding the film, ‘noises’ in Bob and Charlotte’s mind echoed the heartstrings of spectators, vibrant as it is in the city lights of Tokyo, we have to go through the quest with them in the light of the director’s written script. The ‘noises’ are no other than their crisis faced, Bob’s stagnant condition in his stage of life and Charlotte’s directionless and complications of her stage in life of her marriage and resulting from the unobservant husband, John.

The isolation or alienation in the film being portrayed through how the characters corresponding to the surrounding (including the local people), the framing and composition of the characters enacted in the setting (i.e. a lone figure against a wide landscape), the adjunct to the alienation – the time and space relations, within the characters themselves (boredom), between characters and the environment they are situated to, significantly enticed spectatorship not only anticipation, the subtle intimacy relations extended through the interaction between Bob and Charlotte, patiently, we watch how it is developed, from two strangers to the whisper at the closure. The film drives a magnetic force despite there are many times a certain expectations aren’t delivered, i.e. the possibility of an affair of the husband, John to the new celebrated star, Kelly or the opportunity that Bob and Charlotte have that could lead them to have sex with each other. Yet the mutual respect between Bob and Charlotte remains, the attractiveness is convinced through exactly alienation and the string that pulling us, the spectator are those moments when they are together and they are not together. Through the isolation moments in which the opposite effects to the city of Tokyo could feed our audiovisual senses is that the notion of desires outgrow from the lone moments, emancipated by the characters. Charlotte putting on her lipsticks in the hotel room, staring at her reflection in the mirror with her own appeal, walking alone in the busy district of Tokyo at the crossroads crowded by the pedestrians with umbrella, dipped herself in the bathtub overlooking the cityscape of Tokyo through the window while listening to the CD etc.

Charlotte in bathtub, listening to CD
Charlotte in bathtub, listening to CD

We came to know that the opening shot, the woman is Charlotte as we figured later in the film that she has been wearing her underwear with a top in the hotel room, yet what it is to be further elaborated is that her pink wig during karaoke session, conveys a linkage to the pink semi-transparent underwear that through the loneliness she experiences, the representation of her desire: for affection, for her boredom to be released, for the riddle in her head to seek a freedom than a solution. As for Bob, we learned that he is indeed alienated in the beginning but later on reconciled himself in the foreign land via the interaction with the locals, to enumerate - the moment in the hospital, despite Bob and the crippled could not understand each other, in terms of language, body gestures being used to hopefully enhance the communication, yet the warmth is the laughter and the connectivity between humans, to be able to comprehend thus comes secondary. We watched Bob stands right in the middle among the other Japanese businessmen in the elevator, it felt sophisticated in the small space encapsulated in the elevator, however a sense of isolation emerged because of indifference to the culture and also lacking of adaptiveness. Nevertheless, his appearance in the TV show elaborated his part of adapting the environment although we understand it is only a sheer reason to prolong the duration of his stay.

Solitary, it is somehow a strong emotional delivery that spectators need to go through with the main characters of Bob and Charlotte. There are moments in which Bob and Charlotte appears to be in solitude therefore their reflections and whatever the thoughts might be, become our concern. We tend to ponder what it is to be in their mind, mirrored to what we could be related to ourselves as these are the moments of contemplation, not only for Bob and Charlotte but for us. We identify ourselves through the diegesis world designed to and encountered by the two characters. The visual composition of how the characters are placed within the frame, the apparatus – the camera, that we are able to identify and aware the construction of mise-en-scene is through the apparatus, that provide us with an illusion of absolute power over the screen images according to Coppola’s direction . When Charlotte sits at the side of the window overlooking the night of Tokyo cityscape scenery, the rack focus luring us to her state of mind. She turns to look to the direction of the bed where her husband John is sleeping, and then cut to the shot of her in the bed with John, asking if he is awake, although he then put his arm around cuddles her close to his chest, yet it speaks loneliness she felt than she is getting any fulfillment. It hints emptiness. There are many times the clues given by the director to highlight solitary of Charlotte, i.e. knitting and idleness in lying on bed.

Rack Focus of Charlotte sitting next to the window
Rack Focus of Charlotte sitting next to the window
Idleness - Charlotte lying on her bed
Idleness - Charlotte lying on her bed


As for Bob, his phone conversations with his wife helplessly reveal the truth of solitary is indeed associate the dull and stagnant life he is living. The fruitful consolidation of the solitaries felt within the two characters is when the infamous whisper that the film has seduced many to cogitate on. There are few versions of what the inaudible whisper said to be, however, it is the importance to the solitary found its way, the contentment expressed by Bob and Charlotte allows us to forgive if we are getting a sense of incompletion or ignorant to be informed the lines of whisper. The isolation and alienation, thus make way to celebrate the joy that they both, Bob and Charlotte developed a special affection in which is the companion throughout the journey of the stay in Japan.

As the car drives away with Bob’s point of view going through the city, we know it will never be the same again. Lost in Translation is just the beauty of that.

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