Urban Mausoleum; Loneliness and Dependency in “Lost in Translation”

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Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation tells a story revolving around two people that form a deep friendship while visiting Tokyo, Japan. Various subjects contained within the film include those regarding marriage, romantic relationships, diversity between cultures, and the phenomenon of celebrity. The most prominent of subjects within the film deal with innate human feelings of loneliness and alienation as framed against one of the most densely-populated spaces on the planet. Through the use of cinema’s various aesthetic tools, Coppola conveys the thematic idea that any given person’s interpersonal connections can at once facilitate feelings of loneliness yet also allow such feelings to become altogether more bearable.

To set the stage for an analysis of the film’s thematic handling of the subject of innate human loneliness, it is important to first characterize such feelings that ostracize the film’s protagonists. The audience is introduced to Bob Harris scenes that characterize his feelings of alienation as complex byproducts of interpersonal connections through work, his life at home, and within his adaptation to new surroundings that radically differ from the American culture (and people) he is used to.

The first time the audience sees Bob he is sleeping in the backseat of a car. A close up shot frames his face against a backdrop of neon advertisements that are slightly out of focus but clear enough to be distinguishable objects. As Bob opens his eyes and adjusts to his surroundings, the shot is almost immediately replaced by a mid close up on the opposite side of the car window that reflects the neon advertisements in clearer focus that mirrors Bob’s initial adjustments to his new environment. An extreme long shot of the streets of Tokyo replaces the mid close up, establishing Bob’s minute location amidst the mass of dwarfing urbanity. The shot immediately characterizes Bob as an individual who is out of touch not only with this gaudy atmosphere, but also with himself seeing as the proceeding extreme long shot shows an advertisement with his face on it. Because the ad contains a picture of Bob, the audience understands that he is a famous figure of sorts; however, the text on the advertisement is entirely in Japanese. Seeing himself advertised amidst a barrage of foreign words contextualizes Bob’s sense of self; although he recognizes his own image, he cannot understand the literal meaning of what surrounds him. He is as disconnected from himself as he is from the Japanese language, culture, and setting he is currently immersed within.

Bob’s isolation from his surroundings is visible in another scene that relies heavily on mise en scene to speak to the viewer. Arriving at a hotel, Bob (a Caucasian male) is carefully placed at the center of an elevator car and surrounded by Japanese businessmen, each of whom stand a good foot shorter than him.  To say that Bob sticks out like a sore thumb amidst this crowd (as well as in the rest of Tokyo) would be an understatement. In fact, most of Bob’s interpersonal experiences towards the beginning of the film are those that convey his sense of culture shock as he adapts to a foreign culture radically different from his own.

It is eventually learned that Bob is an aging actor working in the city to promote a brand of whiskey, and he is further isolated from his surroundings in a scene that sees him filming a commercial for it. Sound plays an important part in this scene, seeing as a director who presumably only speaks Japanese barks orders at Bob’s translator, who relays the directions to Bob in English. The scene is composed in a fashion that never sees Bob and the director in the same shot. Simple shot-reverse shot editing conveys to the viewer that the director and Bob are in fact in the same room and part of the same conversation, but neither is really on the same page as the other, hence the lack of equating the men together in the same shot. Bob is being utilized for what he has built a career upon (the art of acting) yet is hindered by his inability to understand what the director wants from him. This lends itself to Bob’s increasing feelings of isolation; he now not only feels disconnected from the world around him, he literally can no longer interact with it. In similar fashion, a proceeding scene in which Bob shoots a print campaign for the whiskey brand sees him in various states of commercial fabrication; countless hordes of makeup artists and wardrobe stylists adjust his appearance to the point of perfection, caking makeup onto his aging face and placing heavy-duty clamps onto the back of his jacket to create the illusion that an ill-fitting jacket is the perfect size for him. It is all a trick for the camera, a fabricated version of reality to convey that Bob is a “perfect” human being. But the fact that the audience is able to see the work that goes into creating a “perfect” reality suggests that Bob’s sense of reality is merely a constructed one as well.

A motif that runs throughout the film involves that of nocturnal restlessness, connecting both of the film’s protagonists (both are experiencing this) through editing. The shot that precedes the introduction of Charlotte contains a close up of Bob staring wide-eyed at the ceiling from his bed. A jump cut shows Charlotte (presumably at the same exact time) similarly unable to fall asleep as she stares through a window. The motif of the pair’s separate (but shared) restlessness characterizes their loneliness and facilitates the personal bond (and its resulting mutual coping quality) that is to come.

Charlotte’s loneliness stems from a somewhat different place than Bob’s, although her various interpersonal connections also offset feelings of security as well as facilitating internal harmony. Charlotte is not alone on her travels to Tokyo; she is accompanied by her photographer husband on assignment in the city to shoot rock bands and models. Charlotte, although married to someone involved in the art and entertainment industry, is a self-proclaimed unemployed drifter of sorts, having graduated with a degree in philosophy but entirely unsure of what course her life will take. Charlotte aimlessly wanders the streets of Tokyo in search of some sort of spiritual enlightenment, but is overwhelmed by the intense visual onslaught of commercialized Tokyo as well as by the barrage of inner-city sounds (such as pop songs, car engines, etc.) that increase in volume (exaggerating her subjective perception of the city) as their containing shots become wider and wider, dwarfing her in a sea of urban chaos.

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Charlotte’s husband is physically alongside her at select times (primarily when the two are alone in their hotel room) and their relationship is often characterized through the film’s cinematography. A particular close-up shot towards the beginning of the film sees Charlotte as she looks out a window from her hotel room. The audience’s visual perspective sees the city that overwhelms her in clear focus, yet she is out of focus in the same shot. The city is all Charlotte sees, and the intense feelings of anxiety and uncertainty the city’s vast openness instill within her are mirrored by the incomplete image we see of her unfocused silhouette. Although offscreen, a door is heard opening and closing and accompanied by her husband’s voice as he enters the room. As his unfocused silhouette embraces that of Charlotte’s, a rack focus brings the couple into focus and the city skyline out of focus. This suggests that although Charlotte feels isolated and out of place in her new surroundings, her husband brings an internal solace that grounds and comforts her, providing a momentary distraction from the internal discord the city produces within her.

Although Charlotte has a relationship with her husband that provides a sense of comfort, another character offsets her feelings of stability within her marriage. A particular scene begins with a medium shot of Charlotte and her husband embracing as they walk down a hallway. They are very affectionate, fondling each other in a public display that conveys their attraction to each other; however, the couple stumbles across a blonde woman named Kelly, who is revealed to be an acquaintance of Charlotte’s husband (as well as a famous starlet). Kelly is immediately contrasted with Charlotte through costuming; Charlotte wears a frumpy grey sweater whereas Kelly wears a revealing, fire engine red top that aligns her as an object of sexual desire for Charlotte’s husband. As a conversation strikes up between the two, Charlotte is positioned in the middle instead of on the same side as her husband, whom has taken an intense interest in Kelly that renders him completely indifferent to his wife’s frustrated expression now that she is no longer the center of attention. Charlotte has become an afterthought instead of the object of desire for her husband, whom is completely wrapped up in the bubbly Kelly’s outward display of vapidity and stereotypical “dumb blonde” hilarity that is undermined by her prominently-displayed bosom. As the conversation ends and the “real” couple walk away, a long shot views their departure from the hallway as separate entities devoid of interpersonal affectation. The couple entered as one and leave as two, separated by the husband’s obvious attraction to Kelly which upsets Charlotte and sets forth an imbalance in her internal state that is further facilitated by his announcement that he is leaving for a few days to complete an on-location shoot. For the first time since the audience has been introduced to her, Charlotte will be without a companion in an environment that overwhelms her.

The most important interpersonal connection in the film is that between Charlotte and Bob. The two eventually begin their relationship after exchanging casual glances in a bar they mutually frequent. Charlotte sees something in Bob that he also sees in her; a magnetism exists between the two thanks to the paralleled comparisons and motifs the film has been building between them (being alone, nocturnal restlessness, observing the city through windows, etc.). Their comfort with each other is reflected in a scene that relies on calculated mise en scene and sound elements to cement their relationship as one of mutual comfort. Bob and Charlotte, alone and with nothing better to do, go out to a bar only a few days after initially meeting. The bar provides a much-needed, dimly-lit escape that facilitates a recreational release both desperately needed. As the pair mentally unwind and become comforted by the other’s presence, the camera movements drastically alter, shifting from static to hand-held. The scene also utilizes lighting to characterize their increasing comfort with each other and their surroundings, seeing as a medium shot of Bob shows him standing in front of a screen projecting fireworks onto a wall for decoration; the projection now resides on Bob’s face, for once allowing him to finally blend in with his surroundings and not become overwhelmed by them. The sounds of the bar increase in volume as the night progresses, allowing both Bob and Charlotte’s voices to blend in with the crowd, sharing a sense of “fitting in”, if only for a night. As the sequence of their night out progresses, a graphic match recalls the aforementioned scene in which Bob observes Tokyo through a car window for the first time; however, instead of Bob looking out the car window it is now Charlotte who observes the city, her face framed in a close up that conveys a sense of wonderment and amazement with the city she has rarely experienced before, almost as if being with Bob inspires a fresh perspective on life for her. These feelings contrast with how the audience has seen both Bob and Charlotte interacting with their surroundings in previous scenes; a feeling of isolation and loneliness no longer exists so long as Bob and Charlotte share the same diegetic space.

Bob and Charlotte are established as a connected pair through various shots that proceed their initial night of bonding at the bar. Their discussions come to revolve around topics of love, life, and the pressures of marriage and family. As Bob and Charlotte become increasingly entangled within each other’s similar dissatisfaction with life, their relationship becomes deeper. A particular scene towards the end of the film characterizes their relationship through cinematography as well as its mise en scene. Bob and Charlotte are framed in a high-angle medium long shot as they lay on a bed. A medium shot of a window shows their reflection in the glass cast over the illuminated nocturnal skyline of Tokyo, indicating that this is a friendship formed by, within, and facilitated by the city and the feelings of alienation it evokes (which ultimately brings them together). Charlotte’s voice punctuates the somber image as she informs Bob that their friendship would never be the same if they returned to the city under any other circumstances, reaffirming what the image implies; their relationship is given a context and becomes immortalized within the city. A cut to the aforementioned long shot endures throughout the scene, only shifting to shot-reverse close up shots towards the climax of the conversation as their discussion becomes more intimate. Proceeding the shot-reverse close up shots, a cut returns the audience’s perspective to a high angle above the bed where the couple lays. Bob awkwardly reaches out to stroke Charlotte’s foot as it just barely touches Bob’s side. The couple is not positioned to suggest sexual attraction, but rather to suggest their comfort with their newfound friendship and the strength it inspires within them, seeing as they both fall asleep amidst shots towards the beginning of the film that suggest they could not fall asleep on their own.  As Bob and Charlotte’s relationship progresses into a deep friendship, the film works to “correct” these previously-established motifs that characterize their feelings of loneliness and isolation. Another example would be a scene that sees Charlotte visiting the spiritual center of Kyoto where she observes a Japanese couple being married in a traditional ceremony. The sequence recalls an earlier scene in which Charlotte views Buddhist monks chanting and praying that she proclaims to have felt no emotion while observing. As Charlotte observes the wedding ceremony, close up shots convey her perspective to the audience; as the ceremony goes on, Charlotte begins noticing smaller and smaller details (close ups show the couple holding hands, exchanging glances, etc.). This suggests that she is finally “feeling” something after meeting Bob as opposed to feeling “nothing” as she observed the Buddhist monks before she met Bob.

The conclusion of the film sees Bob whispering something into Charlotte’s ear. What is said is unheard by the audience, seeing as it is drowned out by the intentional increase in volume of the surrounding noises of the city. The exchange functions as a pseudo consummation of their fleeting relationship. Through various aesthetic techniques the film has established this relationship as a positive one for both parties. From the “correction” of certain negative motifs to the paralleling of Bob and Charlotte with other inferior (at least from an audience perspective) characters previously throughout the narrative, the film enunciates its point clearly enough; while the audience may not be privileged enough to hear these intimate words between close friends, the film has spent enough time aesthetically establishing their relationship as one that made each of their feelings of loneliness altogether more bearable.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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