Film files: The controversial legacy of ‘Lost in Translation’

A drawing of a man and a woman staring out a wide window at a city lit up at night.
(Lucia Marquez-Upman • The Student Life)

Ahead of Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla,” set to release next weekend, I thought it was time to revisit her 2003 film “Lost in Translation,” which celebrated its 20th anniversary last month. Released in United States theaters on Sept. 12, 2003, this story of a brief encounter between two lonely Americans at a hotel in Tokyo was a great critical and commercial success. Produced on a modest $4 million budget, it went on to pick up four Academy Award nominations, with Coppola taking home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

The first of Coppola’s Americans is Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a washed-up Hollywood actor in Tokyo shooting a commercial for Suntory whisky. At least a decade past his prime and separated from his wife — she appears in the film as a disembodied voice on the telephone — he looks perpetually slumped and rumpled. The other, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), is a young college graduate who is visiting with her celebrity photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi). Abandoned during the day, she walks glassy-eyed and aimlessly through the Tokyo streets and around the sparse Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel.

Coppola famously wrote the screenplay for “Lost in Translation” based on her own experiences living in Tokyo after dropping out of university. She discovered the Park Hyatt Tokyo after staying there while promoting her feature film debut, “The Virgin Suicides.”

Coppola knows how to capture little moments that, in solitude, feel larger than life. The film’s soundtrack parallels these moments that could go one way or another, either utterly depressing or exhilarating. Air’s “Alone in Kyoto,” for example, sounds like rainfall and introspection. Its inclusion in the film’s soundtrack complements their iconic contribution “Playground Lover” in “The Virgin Suicides.”

2003 was a big year for Hollywood and Japan with the release of “The Last Samurai” and “Kill Bill: Volume 1,” along with Coppola’s film. But for all the love of Japan and its products evident on screen in “Lost in Translation,” its people don’t receive that same fondness. None of the Japanese characters have any agency; they are all stereotypes in one sense or another.

“Coppola knows how to capture little moments that, in solitude, feel larger than life,”

While I understand what it means to feel alone in a foreign country, that alienation does not justify casual racism. For the solitary, aimless characters, Tokyo is simply their theme park. There’s a snootiness to every interaction with a Japanese person; not only are things lost in translation, but there is little effort from Americans to attempt any kind of translation at all.

The movie’s obsession with Japanese pronunciation of Rs and Ls, most famously with the sex worker who visits Harris’s room, has aged quite badly — particularly as neither Harris nor Charlotte attempt to learn more than a few words in Japanese despite all their free time. To understand what brings our protagonists together despite their sizable age gap, we must find the Japanese odd and unapproachable: Johansson was 17 years old when she filmed “Lost in Translation,” while Murray was 52.

“I’m not going to think about it,” Coppola told Rolling Stone about the film’s age gap. “I was just doing my thing at the time it was made. I did notice that watching it with my kids, because they’re teenagers and they were like, ‘what’s going on with that?’ But Bill is so lovable and charming. Part of the story is about how you can have romantic connections that aren’t sexual or physical. You can have crushes on people where it isn’t that kind of thing. Part of the idea was that you can have connections where you can’t be together for various reasons because you’re at different points in life.”

It’s a recurring theme in Coppola’s films — young women who are taken by older men. Another example is Coppola’s upcoming “Priscilla” biopic, which focuses on the relationship between Priscilla Presley and Elvis, from Priscilla’s perspective. While it’s clear that Coppola herself never fully reconciled the inherently problematic age gap in “Lost in Translation,” “Priscilla” appears to take a more clear-eyed look at the power imbalances within these relationships.

On its 20th anniversary, Sofia Coppola’s portrayal of Tokyo through the eyes of two lonely Americans speaks to the universal experience of isolation and the desire to connect, experiences which feel more pervasive than ever. However, the film’s representation of Japanese characters, cultural insensitivity and the age gap between the protagonists all warrant reflection. As we revisit this iconic work, “Lost in Translation” reminds us that the world of cinema evolves and we too must evolve in our understanding and appreciation of it.

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