This film is among my favorite movies of all time, but I’m really sure if I understand why. It’s something that I have loved to watch repeatedly over the past few years, yet something I cannot openly recommend to my closest friends.
Roger Ebert once said: “Sweet and sad at the same time it is sardonic and funny. We all need to talk about metaphysics, but those who know us well want details and specifics; strangers allow us to operate more vaguely on a cosmic scale. You can only say ‘I feel like I’ve known you for years’ to someone you have not known for years.” (source)
I heartily agree. Perhaps you will benefit from our shared perspective as you view this masterful piece of cinema.
The entire film takes place in the context of Tokyo, Japan. Surprisingly, the city itself, though showcased as full of expansive vistas and colorful locations, doesn’t really play much of a part in this film. Everything we care about on screen has to do with what the characters are experiencing in the city, not the city itself. Since character-driven stories are a huge favorite of mine (not to mention great storytelling technique) I found myself catching but passing glimpses of their surroundings, just as they did on their journey through the foreign nation.
Two primary American characters take center stage throughout the bulk of this film. At a glance, it’s a pretty classic tale of two wandering souls who mutually and silently agree to keep one another company. I think it goes deeper than that, however, which will become evident later through their contrasting behavior.
Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson)
This poor girl can’t catch a break, much less a few moments with her husband of 2 years. She feels cut off from her marriage, the friends she has back home, and anything at all that would make her feel welcome. Her husband is clearly too busy to spend much time with her while on his work trip; within minutes she already feels isolated, unloved, and generally dissatisfied with a lack of ways to spend her time in the city.
Bob (Bill Murray)
This guy is in a tight spot. He just landed in Japan without a clue of how anything works. He has domestic struggles of his own, despite doing well for himself as a model for a high-dollar whiskey label. He sticks out like a sore thumb and does a great job of hoping he can go unnoticed, despite having his face plastered all over billboards. He’s a washed up actor who doesn’t want to make much noise, and his first few nights are fraught with reminders of the issues back home.
The first time these two notice one another is in the elevator at their hotel. Bob is taken by her beauty, but the scene quickly passes and we get right in to the grind of Bob’s life in Japan. He doesn’t speak the language, the folks at his photoshoot make his life tough, and he’s really starting to wonder what he is doing here.
Charlotte has no idea how to get around in the city, doesn’t understand the lack of personal space, and searches for understanding through the more traditional elements of Japanese culture. We see that her friends don’t really understand what she’s going through, either: how could you be alone and without things to do in a place like Tokyo?! She looks into the mirror and isn’t sure what she sees, how to adapt, or what to do besides assimilate into the culture around her. It’s as if her husband doesn’t remember much of her before their business trip.
Bob finds some solace at the hotel bar…mostly because he has no idea what is going on when he watches television. He finds an old film of his with crazy dubbing, which is almost as strange to his eyes as the food and Japanese customs around him. Charlotte continues to explore, not content to remain within the confines of her hotel room. She wants to see things, do things, to feel connected with the people around her.
The issue for both of our heroes, however, is that a city like Tokyo or New York isn’t built so that people can stay connected. We build these cities so that high volumes of people can do high volumes of activities within shared social and economic boundaries. The city takes them in, swallows them up, and moves ever onward, unflinching.
Neither of these characters know what to do with the reflection they see in the mirror. They are like ones who look, then immediately forget what kind of person they are.
True to form, the true introduction of our two heroes happens while “Scarborough Fair” is playing in the background. I consider the second act of this film to begin at this point, because we see the paths of two random people begin to cross as they appreciate one another’s isolation from afar.
Each think they are soul-searching and flying solo, but they really want the basic companionship of someone who understands them. In a way, I think all of us are searching for that answer, which is one of the main reasons that this film gets me every time.
“You’re just a teenager at marriage. You can drive it, but there’s still the occasional accident.” — Bob
The two meet at the bar several times and discuss philosophy, life missions, and wishing they could sleep at night. Bob has been married 25 years and wants a break. Charlotte doesn’t know what to think when she looks at her mere two years! What will the future hold? This is where it gets interesting.
“I’m trying to organize a prison break…are you in?” — Bob
They decide to venture out together and meet some of Charlotte’s friends. These folks wind up being surface-level simpletons who get kicked out of a bar for causing unrest. Bob and Charlotte spend the evening in the company of people who enjoy fun times, but they clearly want more. They play along for a while, but find themselves sitting outside, trying to figure out what exactly they are missing.
This is where the film becomes of my favorites. We assume that the idea is these two people are trying to enjoy one another’s company, almost like some sort of rebound from the struggles at home. Going by the standard of most movies these days, it’s easy to feel like the director wants us to will them into bed together, because that’s how we understand healing from so much pain.
Thank goodness that Sofia Coppola has class: this is exactly what does not happen! They share a cab back to their hotel, where Bob, ever the gentlemen, kindly deposits an exhausted Charlotte into her room and leaves for his own. I couldn’t be happier with the filmmakers at this point.
This is also where we see how just how deep Bob has fallen. He’s on the phone with his wife, vainly trying to figure out how he can have the best of both worlds. He wants to be home, despite his wife’s passive aggression, but he feels as through his time in Japan is bigger than himself. He points out to his wife that it’s not “fun” there, only “different.” I think this plays into the main struggle for both of our characters.
Now my favorite song from the soundtrack now makes its entrance: “Are you awake?”
Our two heroes continue to hang out, but nothing really changes between them. This is why I love this film so much, I think, because it shows how important common experiences are in times of need. The idea that they can spend time together without crossing the line – one that I believe is crucial to a positive view of these two characters – is something that a lot of films choose not to reenforce.
Movies like “When Harry Met Sally” are built upon the premise that opposites attract in the most extreme ways, no matter what. I reject this notion, believing that two people could actually be friends without all of the sexual tension that you might expect to find in this situation. Why do we need to believe that sex draws two people together, that the act of physical intimacy is what really matters in the long game? Charlotte is a very beautiful woman, and Bob is no clown, but I love that this film shows some restraint.
“The more you know who are you and what you want, the less you let things upset you.” — Bob
“I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be.” — Charlotte
“You’ll figure that out, I’m not worried about you. Keep writing. You’re not hopeless.” — Bob
It seems like the fundamental issue each of these characters face is not knowing what to do when nobody seems to need them. Both of them began relationships, jobs, or phases of life because they felt as though someone needed them to be there, to exist, to care. Now that their perceptions of their situations have changed, they feel stuck.
I think one of the main reasons this film resonates with me is the enduring message of hope. Despite the strange circumstances, the strange environment, and the strange mixture of cultures, these characters have a sense of hope that binds them together. Among the cherry blossoms, we see Charlotte view the simple forms of Japanese chivalry that makes every guy want to do the same for his girl. There’s a simple quality to that hope that makes us want to keep going, and it rings true deep within our souls.
When Bob seeks temporary companionship via a one-night stand with another woman, the movie takes us for a loop. Just when you think you have him figured out, you realize that he’s trying to come back from a long stretch of distance between his wife, his kids, and anything that he really cared about. It’s as if this event wakes up him up and shows him just how selfish he really is, which we see all over the face of Charlotte when she finds out.
Frankly, I don’t really care what you think about infidelity, monogamy, or sex; this moment in the film stands alone. Bob has to come to grips with just how far he has fallen, while Charlotte looks on in disgrace. He looks in the mirror and clearly doesn’t like what he sees. While on the phone with his wife the night before, he told her that she could worry about him if she wanted, but that was as far as it went. He’s at a turning point, so this last-ditch effort at finding satisfaction is where everything changes.
Charlotte is clearly hurt by the impassionate Bob whom, in her mind, has everything that she does not. Let’s be clear: she is not disappointed because he slept with someone besides her, rather she feels betrayed because he made a stupid, weak decision when faced with a tough situation that she wanted to learn from.
He has money, a wife and kids who miss him, and plenty of years of marriage under his belt to ride out this passing storm. What a letdown for someone trying to figure all of this out. She is hurt that he cheated, not on her, but on all of the things that she desperately wishes she could have.
Bob defends himself poorly and we see him learn that it was a stupid mistake, one that will only continue to distance himself from the people he loves. Not only that, but he has set a horrible example for this young girl who really needs to be shown that marriage is worth fighting for.
“Walking back to you is the hardest thing that I can do for you. Just like honey.” — Soundtrack
Fun fact: Suntory whiskey tastes a bit like honey. It’s fitting that something so personal to the film would also relate to much more in real life. I have a special reason for liking this reference, which I’m sure that I’ll share in more detail another time.
Tension continues to build between them as these realizations play out, but soon they are back to speaking terms and Bob half-heartedly apologies for his calloused behavior. Ultimately it will be his family who bears the weight of these actions, not Charlotte, but there is a marked change in the way they interact from this point forward. She is more confident, perhaps by having found a reason to live differently, and he realizes that his wife and kids really do need him more than he needs to figure things out right now.
Right at this moment, we expect them to do something that we have been secretly hoping for since the movie began. We don’t care how it happens, what it means, or how long it will last, but the tension is almost unbearable at this point. This is where the film becomes a masterpiece: Bob wakes up the next morning, alone, with only a note from Charlotte, nothing more.
I believe that the choices we make have great consequence. We aren’t just floating orbs in a murky wash of emotions and pheromones, there are real implications to what we choose to do. Bob and Charlotte take a giant step back and realize that the devotion to their marriages are more important than all of the struggle they went through in Japan, and that those unions must be preserved, no matter the cost.
There are a lot of theories to what Bob says to Charlotte at the very end of the film. Some people have tried to boost the audio and discern exactly what he says at this crucial moment, but I choose to provide my own translation:
“It really does get better. Promise me you’ll hang in there, okay?” — Bob
“Okay.” — Charlotte
Let these two people live apart, choosing to fight for their marriages, learning from their time together to build new bridges toward all that matters most to them. Though signs of physical affection are rare in Japan, they stand in the crowded street and hug one another for the last time, sharing only memories of their time in the foreign land.
I loved the way Bob and Charlotte didn’t solve their problems, but felt a little better anyway. I loved the moment near the end when Bob runs after Charlotte and says something in her ear, and we’re not allowed to hear it. We shouldn’t be allowed to hear it. It’s between them, and by this point in the movie, they’ve become real enough to deserve their privacy. (source)
It’s kind of like when you spend time at a summer camp – you don’t want to part with the people you grew to love, but at the same time you are a more complete person for the life you have elsewhere.
I really appreciate what this commentator had to say about the film as a whole:
“I’m not sure if the point of the movie was to hint they will see each other again, rather that the meaning of their meeting was to help each other grow in different ways. They can live their separate lives with a feeling of fulfillment, and be appreciative of the unpredictability and joy life can bring.” (source)
They share one kiss, but is not the act of lovers. It’s the kind of affection you might expect from someone who pulled you from a burning building; these two have gone to the edge and come back, unscathed, thanks to one another. This film is too intentional to leave us with something so temporal as a night in bed.
Their goodbye is final, bittersweet, and loosens some of the tension we have been carrying throughout this amazing film. They smile, part ways, and walk away with heads held high.
I choose to believe that these to people go their separate ways and are better for it. Perhaps there are elements to this story that are significant to you. For me, this is special because most of my life has been an act of musing over appropriate actions.
A film of my life (so far) would show a young man who solves problems by working hard, serving others, and asking lots of questions in prayer. What matters, though, is that it is driven by a desire to place trust and hope in God, submitting to His plan for the direction of my life.
For our heroes in another land, this looks like their standing up for what is right, which lasts longer than a week or so in Japan. It’s the difference between being lost, or in love, with Sofia Coppola’s “Translation” of this timeless tale.
It’s the best non-love story ever written.
(Note: I had the opportunity in 2014 to see an original print of this film at The Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City and it was the kind of late-night viewing that makes you drive home in silence. They also took photos of everyone saying: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.!)”