How Sofia Coppola Got Tokyo Right

Focus Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

Thirteen years on, Lost in Translation remains one of the most dreamy, seductive, melancholy riffs on Tokyo ever. John Burnham Schwartz muses on his relationship with the film and the city.

In one of the less memorable scenes in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 Americans-in-Tokyo film, Lost in Translation, which, like so much of this brilliant mood piece of a picture, is almost wordless, thrumming with unspoken emotion, Bob (a middle-aged American movie star played by Bill Murray) sits across from Charlotte (a recent American college grad played by Scarlett Johansson) at a shabu-shabu restaurant. Angry and awkward with each other—they’ve known one another only a few days, both are married to other people, and this is their first, and quite possibly their last, fight—they are unprepared when the Japanese waitress approaches for their order. Charlotte stares in bitter, dumbfounded silence at the identical photos of marbled pink sheets of raw Kobe and wagyu beef on the plasticized menu, then gives up: “I can’t tell the difference.” Bob obviously can’t, either, but he orders for them both—“We’ll have two of these,” pointing and holding up two fingers—and then the waitress walks away, and the two foreigners go back to staring at each other across the table. The food, we’ve come to understand, is beside the point: Their true meal, and ours, is the emotional stew of inchoate love, lostness, longing, foreignness, foundness, and bittersweet surprise that they have imbibed and lived on during their strange, floating, unforgettable week, together and apart, in the strange, floating, unforgettable city of Tokyo.

I have watched Lost in Translation eight times over the years, at various ages and in various moods, sometimes hunting for particular moments and other times hunting for nothing particular at all, simply getting my fix. The shabu-shabu scene is one of my favorites—it just sort of guts me, with a smile on my face, every time—but I have roughly 23 others tucked away in my fan’s memory quiver as well, ready to be plucked and fired on the spot with the slightest synaptic push.

I first went to Tokyo in 1986, the summer before my senior year at Harvard, for a business internship and a homestay with a Japanese family. In those days Japan’s “economic miracle” of recovery from absolute defeat in World War II was at its height; it boasted the second-largest economy and the most expensive real estate in the world. For a young foreigner living and working in Tokyo’s high-end economy then, the heady sizzle of our gaijin days came from a unique mix of the familiar trappings of American luxury “lifestyle” with the mysterious, largely untranslatable “otherness” of Japanese life, itself a complex collage of more than a century of tense, and often violent, encounters with foreign cultures and peoples, both Western and Eastern.

I stayed in Japan four months, then returned to America, finished college, and within a short time published Bicycle Days, the first of two novels I set in Tokyo. I moved to Europe for a while and kept writing. When I next set foot in Narita Airport, it was 2005 and 19 years had passed. Tokyo was no longer the same city: Japan’s economic Lost Decade (actually two decades and still going) had arrived in the early ’90s, sapping much of the joyful fizz from the scene I recalled of the late ’80s. I wasn’t the same, either: nearly 40, a bit less fizzy myself, married and on the way to becoming a father, traveling alone to research a new novel (The Commoner) inspired by the lives of the current empress and crown princess of Japan.

During the week that followed, as I dutifully went to interviews and visited sites pertinent to my novel and spent the endless white nights (not unlike Charlotte and, especially, Bob in the film) in a jet-lagged stupor, drinking Japanese whisky in expensive Westernized bars, I felt myself gradually slipping down a rabbit hole where my memories of the city I was in and the person I had once imagined myself to be in that city were no longer exactly viable, but neither were they entirely gone. The resulting mood of the trip was by turns melancholic, confused, wacky, and ironic, and left me feeling not happy and satisfied as I’d hoped upon arrival, but profoundly lost, oddly tender and open-pored, afloat and alone in the very foreignness I had once presumed I wanted.

Focus Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

In such times of disconnection, moments of unexpected connection can hold exponential meaning. It is this experience that Coppola so beautifully captures in her film. Much of Lost in Translation takes place in the Park Hyatt Tokyo, a hermetically sealed skyscraper of Westernized-Japanese luxury, soundproof rooms and corridors, 40-story views of Tokyo, and foreign-themed bars and restaurants. It’s a world that Coppola, through her own personal experience—she has traveled regularly to Japan’s capital since her early 20s, falling in love with its paradoxical neon beauty and also with the Park Hyatt, where she often stays—understands intimately. She and her cinematographer Lance Acord caught perfectly how jet lag and too much soundlessness and the artificial “American” bonhomie of the New York Grill and the karaoke club nights and the repeated images of American movie stars hawking Japanese whisky on billboards above rampaging digital dinosaurs and elephants at the intersections of Shinjuku and Shibuya might all conspire to dislocate and isolate the heart—and yet how, in this most strange and crowded and foreign of cities, one’s heart is at the same time inexplicably free and open in a way that it is perhaps nowhere else.

Who are we when we travel? Who are we when we are lost? And if things, essential things, get lost in translation, as they always do, what happens to them? Are they like pieces of ourselves, and so, in losing them, we are diminished? Or might their loss instead create unforeseen spaces around us into which we might step if we are brave or needy or lucky or simply just jet-lagged enough, offering new vistas, even new lives, on the other side of the story?

This is what real art can do. Take us places. Open doors we didn’t even know were there. Get us lost so that we might be found, at least for a little while.

Lost in Translation is that Tokyo story.