Much of Lost in Translation is people among people in complete isolation. Sitting at bars, not in the mood for conversation; walking through the streets of Tokyo, only observing. Even when Charlotte is with her husband, he doesn’t seem to notice her. When Bob is working, the language barrier makes everyone feel distant. A visit from a prostitute completely defies human touch. It was 2003 and the waning days when most people could be truly, easily alone. Though they existed at the time, these characters don’t have smartphones, so they can’t communicate with others at any whim—they are regulated to the phones in their hotel rooms and the impersonal fax machine which chirps away in the middle of the night. As the friendship between Charlotte and Bob begins to blossom, it happens in the hotel bar, already established as a safe place to be isolated among other people. It isn’t until the night out with Charlie Brown and his gang of wacky friends that the characters [and the film that tells their story] really opens up—though in an unexpected way.
Bob shows up at Charlotte’s room in a ridiculous yellow camouflage shirt. It is the first time we’ve seen him not in a well tailored suit or the tuxedo that symbolizes his selling out to advertising. It is an immediately weird choice, perhaps he is overcompensating in trying to be cool or casual, and I’m not exactly sure what he is trying to accomplish. Is he trying to stick out as an individual or blend in with the cool crowd they are going to meet? It might end up being both.
They first meet up with Charlie Brown [who explains his nickname without really explaining it at all] at a trendy night club. Coppola shoots the environment in a similar way that she has been closely and wistfully observing Tokyo throughout, but at a much more frenetic pace and editing style. We meet a number of characters without really meeting them as they are only identified by a name or trait [surfing teacher, for example], the bass-heavy music drowning out most of their conversations anyway. Everything is more hectic than what we’ve been seeing, the environment is designed to bring people together without letting their really be together. It is an optimal place to have fun while being less than optimal for making a meaningful connection.
Just as the characters have escaped to a quieter, calmer place to talk [though Bob makes a crack about learning Japanese just as his the person he’s having a conversation with begins speaking in English], Charlie Brown angers an employee and they are chased out by being shot at with a BB gun. This is strangely one of the film’s first strong interactions between characters and its end goal is driving them apart. Charlotte and Bob run through a chaotic pachinko parlor [yet another place designed for a large number of people to sit in the same space only to isolate themselves] and then are rejected by a taxi driver.
At this point, their night out with friends has been a blurred experience that, as I’ve thoroughly noted, has been a strange mix of togetherness and isolation. At least in my own experiences, this is a very accurate portrayal of a loud and crazy night with friends—you can’t exactly pinpoint particular conversations you’ve had with someone, but the blur of it all is an easily recalled tone and a vividly memorable experience.
In the second half of their first night out together, the vibe slows down. They’ve moved on to a small house party, though it is still defined more by music [featuring oft Coppola collaborator Phoenix] than personal conversation. Finally, of course, they end up at the karaoke bar that has become one of Lost in Translation’s definitive scenes. Through “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” “Brass in Pocket,” and “More Than This,” the glances between Charlotte and Bob work better in bringing them together than any conversation has at any point. The songs could even be more pointedly obvious in speaking for the characters’ feelings about themselves and of each other. Instead, they are communicating entirely with eye contact and smiles and their shared sense of actual happiness. They are finally together in spirit and emotion.
On their way back to their home base, they sit quietly in the cab, Charlotte looking out the window at the beautiful city lights while Bob has dozed off. We then cut to Bob carrying the sleeping Charlotte through the hotel and into her bed. Again, they share a moment without conversation and build their relationship without the usual materials.
The night out with Charlie is such a peculiar scene for what it means in the characters’ relationship and how uniquely it builds considering other films that may go more shamelessly romantic. This particular section of Lost in Translation shows how it can have the rhythm and themes of a good romance without the usual narrative beats of a usual romance. You could easily argue that the film is intended as more than romance, that it is really about a deeper, more human connection between hopelessly lonely people. Lost in Translation does a lot of work to nail down just how lonely Charlotte and Bob are. Beautifully, though, their night out together, surrounded by friends and strangers and music and a little chaos, they connect despite all of it.