I first watched this movie a few years ago and immediately loved it, save for a few boring moments just due to the slow pacing nature of the film. But I was compelled to rewatch this past weekend after seeing “Ghost in the Shell,” another film starring Scarlett Johansson set in Japan but with just a few less Bill Murray karaoke sessions.
The movie struck a far deeper emotional chord with me this time around after some life-changing personal experiences. Over New Years, I travelled to Japan for 10 days, roughly half that time spent in the sprawling behemoth of a city known as Tokyo. My experience was pretty similar to that of Scarlett Johansson’s character: I soaked in the rich, cultural and religious history of Japan and experienced both the eccentric, over-the-top zaniness of Tokyo nightlife. But one experience that stuck out to me was that of communicating with residents of Japan, or really, lack there-of.
Some instances I could get by without having to speak a single word to a Japanese person. I could just show up at a restaurant, point to a picture of the food that I wanted, and then Google Map the specific directions I needed to get to my next destination. If I needed to translate something, I also had an app on my phone where I could just take a picture of Japanese text, which would then immediately (but not 100% accurately) give me the English variation. Not needing to rely on speaking with Japanese people for directions or menu translations was both liberating and isolating. I could do anything I wanted, but had nobody to do it with.
What I did learn though was that true human connections don’t always have to be forged through verbal communication. My simple gesture of offering an extra chocolate to a passenger on the bullet train, and them offering another dessert as a thank you, is just as rewarding had we been able to have a fluent verbal conversation with one another. A hug, a handshake or a wave can go as far as “I love you.”
This realization of the power of non-verbal communication shines brilliantly in Lost in Translation, a film where so little dialogue is actually shared but so much is said. Scarlett’s character at the beginning of the film has immense difficulty trying to convey to her family back home that she really doesn’t like Japan, and really isn’t able to fully express her angst about her isolation to her neglectful husband. Bill Murray’s character communicates by fax machine with his wife for a great deal of the film, and when he’s not shooting commercials for whiskey, spends the majority of his time alone. When he and Scarlett do connect in the film, they don’t talk about anything substantial, no profound interpretations of marriage, no strong opinions about life in Tokyo. They just share a simple but powerful mutual affection and respect for one another, one expressed by late-night drinks at the bar, or insomnia-driven viewings of classic movies in their hotel room.
It’s such a subtle way to depict a relationship where so little is said but so much meaning is conveyed. Scarlett doesn’t react with fierce criticism or curses of jealousy after Bill sleeps with the bar jazz singer. But what we do sense is disapproval by Scarlett’s immediate distancing between herself and Bill after the reveal. When Bill tries to evoke an emotional reaction from Scarlett before heading home, she gives a half-hearted hug and immediately disappears into the elevator. The physical proximity of them being together throughout the movie to this point represented the strength of their friendship, nearly holding hands because they were literally walking so closely, side-by-side with one another. To see this physical distance from Scarlett near the end, separating herself from Bill and heading into the hotel elevator, only to be transported even up higher away from him, is truly heartbreaking. When they get home, they can write, they can call, but since they are no longer physically close, we’re left to assume the friendship is over.
Thank goodness, Bill reunites with Scarlett in the film’s closing sequence, whispering an inaudible message into her ear before the two share a tender kiss. The kiss can be interpreted as romantic, that they actually did have something of a blossoming romance throughout the film, or it can be seen as the ultimate, physical culmination of their friendship, your call. The message, though, has inspired a much more passionate discussion, with many fans of the film wondering what exactly he did whisper into her ear. Recently, video of that inaudible dialogue was analyzed and posted to YouTube so you can actually hear what Bill is supposedly saying. Again, your call if you want to watch it, some are afraid to because they think it will spoil the joy that comes from the mystery. But I did watch it and can say that it didn’t reduce or strengthen my movie-going experience any more or less by knowing what he whispered. If anything, I’m now safely affirmed in the knowledge that whatever Bill whispered to Scarlett doesn’t matter, He could be expressing his love for her or telling her the direction to a great sushi restaurant she needs to try before she leaves. What is important in this scene is that they are close again, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes that’s all that needs to be said.