LOST IN TRANSLATION: Kyoto Protocol

By Jared M. Gordon

Lost in Translation – 2003 – dir. Sophia Coppola

Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola’s tale of two lost souls in Japan, is a touching parable of loneliness and companionship among a sea of strangers.

Neglected newlywed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) has a husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), a workaholic photographer who largely leaves Charlotte to her own devices. She spends her days at first lounging around a hotel, initiating a warm friendship with actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and ultimately expanding her radius of exploration to Tokyo and its surrounding areas.

One of my very favorite sequences in a film all about small moments is one bereft of dialogue, one in which the production design team (K. K. Barrett and Anne Ross) takes on the simultaneous tasks of moving the story forward and telling us more about Charlotte, herself.

One day, Charlotte takes a day trip to Kyoto. It’s a simple sequence in which nothing – no shot, wardrobe choice, or action – is accidental.

For the occasion, she sports a black and white wardrobe and red handbag. It barely seems worthy of note, until we see how what she wears identifies, reflects, and juxtaposes her alongside what she sees. At first, she matches the stark darks and whites of the Kyoto train station.

The next shot, far from incidental, is a clip of dappled sunlight through leaves. This seems almost superfluous, but becomes an important reference point for what we’re about to see.

A clip of school children in black and white, and we’re whisked to the entrance of a temple. Charlotte climbs the steps and pauses at the threshold. Is she ready to enter? She watches through the portal as she would through a TV screen, but what she observes takes her breath away.

Through the temple grounds marches a wedding processional, itself garbed in black and white. The groom carries a red parasol, despite a moments-before shot clearly showing sunshine. Charlotte carries her red purse because it’s utilitarian and also a fashion statement. The groom carries the red umbrella, perhaps to ward off sunshine, but the parasol is striking amongst a sea of darks and lights.

The groom not only carries the umbrella, but he also turns to his bride, switches the parasol to his other hand, and offers her his hand. These compassionate acts draw a reaction out of Charlotte. Her fracturing relationship with her husband and her growing friendship with Bob Harris have made clear to her the importance of small, compassionate overtures. A simple act of kindness can make someone’s day.

Charlotte disappears into the temple grounds, fading out of focus with the rest of the revered greenery. She’s ready to take the next steps into her initiation.

When next we see her, she ties an omikuji to a tree. An omikuji is a fortune, inscribed on paper, usually found for sale at temples. Once read, the omikuji are tied to branches for luck. Once she completes this task, she takes a moment to contemplate, then we’re treated to a wide shot of Charlotte against a landscape of darks, lights, and red trim. Only this time, she’s part of the landscape. She fits in, and she wants to.

Lost in Translation’s Kyoto sequence is poignant because Charlotte goes from inactive train passenger to passive ritual observer to active participant in ritual. Despite her husband’s unstated desire to keep her as a pretty pet, she grows, over the course of the film, from dominated to free, from caged to worthy of flight. Our short time with her in Kyoto is a microcosm of her journey to find hope, a friend, and compassion.

How is your every day a Kyoto?