by Jane Pinckard
Sofia Coppola's dreamy, gorgeous new film is a lovely postcard from Tokyo. It moves with gentle wonder through a softly glowing city and its frenetic, incomprehensible inhabitants to detail a character sketch of a place, all faint outlines and shadows and suggestions of colors. Her camera adroitly captures the strange, almost eerie beauty of a Tokyo evening, the neon lights blurring through the window of a taxi as seen by a perpetually jetlagged traveler. It takes a stranger's eye to transform the familiar and mundane into a seductive mystery. The mystery is never explained, never penetrated; for while the city is revealed as a place of great character and interest, it is never the focus. This is not a film about cultural understanding, but about self-alienation.
The movie brings tentatively together two wanderers: Bob Harris, a fading American action hero, in Tokyo to pick up a couple million dollars for promoting whiskey; and Charlotte, a girl who followed her photographer husband to Tokyo because she had some free time. Both are facing personal crises born of a sort of malaise. Both are experiencing problems with their partners, Bob in the classic "mid-life crisis" way and Charlotte in the early twenties "what do I do with the rest of my life" way. Tokyo is chosen as the setting for their romantic friendship, but because they never fully engage the city, any foreign place might do: Cairo, perhaps, or Moscow. But the lushness and busyness of Tokyo perfectly suits: it whirls around the pair, sometimes dizzying and disorienting, while they struggle to wake themselves up.
Early in the movie there is a literal "lost in translation" sequence played for laughs but which, at the core, comprises the reason for the characters' depression. While Bob is filming the commercial for Suntory, the director gives him detailed and impassioned instructions in unsubtitled Japanese: "This is not just about whiskey! Okay?" Bob's translator (unaccountably, but the situation is exaggerated for effect) translates all that as "He wants you to turn to the camera. With intensity!" Bill Murray is at his best recklessly trying to interpret this "intensity" while saying, "Make it Suntory time!" The miscomprehension is all the more heartbreaking if you understand Japanese, because what the director tells him makes perfect sense. But the scene poignantly illustrates that Bob cannot communicate, and it is not merely the language barrier which prevents him. A couple of painful phone calls from home uncover more as the film goes on. After one passive-aggressive exchange with his estranged wife, he is able to say "I love you" only after she has hung up. Charlotte, too, is tongue-tied. She calls home from her hotel room, crying. "Who did I marry?" she asks in despair, but her listener doesn't hear, and she doesn't repeat it. "Everything's fine, Tokyo's great," she says, and hangs up.
To someone who knows and loves Tokyo, it seems incomprehensible at first that the two Americans spend much of their time trapped in the glittering, highly polished Park Hyatt, watching the city from above through the window. But Coppola shows that the two are lost not merely because of where they are, but who they are. Charlotte lounges prettily but sadly in her underwear in the hotel room, which she has tried to make homey by hanging plastic sakura blossoms from the light fixtures. Her room is pale and pink. She sits on the windowsill and gazes out over the city in daylight, listening to a self-help CD. It's a convincing portrait of depression. Bob's room, by contrast, is entirely masculine � dark and wood-colored. His solitude doesn't take the form of gazing out, but of mindless activity. He tries going to the gym, swimming at the hotel pool, watching television, taking a bath. He sometimes descends as far as the hotel bar, where he fends off curious questions of what he's doing here by muttering a lie which will soon come true: "I'm just seeing some friends." It's clear that he and Charlotte are destined to meet, not only because of the natural bond between nationals abroad, but because they are twin souls. They dance a lonely and intricate courtship around the same patterns, endlessly winding through their beautiful cage, looking for a way out.
Charlotte, played with understated, sleepy charm by Scarlett Johansson, is more adventurous, or perhaps simply more restless, than Bob. At times she is able to shake off her depressed lethargy and wander into the city. It's impossible, in these scenes, not to imagine that it's Coppola's own memories unfolding onscreen. Through Charlotte we experience the all the familiarity of culture shock in Tokyo: the gloriously messy and crowded subway, the alienation from not speaking the language, the mystery of sexually explicit manga consumed in public. Charlotte stares at the book, then stares at the entirely unembarrassed young man reading it, in a very light comic moment. You can picture Sofia Coppola herself wandering around a game center, peeking in at boys playing at being rock stars on fake guitars or drum pads, or gazing at the moving advertisements in Shinjuku. But we never penetrate the glittering facade of the city - nor are we meant to. The two characters are in focus, and everything around them is a blur.
There are a couple of cheap shots, however; some laziness on the director's part. There's the requisite scene in which a well-meaning prostitute tries to service Bob rather aggressively. Japanese women are so often portrayed as either docile and submissive or sex-crazed dominatrices in the West that I get tired of this trope. It does not advance the story and it feels like a last-minute, clumsy addition. The tritest of jokes also gets trotted out in this sequence: the prostitute tells Bob to "lip" her stockings, which causes great confusion until he figures out that she means "rip". This joke is brought up again and again, a jarring worn-out leitmotif throughout this otherwise delicately nuanced movie.
But culture shock itself is not the theme, merely a metaphor for the love story. The film uses the elements of cultural disconnect to train the lens of perception and to refract it. Windows appear often, a repeating pattern of the mediated gaze. In this case, the Americans are on the inside of the glass, looking out. The brightly mirrored elevator doors at the hotel cuts off the gaze entirely, at crucial moments when the characters most need to connect. The first time Bob sees Charlotte is in the elevator, two strangers among Japanese people. She smiles at him without knowing what she does, then exits. In the club Charlotte's friend invites them to, the disco balls refract the light and spash every party-goer with the same pattern of light and shadow - rendering them all, temporarily, similar to view at least.
It is not stretching too far, I think, to venture that someone whose alter ego is a Philosophy major has read Barthes's Empire of Signs, a work that validates what Coppola is doing with her film. While it is a mistake to go so far as to apply formal structuralist critique to this (or any) work of art, Coppola clearly follows Barthes's approach of observation and interpretation of the surfaces of things, without contextualizing. She, like Barthes, uses Tokyo as an example, not as a thing to look into for meaning in itself. This approach may be frustrating to viewers who are looking for depth of cultural understanding. Instead, Coppola shows us the characters by reflecting them off the surfaces of her Tokyo, which is shrouded in an inviting darkness. It is not until the very end that the city appears to us in daylight, but no less dizzying and disorienting for that. His final words to her are lost in her hair. There are some things we're not meant to know.
Technically, the film is nearly perfect. Coppola displays an effortless mastery of visual language, constructing transparent layers to suggest her themes. One marvelously delicate scene shows the two characters in conversation, but we only see their reflections in a window, through which we can see the expanse of night-time Tokyo blooming with glittering lights. The scene immediately precedes � and prepares � the moment that the characters finally open to each other: "I'm stuck," Charlotte admits, "Does it get any easier?"
The sound design in the film is, if possible, even more stunning. Coppola uses natural sounds to create a rich texture that describes the city as well, and as specifically, as the visuals do. When Bob carries a sleeping Charlotte through a dark hotel in the middle of the night, the gentle whirr of distant vacuum cleaners, the hum of fluorescent lights, and his footfalls on the carpet coalesce into a delicate ambient trance. A light-hearted chase scene through a pachinko parlor revels in playful virtuosity, the chimes of the gambling machines and the coins in the slots tinkling and rattling, panning quickly as the characters run. Rarely has a film so exuberantly celebrated the art and pleasure of flimmaking.
Coppola reveals her excellent musical taste in the soundtrack. Hardly a moment goes by that is unscored, but it never feels oppressive or manipulative. Rather, the music often builds organically. The filmmaker often speaks through the songs - to touching or humorous effect. The slyly hilarious scene in the sex club has the stripper gyrating to post-feminist rapper Peaches. At karaoke, the characters who have been unable to speak their problems before fall in love through singing great songs of another era. Bob gazes at Charlotte while she vamps her way through The Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket": as she sings, "I'm special � so special," the camera moves to Bob's fondly wistful face. Yes, she is special. Later, he takes the microphone and begins singing Roxy Music's "More Than This", a haunting melody which, because it's Bill Murray, one expects to be kitsched. But Murray brings a goofy, sincere-in-spite-of-himself charm to the song, telling Charlotte "You know there's nothing/More than this." Their two songs, in this potent and perfectly performed scene, summarize the essence of the tension in the movie: they are special, and they've found each other, but like a dream, there's nothing more. And there can not be.
This deceptively simple flim moves clearly and gracefully to the inevitable conclusion, leaving nothing of confusion in its path. The emotional logic is impeccable. There is more warmth than regret in the poignancy of the parting moment. Coppola's status as a deft writer/director with a finely tuned ear, commanding eye, and a dextrously light touch should now be assured.
Posted by Jane Pinckard at 2003年09月21日 19:38