Lost in Translation

A walk through my favourite scene from a favourite movie, Lost in Translation. Charlotte and Bob in a karaoke bar, exposing their desires, fears and love through song. I wrote this just after the movie first came out, when Scarlett Johansson was relatively unknown. Now it’s hard to watch the movie without seeing Scarlett instead of Charlotte.

One thing I really enjoy trying to do is trying to find the core scene of a film. A high proportion of intelligent films seem to have them – the moment that defines the whole movie. What’s really fun is that different people often find different core scenes, reinforcing my belief that a movie is an individual experience. I’m not sure if Sophia Coppola would agree with me, but I feel that the entire emotional story of Lost in Translation is played out in the karaoke scene. The fact that it features two brilliant songs probably helps.

This Wicked World

Bill Murray singing with a pained expression

We start with Bob Harris (Bill Murray) having a lot of fun singing about pain and suffering. The karaoke machine shows the words.

Karaoke machine showing lyrics

In a typically Hollywood film, this would be a unusually blunt shot – showing the words that Bob is singing to highlight the meaning. Except the people in the karaoke video look quite happy here. Is this a real video? I usually don’t smile that much when wondering if life is filled with only pain, hatred and misery.

Charlotte and friend enjoying Bobs singing

Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), now towards the end of her first night out with Bob, is enjoying the show. Until now, she has probably thought of Bob as a friendly companion in her Japanese isolation (although she did sneak a peek while he was getting changed in her bathroom).

Bob is obviously unhappy with his life. He is disconnected from his wife (probably no more than normal despite being in another country). He is disconnected from his surroundings. He is in the final stages of his career, pawning his reputation in Japan instead of a respectable theater career. Like most jokes, the performance here is grounded in truth.

Brass in Pocket

Charlotte sassing it up

Chrissy Hynde gives Charlotte a chance to shine, and shine she does, wiggling her shoulders as a “sidestep”.

Charlotte telling Bob she is special

But the song has meaning. As Charlotte sings ”I’m special. So special. I gotta have some of your attention. Give it to me” she looks directly at Bob and stops smiling. Charlotte has been abandoned in Tokyo by her young husband both physically and emotionally. She wants someone to share her experiences with her.

Bob listening

We have the abandoned young female, wanting attention, and the tired depressed older male, wanting to find someone or something with which to connect.

I’m Special

Charlotte singing to Bob

Scarlett Johnannson does an amazing job in this scene. She is constantly changing emotions through the scene and while the emotion may only be on her face for a second, it hits strong. I actually had a lot of difficulty finding still shots that conveyed the emotion; In many cases it is the movement in her face that gives the message.

Bob singing along with Charlotte

As Charlotte sings ”I’m special” he sings along, smiles and nods, giving her the attention she wants. Charlotte is definitely making Bob notice (making him, making him, making him notice). They are already more than just friends by now, but these are the first scenes that hint at something romantic. Bob is more than willing to give her attention. There “ain’t nobody else here, no one like me”.

More Than This

Charlotte introducing Bob for More Than This

But Bob’s at a different place than Charlotte, and she knows it. She introduces what is supposed to be another humorous performance by Bob, singing Roxy Music’s “More than this”.

Charlotte enjoying Bobs singing

Charlottes expression becomes more meaningful

The previous stills show the change in Charlotte as she realises that Bob’s lyrics are from the heart. “More than this. There’s nothing. More than this. Tell me one thing”.

Bob turns to Charlotte

Charlotte smiles back

In the first sign of strong emotional connection, Charlotte doesn’t immediately change her expression as Bob turns to sing to her. But she smiles eventually.

Bob singing to Charlotte

Charlotte looking lovingly at Bob

And here is the moment where they have fallen in love.


Cut to outside the karaoke room a few minutes later. I guess many people will consider the next shots to have sexual references, but I don’t think it matters. What’s more important is that Charlotte and Bob are now a couple.

Charlotte and Bob sitting together

Charlotte resting her head on Bobs shoulder

The story is now a love story. Bob will give Charlotte her attention, and he has realised that Charlotte gives him “more than this”. No more pain, hatred and misery. She’s special.

It’s quite usual for Hollywood films to refer to themselves, in that they repeat an earlier moment somehow, usually to drum into our thick skulls the moral of the story. Lost in Translation is of course a lot smarter than this, but the themes exposed in this scene are revisited during the argument in the Japanese restaurant. Bob accuses Charlotte of simply wanting someone to lavish attention on her.

What’s great about this scene is while I think it is the core of the movie, it doesn’t expose much of the story. I find myself watching it a lot, whenever I have the chance.

Oh, yeah. I’m not sure what the pink wig represents.

My other favourite scene from this movie is where Bob and Charlotte stay up late talking on the bed. Charlotte is lying on her side towards Bob, and he reaches out to stroke her foot. It’s beautiful.