Camus in Tokyo: The Absurd and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

Truman Chen

To two men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them. Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. Where lucidity dominates, the scale of values becomes useless.
Camus, An Absurd Reasoning pp. 62-63

The return to consciousness, the escape from everyday sleep represent the first steps of absurd freedom…Losing oneself in that bottomless certainty, feeling henceforth sufficiently remote from one’s own life to increase it and take a broad view of it – this involves the principle of liberation.
Camus, An Absurd Reasoning p.59

The minimalist film Lost in Translation by Sophia Coppola includes a karaoke scene featuring Roxy Music’s More Than This, which goes:

“I could feel at the time
There was no way of knowing
Fallen leaves in the night
Who can say where they´re blowing
As free as the wind
And hopefully learning
Why the sea on the tide
Has no way of turning

More than this, there is nothing
More than this, tell me one thing
More than this, there is nothing”
(More Than This)

Driven by exquisite performances, meaningful cinematography, and subtle screen-writing, Lost in Translation remains faithful to reality and refuses to degenerate into a prosaic Hollywood romance. Existential themes surface throughout the film both aurally and visually: the song More Than This, combined with the beautiful imagery of Tokyo, underline the moments of authentic, dreamy intimacy shared between the protagonists Bob and Charlotte. In the sequence above, as Bob croons to the lyrics while Charlotte watches with an endearing smile, it is unclear in the lyrics whether ‘this’ alludes to the transient moment, love, or life and culture in its entirety. Coppola explores these three pervading themes of the film through the perspectives of the two protagonists, suturing the viewer into the narrative experience. By filming their often silent and personal perspectives, Coppola creates an intimacy between her characters and us, the viewers, thus facilitating our confrontation with the absurd world represented metaphorically by Tokyo – “the way in which we are alienated and dislocated by an endless array of signs – many of which are unfamiliar and indecipherable” (Ott & Keeling 372). As the film continues, and as we begin to live vicariously through Bob and Charlotte, we become caught in their world’s absurdity that culminates in the final scene: a moment of ultimate authenticity. This development of awareness and lucidity runs parallel to the philosophical experience necessary to comprehend Albert Camus’ absurd freedom. As Camus’ experiential philosophy can be difficult to fully comprehend out of context, it can be better understood through the characters of Lost in Translation, leading the film to be interpreted as a cinematic translation of Camus’ absurdist philosophy of freedom, especially with respects to his view on authentic living, which is made possible through awareness of the absurd.

Though sparse, the rhetoric of the script is the strongest indicator of the isolation and separation Bob and Charlotte feel, relative to their seemingly mindless culture. Rhetoric, as Ott and Keeling note, “is above all else… an unending exploration of the paradoxical ways that human beings repeatedly identify with and separate themselves from Others” (Ott & Keeling 364). From the moment that the two formally meet each other in the hotel bar to the end of the film, their rhetoric is consistently contrasted with the natter that pervades the rest of their lives. In the case of Charlotte, who is accompanying her fashion photographer husband, the most important people in her life are incapable of saying anything worthwhile. Her husband, an indifferent and shallow man, is little more than a cardboard cut-out who parrots the trite ‘I love you’ when he has the opportunity to further express his feelings for her or to acknowledge their bond in some way. At first we come to know Charlotte principally through her encounters; in most cases, the characters she meets provide a contrast to her own depth of character and existential concerns. When she and her husband meet an actress touring Tokyo for her latest action film, the chasm is clear. The actress epitomizes the superficiality of mainstream culture: she is capable only of insipid lines such as: “‘Everybody is like, ‘[you are] anorexic,’ and I’m like ‘No, I’m not.’ I eat so much junk food you wouldn’t believe it. It’s just because I have a high metabolism.’” As Charlotte feigns a smile of amusement and lights a cigarette, the actress attempts a serious tone: “My dad was an anorexic… He, um, fought on the American side of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. And he was taken prisoner, and the whole time he was there they tortured him about food. Every day they told him they put poison in the food so they would always make themselves throw up after every meal.”

Despite the sobering circumstances of her father’s ordeal, after the scene, the actress fails to draw any conclusions and ends it all with a laugh and complexion of complete ignorance. As with the rest of ‘society’s somnambulists,’ the actress suffers from a case of intellectual myopia – an inability to focus squarely on a subject at hand – and is hence unable to partake in the act of deliberative thought to draw meaningful conclusions and acknowledge the weight of life (Camus TF 13-14). The actress is reminiscent of the women talking of Michelangelo in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock, for although the topic of discussion is serious, the rhetoric in which it is presented is uninformed and superficial (Eliot). Meanwhile, Coppola finishes with a cutaway: Charlotte, aware of the superficiality, detaches herself from the conversation and scans the room for an escape, whereupon she finds Bob.

Whereas Charlotte cannot find anyone worth listening to, Bob cannot find anyone who will listen to him. Their seemingly antithetical situations, however, stem from the same inability to find authentic communication. In the case of Bob, who is a jaded American actor trapped in his own decadence, shooting humiliating whiskey ads in Tokyo, his words become lost in translation, with respect to both his life in Tokyo and his life at home. His requests to the Japanese hotel service and his comic refusal to have sex with the complimentary “premium fantasy”-escort sent to his room are just las frustrating to endure as the consistently apathetic phone conversations with his wife. His glib relationship with his wife is manifest in the few conversations they share:

‘Lydia, I went to this great house tonight, this guy designed and built, you would have loved it.’ ‘Oh, yeah? I wish I had seen it.’ ‘He was this fashion guy, and there were all these Japanese fashion people – it’s a whole other world, and I was talking to these Japanese surfers… He was playing all this great music – I have to find out what it was…’ ‘That sounds great.’

Throughout this phone conversation, Coppola focuses solely on Bob’s facial expressions, which alternate between disappointment and exasperation, accented by closed eyes and heavy sighs, as one does when attempting to maintain a façade of composure. As this is directly after and foils the lively night scene with Charlotte, the loneliness and emptiness of his hotel room combined with the literal and emotional distance between Bob and his wife elicit an intuitive disapproval from the viewer. It becomes difficult to keep oneself from joining Bob in shaking one’s head, and natural for one to long for the inherent beauty in his innocent affair with Charlotte. Such passive, meaningless, and inauthentic statements and responses between Bob and his wife prompts to cast doubt upon the worth of our own daily conversations and whether our interaction with others in our lives is already ineffectual and superficial. Camus addresses those of us who are trapped in this fog of meaningless chatter with the aforementioned excerpt from The Fall: the “somnambulists in the fog’s gilded incense” who have ceased to be here, and are instead stuck there in gilded hopes and vacuous utterances (Camus TF 13-14). After comprehensively and independently establishing the inauthenticity that surrounds both characters’ lives, Coppola weaves their stories together. About halfway into the film, after they had ventured hand-in-hand into the streets of Tokyo and the flame of absurd freedom, it is clear that a nascent and tentative friendship will save them from the somnambulism which affects all their acquaintances.

As wanderers exiled from their own world and thrown into another composed of foreign signs and symbols, Bob and Charlotte find themselves together in an incomprehensible universe. They seem to understand intuitively that everything “is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations” (Camus TF 20). Their acceptance of and their subsequent will to free themselves from this poisoned and thoughtlessly dull slumber of mainstream city-culture dominated by celebrity idolatry, propagandistic advertising, and childish talk-shows – in spite of it all – is representative of Camus’ birth of the absurd. Charlotte encounters the harmful idolatry when she walks into a room where a crowd of Japanese journalists is interviewing the actress. When asked how it felt working alongside Keanu Reeves, the actress responds: “We both have two dogs, and we both live in LA. So we have all these different things in common. You know, we both really like Mexican food and yoga and karate.” Her final remark on karate enthuses the crowd just as a child is enthused by a silly face. The elevation of the actress, as she utter vacuous sentences, is reminiscent of the totalitarian leaders – whom Camus wrote against – towering over the submissive masses. Tyranny, both in the figurative and literal sense, operates through this sort of ignorance. Both Bob and Charlotte’s awareness and ability to transcend this mental plague, insofar as man can transcend that which he is condemned to, results in a feeling of detachment and disorientation.

This additional feeling of disorientation is explained by Wendy Haslem in “Neon Gothic: Lost in Translation”:

The two protagonists find themselves in a different time zone, dislocated in time as well as space. Their temporal dislocation is emphasised by Charlotte and Bob’s jet lag and insomnia, conditions that ensure that they are out of step with their surroundings (Haslem).

However out of step they are with their surroundings though, they manage to fall in step with each other. Thus, what separates us from Camus’ Sisyphus is that we are not necessarily alone – we occasionally come across another being with whom to share the burden of the rock, the wonder of the summit, and the careless ease of the descent. Bob and Charlotte climb the stairs that defeated Prufrock; they find the courage to experience togetherness, in solidarity, even in this wholly alienating landscape and their apparent differences and respective disappointments. Whereas Prufrock represents the existential failure who surrenders to his condition and is paralysed by fear, anxiety, and anguish, Bob and Charlotte represent Camus’ rebels who, with courage, attain the fruits of freedom. Likewise, Coppola suggests that we may also succeed and walk up the stairs that Prufrock did not; we may be courageous where Prufrock was a coward. At last Charlotte has found a being worth listening to and worth understanding, and Bob has found a being who will hear and understand him. Their conversations and adventures demonstrate the miracle of human friendship; nothing is lost in translation.

Camus himself draws the parallel between the absurd man and Bob and Charlotte; in the preface to The Stranger he writes:

To lie is not only to say what isn’t true. It is also and above all, to say more than is true, and, as far as the human heart is concerned, to express more than one feels. This is what we all do, every day, to simplify life. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings (Camus).

Similar to the character Mersault in Camus’ The Stranger Bob and Charlotte refuse to be anything other than what they are irrespective of what their spouses expect them to be. In every encounter, Bob maintains his integrity: he refuses to give in to the premium fantasy offered by the escort, the affected compliments given by fans of his old movies, and exotic drugs used by Charlotte’s young friends (Rainer). Likewise, Charlotte maintains her integrity by both not succumbing to the hollow conversation of her husband and the actress, and by accepting her disorientation and seeking help, by authentically appealing to another human being, rather than holding on to her false security. Together, Bob and Charlotte act in a manner that Sartre might term “good faith”; this is opposed to the self-deceit and cowardice that characterizes bad faith (Sartre). By refusing to hide their feelings and by living above any façade , they fall like the leaves in More Than This, blowing as “free as the wind” in the night. Bob and Charlotte’s detachment from the poisoned peace and somnambulism of daily life allows them to see the entire tree for what it is.

by Henri Cartier-Bresson

by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Now that the necessary portrait of Bob and Charlotte’s condition has been painted, we can move on to understand Camus’ absurdist philosophy through Coppola. However, one must first understand the framework in which he is writing. Camus’ absurdism is first and foremost an agnostic epistemology, for he writes: “This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge” (Camus AAR 19). Our attempts to define concepts such as freedom outside of context and of the human heart’s experience are absurd endeavors, like seizing water only to watch it “slipping through my fingers” (ibid). As the absurd is born out of the instinctual human longing for clarity and the universe’s complete lack thereof, one can transcend this condition only by accepting it. Thus, the absurd hero to Camus is not so much the Sartrean agent condemned to freedom and responsibility, but rather the opposite: a man who knows “that freedom which consists in not feeling responsible” (Camus TMS 59). Therefore, freedom is not the radical inborn potentiality that constitutes us as human, but rather a consequence of the development of our rational lucidity, a constant escape from that which attempts to oppress us – culture, customs, and so on. When we speak of freedom in the most practical sense, we are presented with two dimensions: freedom-to and freedom-from. Thus, it is our freedom-from outside factors, and the reduction of our “liability to be a plaything of the external world” that becomes magnified either through the heightened awareness or our confrontation with the absurd (Berlin 11). The constraining factors Camus is primarily concerned with are those that restrict authenticity and the heart’s potentiality. Thus, it becomes especially clear that Bob and Charlotte are absurd heroes in Coppola’s film because they share an “unbelievable disinterestedness with regard to everything except for the pure flame of life” (Camus TMS 60). Built upon this philosophical framework and profound sense of awareness, the absolute beauty of their relationship becomes apparent.

To Camus, the two “principles of the only reasonable freedom” are absurdity and mortality, both of which are emphasized in the relationship between Bob and Charlotte (Camus AAR 59). Despite their initial temporal and spatial disorientation, the two seem to be more aware of the ticking of the clock than anyone else. Charlotte is painfully aware of her husband’s indifference when he leaves her alone in Tokyo for “only a few days,” and Bob recognizes his mid-life crisis and physical deterioration when he stares at his reflections and old movies. Time is present when Bob checks his watch, and when the two discuss the difficulties of marriage as well as mid-life crises. The impending end to Bob and Charlotte’s tentative friendship is their figurative death, thus they are constantly aware of the mortality that part of absurd freedom is comprised in. The acceptance of such mortality along with their acceptance of the absurd is their method of rebellion, for as they run through the busy smoke-filled arcades and as silhouettes in the light of the electronic billboards, there is an intimacy brought about by their knowledge of the end. Camus confesses to us in The Fall: “Maybe we don’t love life enough? Have you noticed that death alone awakens our feelings? How we love the friends who have just left us?” (Camus TF 32). They are aware that there is no time left for them to keep dreaming; there is time enough only for living.

The feeling of spatial and temporal suspension, caused by their awareness of the absurd and mortality, experienced by Bob and Charlotte, situate them as outsiders to their spouses, family, friends, society, and the entire public arena. This initial disorientation is akin to seeing earth as a pale blue dot for the first time, and realizing the frequency of our “misunderstandings” and that “in our obscurity – in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves” (Sagan xv-xvi). With the self-reliance and estrangement, of both characters, established firmly in the rising action of the film, their comfort with their lives through acceptance, allow their human hearts to fully embrace the “pure flame of life.” Their subsequent ability to communicate with each other intensifies in the film’s final scene: after a disappointing lunch and pitiful farewell in the hotel lobby(, Bob spies Charlotte in the crowded streets on his way to the airport. Bob leaves his taxi and chases her down. At this point,

The noises of the crowd and the bustle of the city are at their most pronounced points in the film as Bob approaches Charlotte. But as he hails her, she turns, they embrace, and he whispers (inaudibly) in her ear, the city noise dissipates or, more accurately, their separation from it and one another dissolves. There is no longer time or place, scene or setting, viewer or viewed only an indescribable sensation of completeness toward which the whole film has been moving (us) rhythmically, ineluctably (Ott & Keeling 367).

Bob and Charlotte’s climactic ‘sensation of completeness’ with all of life, their acceptance of the death of their relationship and their acknowledgement of the boulders waiting for them at the bottom of the mountain as each returns to separate lives alone, swallowed by the crowd again, is nearly wordless and expressed solely through their gestures. The profound beauty in Camus’ sobering philosophical study of the human struggle is something foreign to Sartre’s existentialism, an exceedingly academic and optimistic philosophy of freedom and responsibility. It is this melancholy beauty emanating from Bob and Charlotte’s final farewell that strikes us as human beings; this sadness is a sense of loss which emerges after having lost hold of what they are missing from the rest of their lives. However melancholy, the human condition is not a bleak one. What is missing from Camus’ philosophy and the majority of existentialist philosophy is the appreciation of plurality – solidarity in the human experience. That we can share these sorts of genuine affairs with other individuals, that we need not bear the human condition on our own, is a miracle of authentic companionship – for neither the absurd nor mortality necessitates the loneliness generally attributed to existential being. The pure flame of life is without a mouth and expresses itself through ‘moods and states of being,’ which can be shared in these chance ‘affairs’ that occur throughout our lives, if we are fortunate enough. Hand-in-hand, the “struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” (Camus TMS 123). As Bob walks backwards and lets out a final heartfelt and beaming smile at Charlotte’s composed mixture of laughter and tears, one cannot help but “conclude that all is well” and imagine the absurd man as fundamentally happy (ibid).

Works Cited

Berlin, Isaiah. “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Four Essays on Liberty. N.p.: Oxford University, 1958. N. pag. Print.

Camus, Albert. “An Absurd Reasoning.” The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 1983. 3-65. Print.

– – -. The Fall. N.p.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956. Print.

– – -. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 1983. 119-23. Print.

– – -. “Preface to the Stranger.” Bearspace. Baylor University, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2013. .

Coppola, Sofia, dir. Lost in Translation. Perf. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Screenplay by Sofia Coppola. Focus Features, 2003. Film.

Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” University of Virginia. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2013. .

Haslem, Wendy. “Neon Gothic: Lost in Translation.” Senses of Cinema 31 (2004): n. pag. Print.

More Than This. Perf. Roxy Music. 1982. CD.

Ott, Brian L., and Diane Marie Keeling. “Cinema and Choric Connection: Lost in Translation as Sensual Experience.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 97.4 (2011): 363-86. Print.

Rainer, Peter. “Sleepless in Tokyo.” New York Magazine: n. pag. Print.

Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. New York: Random, 1997. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism. N.p.: Yale University, 2007. Print.

1 thought on “Camus in Tokyo: The Absurd and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation”

  1. Loved the comparison of Lost in Translation with other existential books.

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