There are few opening scenes for a movie more promising to the first-time viewer than a close-up shot of Scarlett Johansson’s bum clad in translucent, almost sheer pink panties as she lays in bed pondering existential questions. A not-so-subtle promise of sensuality tempered by the movie’s soft tones and colour palette.
Unfortunately, that’s the highlight of the entire movie for most audiences. I’ve recommended the movie to a lot of people and a significant percentage of them always end up finding it boring and too “talky”- and that’s sad. Perhaps it’s the bait-and-switch tactic of the opening scene- after the initial sensual tease, the movie quickly focuses on other, less titillating matters- the mundanity of life for one- whether you’re a recently-graduated writer who has yet to do anything substantial with her life, or an ageing movie star out to make a quick buck with a whiskey ad.
The movie is set in Japan, the characters American, and this is the obvious link to the title. Yet as we watch Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte navigate the strange oriental world they find themselves in, we also get the sense that they are disconnected even from their personal, home lives- he with his young daughters and a wife with whom you get the feeling that they’ve been married for too long; she with her husband who photographs celebrities and tells her “I love you” in the an offhanded way as he quickly dashes out of their hotel room.
These establishing scenes of the two are heavily painted with feelings of ennui, and- though subverting the expectations of a pink-pantied opening scene- are nonetheless deeply interesting. One of my favourite scenes is an hilarious one of Bob interacting with the hip, young, and very animated ad director (“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time”) through a terse middle-aged translator. There is comic relief in the situation, yet every frame drips with Bob’s resignation of the life in which he’s somehow found himself.
Charlotte, meanwhile, takes long walks around Tokyo and comes across temples and parks- and a traditional Japanese wedding procession. The camera closes in on the groom holding the bride’s delicate white hands as he helps her up some stone steps. The film doesn’t explicitly tell you what Charlotte thinks, but it does show you what Charlotte chooses to focus her eyes on.
We spend a significant amount of time with Bob and Charlotte separately before we finally see them meet in the hotel bar, as Bob nurses a drink and Charlotte looks for a distraction from her husband and his actress friend’s inconsequential chatter. It’s a brief encounter, two lost, slightly-bemused souls finding a spark of life in a shared conversation.
And it goes from there. Charlotte and Bob’s relationship grow by leaps and bounds over the scant days they share in Tokyo. “Let’s never return to Japan again,” Charlotte remarks after one particularly memorable night out. “It will never be as fun as this.” There is sexual tension, though Bob wisely refrains from pursuing this further. The most they share is an intimate moment as they’re drifting off to sleep in their own sides of the hotel bed when Bob caresses the side of Charlotte’s foot, and somehow this just feels right. Their relationship was never based on physicality… though that was what attracted Bob to her at first. Instead, it’s a deep connection between two people that pulls them together in the midst of their crises and gives them some solid footing as strangers in a strange land.
Yet here is the complication with being human. You can tell that Bob and Charlotte still love their other halves- the sudden appearance of what can be blithely called their soulmates does not change this fact. However they’re both frustrated by their current stations in life. I’d like to think that in each other they found some comfort- and some answers… or if not answers, then realisations about themselves.
In the end, they part. We all knew it would happen, though we all hoped that it might not be so. Yet at the same time, do we really want them to forsake their families in pursuit of whatever “this” is?
I’m reminded of a scene in High Fidelity when John Cusack’s character realises something about his relationships. “That other girl, or other women, whatever… I mean, I was thinking that they’re just fantasies. You know? And they always seem really great because there’s never any problems.” The film is a window into the beginning of what could be something sublime. No, actually, it already is sublime… yet would it stay sublime as time went on and the realities of what they had to give up catches up with them?
Honestly, I don’t know. I imagine Bob would be old (wise?) enough to realise that his problems won’t go away with a new woman, even a woman like Charlotte. Charlotte… well, Charlotte might go for it, and maybe it would be worth the risk to find out. But it takes two to make that decision, and in the end as they share one last private moment in the middle of a street full of strangers, I find my vision blurring. We don’t get to hear what Bob whispers in Charlotte’s ear, but do we really need to? We end up with a denouement far more poignant than anything explicitly said.