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Social Intimacy in Lost in Translation

December 24, 2013

“I can’t tell you how many people have told me [they] don’t get “Lost in Translation.” They want to know what it’s about. They complain “nothing happens.” They’ve been trained by movies that tell them where to look and what to feel, in stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. “Lost in Translation” offers an experience in the exercise of empathy.” – Roger Ebert

Lost in Translation is a film about social intimacy and friendship.  Contrary to superficial interpretations, the title is not a reference to intercultural linguistic communication, but rather the failed comprehension of domestic interpersonal communication.

The film starts by showing what is lost.  Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson) is unable to emotionally connect with her husband, John.  He is too preoccupied with his photography career to recognize Charlotte’s social needs and her insecurities on finding her place in society after college. Charlotte’s social isolation is exhibited in the film through a myriad of scenes that juxtapositions her with the most density populated landscape in the world.  In one of the most elegant scenes of the film, Charlotte sits in her hotel room, staring quietly into the sprawling urban jungle of neo-Tokyo, seemingly apathetic to the notion of exploration.  When she does venture out, we get the sense that she remains alone, despite being surrounded by thousands of people.  With John physically and emotionally unavailable, Charlotte attempts to cope with her inner turmoil by calling a friend back home, only to be ignored by her, too.

Married, successful, and approaching the twilight of his career, Bob (Bill Murray) has lost his sense of self.  Like the actor that he is, his life is now guided by directors, businessmen, and his family, making him a shell of what he once was.  He is disinterested in Japan and any form of casual social interaction, finding solitude at the hotel bar, drinking his days away until his flight home.  Bob desperately needs someone to find him.  The real him.

The second act of the film is about being found.  When Bob and Charlotte finally meet, the process of translation begins.  Their loneliness bridges them and they are able to find immediate comfort in each others’ company.  While those in their lives struggle to communicate with them emotionally, they are able to understand each other vividly.  As the two interact more and more, their sorrow slowly turns to joy.  Galvanized by Charlotte’s youth, Bob is able to resurface a part of himself that has been submerged for decades.  Finally stepping out of the Park Hyatt, Bob dances and sings the night away with Charlotte, enjoying the life he once lived and controlled.  Bob helps Charlotte cope with her insecurities by giving her the social interaction she so desperate needs and making her realize that although life at her age are full of obstacles, it does “get better.”  She needed his aged wisdom, and he needed her youthful sincerity.

Sofia Coppola’s decision to incorporate two Americans in the Land of the Rising Sun is not an act randomization.  Japan is a society governed by collectivist ideology, while America functions on individuality.  At home, Bob and Charlotte are two individuals, but in Japan, they become a community- a representation of the environment.  Language serves no purpose when there is only one speaker.  Communication is also not limited to verbal exchanges.  Much of the film’s messages are conveyed through subtle acts and body language, such as when Charlotte gently lays her head on Bob’s shoulder after a long night of activities and the two sits quietly, enjoying each others’ company.  Or when Bob slowly carries a sleeping Charlotte back to her room before tucking her in for the night.  Those scenes provide a sense of understanding that no words can express.

Lost in Translation is an unconventional film because it focuses almost exclusively on the social aspect of love.  Coppola wanted to show the importance of social intimacy as oppose to the physical.  Bob and Charlotte were never physically intimate because that’s not what their relationship is about.  When Bobs sleeps with the singer from the bar during the third act of the film, it shows us just how hollow physical affection can be in the absence of social connection.  That scene makes us almost pity Bob.  In contrast, when Bob passionately embraces Charlotte at the conclusion of the film, while silently whispering into her ear as she stood crying, we intimately feel their affection and pain.  And though we cannot hear their conversation, we find closure knowing this was something they shared together.  –Ping Zhou

If you enjoyed this article or film, consider watching my self-made Lost in Translation music video featuring the song “Here’s Looking At You, Kid” by Corey Crowder:


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Frolicks permalink
    February 21, 2017 12:43 am

    Excellent write-up. I felt this movie was visceral – it certainly kept my interest – but I couldn’t pinpoint why until I read this.
    The observations on Japan being of ‘collectivist ideology’ are very interesting.

  2. September 29, 2017 1:43 am

    Thank you, this is one of the best explanation of this movie that i’ve come across.

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