The Literally Unsaid in Lost in Translation

I think a movie that had me rethinking my assumptions of it was the Sofia Coppola directed movie Lost in Translation. Starring Bill Murray as a washed up actor (Bob) who meets a young girl (Charlotte) played by Scarlett Johansson while filming commercials in Japan and makes a connection with her, this film has captured my mind for years. I’d call it my favorite movie to be honest.

However, I see it very differently as an adult versus when I saw it as an early teen. Younger me found it an endearing story of love in a difficult disconnected time, where Bob unable to deal with his problems at home found escape and solace in Japan and with someone he felt more of a connection to. As an adult, I see that differently. Lost in Translation is a story of miscommunication and lack of communication — one might read it very directly as Bob lost in literal translation, unable to understand Japanese who settles for botched English that does not remotely probably cover what was originally said (a great bonus for bilingual viewers, as there are no subtitles for an audience to hear what Bob doesn’t understand), but I also see Lost in Translation as Bob struggling to truly find love even with the connection he makes with Charlotte. The romance with Charlotte is fleeting and vapid in some ways, it’s a connection built on two people’s feelings of isolation and not a sweet meet-cute of people who relate to each other. It’s because they have no one else that their adventures in Japan together feel romantic to us.

The ending scene of the movie really sells this point home to me. Bob is leaving to head back to his family in the U.S, and the scene starts with him saying goodbye to Charlotte before being forced to take photos with his Japanese entourage. As he leaves, we get shots of him riding alone in a car driving through the dense Tokyo, with shots of crowds underscored by mostly ambient crowd noise, and Bob walking among them as he walks out of the car which only serves to further emphasize his isolation. He finds Charlotte in the crowd as they hug and cry, and Bob whispers something inaudible to the audience to her.

As a literal example of the unsaid, I always wondered what he said. Part of what the scene does is let the viewer fill in the gap with their own assumption about their take on the movie and the relationship, and younger me found it sweet and romantic. Older me really sees it different: it’s just further driving home the narrative of the disconnect, the ‘lost in translation’. This point is lost on us, and us wondering what the point of it is defeats part of the message of the movie, which is not every relationship is built on real feelings or real communication. I conclude this is a moment in the film for us to walk away with a reverse catharsis of sorts: leave the assumptions at the door and feel unfulfilled, just as this romance did for very good reasons, which is what Sofia Coppola and her great actors tried to tell us.

By the way, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson kept what was said between them. Sofia Coppola’s choice to keep it a mystery only sells the narrative mystery and the deeper movie of the meaning further. And you know what? That’s beautiful. For years I and other fans agonized about it, but when I think about how it really gives us a true ‘lost in translation’ moment, I think it’s a great form of storytelling.

Watch the ending scene here.

4 thoughts on “The Literally Unsaid in Lost in Translation”

  1. I really loved how you tracked your change in perspective in this blog post! I think that it is really interesting how you see the nuances of the relationship between the main characters in the film now that you are older. However, I do think that you can dive a bit deeper in a lot of your analysis! Where are the points that you see these miscommunications, and are there consistencies/diffeerences between these moments? I think that at the root of any change in comprehension is close reading, and I think that if you really flushed that out your explorations of the characters could be really powerful in analyzing films!

    1. I would actually love to dive more in-depth into this! I think (mis)communication is so significant to the message of the movie and often relies on ironically, non-verbal cues or scenes presented to us. There’s long gaps of silence in the movie that are very telling, and uses very atmospheric elements to give us, the viewer, context clues about characters’ mental states.

  2. As someone who had never seen this film before, I thought this analysis was very interesting. It was very personal and as much as I wanted to understand the plot of this film, I found your perspective more interesting. There is plenty of film criticism out there but it doesn’t often show the evolution of the critic’s thoughts over time. I thought this was a lovely take on a favorite film of yours and I was excited to hear the more personal reasons for that.

  3. I was so interested to read this piece. I watched Lost in Translation for an American auteur class at the beginning of my junior year and it is probably my favorite class I have ever taken. My final paper was about Coppola and her terrain in “indiewood”. Lost in Translation was only her second film, and has many indie-film characteristics, although her last name granted her privileges that most filmmakers don’t have. I loved that you shared how your thoughts about your favorite film has changed over the years. Most of my favorite films I love because of the actors, and for some reason since my affection towards the actor doesn’t change my thoughts on the film typically don’t either. I liked how what is unsaid caught your attention. I think it is also worth paying attention to the soundtrack of the film, as Coppola utilizes a lot of indie and post-punk music in her work. At the time of its release, this film was critiqued for being very similar to European art cinema rather than mainstream Hollywood. Coppola was content with this indie film of hers because she made the movie she wanted to make, and didn’t have to pay attention to the needs of straight white men who usually finance films.

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