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I do not know much about the making of Lost in Translation (2003). Sam’s the one who looks up things and ever so often when I pose a question on what’s happening, he is always ready with an answer.

“Oh yeah, I was thinking about that earlier, so I looked it up.”

That’s nice. To know that something that means so much to you, means just as much to the person you love, and it comes out in little ways like that. And I think that’s what Lost in Translation is about. Sure, it’s an analogy for depression and loneliness. But to have someone be into you so fully, that they predict the things you might think about before you even think them yourself. To be able to understand you so perfectly. It feels like someone is sitting inside your head. Maybe that’s what Charlotte saw when she noticed this wrinkly, old, washed up actor, or maybe that’s what Bob saw when he noticed this bratty looking girl bored clean by her companions. That’s not to say what happens between them isn’t problematic. There are a lot of things problematic about what happens between Bob and Charlotte. But I guess life is just that – problematic.

Sam and I met online. He had lived his whole life in rural Yorkshire and I in the great metropolitan marvel of Bangalore. Despite our obvious differences in upbringing, we never seemed to find an end to the long conversations and realised that we had more in common than we initially thought. Sometime last year, I found out that Sam liked Lost in Translation just as much as I did. So, at the end of the week, every week, we would fill our cups with whatever we could scrounge up, call up each other over Discord, and watch the film. I am sure Sam’s sense of the film differs from mine; my memories of Lost in Translation bask in the deep purples and bright pinks of early morning. My room would be bathed in dark blue, slowly turning lighter as my ramblings about the film became more nonsensical. It felt like living in the film, being shot in the early hours of morning or late hours of the night, or in the artificial light of flickering bulbs and yellow lamps. Hours before, we would have been talking about whatever came to mind – where we wanted to live, who we wanted to be, how much we wanted to leave everything behind and start anew, all into the late hours of the night where I’d grown accustomed to living in the impossibly bright light of my tube light. Just two people, almost strangers, finding solace in each other. It felt comfy. That comfort is still there, even though we’re no longer strangers.

In a lot of ways, those days are gone, but in a lot of ways they are still there, just lurking beyond our reach. And every time we watch the movie, it takes me back to those few months where we would talk for hours and get incoherently drunk while watching Charlotte roam around aimlessly through the streets of Japan.

Lost in Translation (2003); American Zoetrope, Elemental Films

I said earlier that the movie was about depression. That’s not true. To say it is an analogy for depression doesn’t feel like enough. The movie is a lot of things. It feels like it captures the very nature of being, the essence of it. You know that saying? You don’t know who you are until you’re alone. You can never fully be yourself unless you’re by yourself. That is something that’s always stuck in my head – like a little nagging thought that never goes away and that’s what it feels like watching these two people just bumble about their lives doing what they have to do. Bob’s is a much more...physical loneliness. He’s far away from his family, in a foreign country. Everyone who knows him, knows him as Bob Harris, actor extraordinaire and a famous person. He can’t seem to get over the subtle disdain he has for the Japanese and it separates him from everyone he seems to meet. Charlotte’s, on the other hand, is a much emptier lonely. She’s not unloved by any means, not really ignored, just unknown. She is surrounded by people whom she considers her friends and family, but it feels like everyone else has just changed around her and she has been left behind. She is not sure why, she is not sure how, but these people she has known for ages have managed to change without letting her know about it and are pretending like everything is fine. It’s like this constant lonely panic that you have been left behind with, and no one seems to understand why you are upset about it. It’s two people who are so sick of knowing themselves, so achingly uncomfortable in their loneliness, that they need someone there for them.

Every time we watch Charlotte outside the pool room, inviting Bob out to meet her friends, we are always so struck by how confident she seems to be. The confidence you would need to just walk up to someone you have barely had two conversations with and invite them out on a night with friends, feels god-like. But come to think of it, it might just be because she is struck by how effortlessly silly Bob is when he speaks to her. How there is nothing to hide behind what he says. How she just decides that she has had enough of being lonely and this stranger makes her feel like she has something to look forward to. How it feels like they are both sick of being alone in a crowded world, so they go out of their way to do something they wouldn’t usually do.

I think, by a lot of standards, it seems like nothing happens in the film. They meet, they hang out a few times, then they go their own ways, reluctant and sad as they are, and that’s that. The movie has ended, you have watched an “aesthetic” film and you feel all the more posh for it. A lot of times, films feel like they need to have some kind of climactic drama for it to be worth our while and the closest this film comes to having one is when Bob and Charlotte kiss –something that happens much towards the end. But in my mind, their turning points come in subtle ways throughout the length of the entire film.

Lost in Translation (2003); American Zoetrope, Elemental Films

I remember thinking how Charlotte probably felt like she needed to fit into a certain standard to be happy, to actually have any sense of fulfilment. I pointed it out when she goes to Kyoto, when she sees that married couple. How she probably feels like she has to stop being snobby and snarky and just keep her head down at all times, just do what John says and she’ll figure out a way to be normal and happy. Sam is much more of an optimist than I am, though. He pointed out how things could be different. Charlotte watches that couple taking part in a tradition that is well over 200 years old and she realises they are happy. The wife isn’t looking down because she is sad at the prospect of being married and in servitude, she is happy because she is taking part in this tradition with her husband and they’re happy being together. Maybe Charlotte realises that she has been living in a foreign city and she has watched so many different people live so many different lifestyles. From the people at arcades, ranging from edgy little teenagers to men coming home from work, to her friends at the club, to this couple now getting married. She realises she isn’t as trapped as she thinks she is because being aimless doesn’t mean being hopeless (as Bob rightfully says before). She is free to do what she wants to do in her own time.

Bob realises that he isn’t as lonely as he thinks he is, it’s just that he has surrounded himself with the wrong people. He is an actor, and I am sure he has felt something a lot of actors have felt – the sense of feeling like everyone and everything is fake and coming to Japan just makes it stick all the more. His uptight and formal entourage of greeters make him feel like he will never be anything more than a celebrity to these people. The director and his crew make him feel like he’s stuck in the same environment he has always been stuck in, now of a bunch of wannabe Americans that thrive on being assholes to keep up appearances, instead of actual American assholes, and the photographer enforces this feeling of bullshitting your way through talking fancy. That, in and by itself, makes him dismiss the Japanese as people he would relate to less than his fellow Americans at home.

Then, he meets Charlotte, and he finds someone to spend his time with, but that’s not just it. He becomes nicer and isn’t as grumpy anymore. He has finally found someone that gets him for who he is and isn’t afraid to poke fun at him, someone who is so refreshingly undisturbed by how things are that he’s drawn to her. And slowly, he realises that he doesn’t have to be as lonely as he is. Just because the people he finds surrounding him in Japan are reminiscent of people back at home, that doesn’t mean everyone is the same.

In the hospital, while Charlotte is getting her foot checked, we see his first interaction with a Japanese person that doesn’t involve him rolling his eyes or talking down to them. For the first time, we see him genuinely trying to talk to and understand this old Japanese woman, both fully knowing that they’re too old to understand each other but having fun either way. He sees the two women in the background and he doesn’t see them laughing at him as an insult or as humiliating, like he did while he was doing his photoshoot. And it doesn’t feel so lonely anymore. There’s a clear language barrier there but it seems to vanish as he realises that that is not what has been impeding his ability to feel something all this while.

Lost in Translation (2003); American Zoetrope, Elemental Films

Lost in Translation is a beautiful looking film and to a lot of people that’s just it. There is nothing wrong with watching a movie for the beauty of it. But the careful subtleties within the movie, the characters’ abilities to make themselves more than what they are by interacting with each other is what makes the film so comforting and familiar. Bob and Charlotte are human in their making. We see them as us, alone and lonely, fully themselves. And then we see them finding each other and realising, being alone doesn’t mean you have to be lonely. They don’t lift each other up, there’s nothing there that overtly pushes them to better themselves. They just spend time with each other, indulging in a relationship that’s much more intimate than any they could hope for, and they realise that in that hotel, in that faraway distant land, if they could find each other and build a bond so pure and deep, then what’s to stop them from building that bond with anyone anywhere.

To be able to understand someone perfectly isn’t a prerequisite to being able to enjoy someone’s company. Bob may never know Charlotte’s last name and Charlotte may never understand why he slept with the lounge singer. But that doesn’t matter. Those questions, when trying to find a sense of companionship, don’t need to be asked because they ground the people that ask them. And sometimes, you don’t need to be grounded. You don’t need to know the language to love someone. You don’t need to have the perfect relationship. All these little connections are formed with none of the supposed standards of social norms intact. They just happen and then they end. That’s what makes them real.

Lost in Translation has become my comfort movie. Our comfort movie. So many times, we watch films and it is awful people being awful people to each other, and that gets tiring. To see a movie tackle this feeling of loneliness, this feeling of longing, but never overtly trying to give you a happy ending, makes it feel real, makes it familiar and comfortable. It makes you sad at the inevitability of lost connections but underneath it all, you see this little glimmer of hope where it feels like there was nothing there at all and then the movie ends.


Living with Loneliness

Loud bright lights. Soft early mornings. Conversation, both muted and rowdy. How Lost in Translation perfectly encapsulates loneliness and the act of being alone in an early 2000s unassuming rom-com.

Oct 22, 2021
Donna Eva

About the Author


Donna Eva

Donna is a freelance writer and illustrator. She lives in Bangalore with her family and two Calico cats (she swears she isn't obsessed with them). In her free time, she likes to draw, flick through comics and old sci-fi magazines, watch movies, and, if the stars align, maybe, just maybe, you can find her pretending to read.

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