Lost in Translation (2003)

By Afra Nariman

Lost in Translation (2003)

Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Stars: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson

Plot Summary

A lonely, aging actor named Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray) and a conflicted young woman named Charlotte (played by Scarlett Johansson) who is in search of her identity and unsure of the quality of her marriage, meet each other in Tokyo. Bob is there to film a whiskey commercial, while Charlotte is accompanying her photographer-husband on a job. Feeling lost — both metaphorically in life, and literally in a strange, new land — the two find escape, distraction and understanding in one another. They form an unlikely, yet nevertheless, meaningful and heartwarming bond over the next few days, as they open up to one another and try to find themselves.


People can struggle with life’s basic existential crisis of feeling lost at any juncture in their life, and from any background. And so, regardless of age, or career, or anything else that defines our life from the outside, people can relate and bond over the simple aspect of the human experience that many of us encounter: that feeling of being lost, in a search for an identity or purpose. Lost in Translation is a story of precisely this.

When you ask yourself questions like: What is happiness? or perhaps the better question, What is meaning? — these concepts are so abstract that they are almost undefinable. Nevertheless, most of us will find ourselves asking these questions when we reach a point in our life in which we realize that something is missing. The answer may be ineffable, or undefinable, but to even begin any conversation about happiness or meaning, all the basic needs must be met: food, water, clothing, shelter, etc. As seen in this film, people at any point in their life, from any background or lifestyle, may find themselves in this position; where every basic need is met, they should feel content if you were to measure your answers to the previously mentioned questions through some equation of pleasure minus pain; but still that something is missing. That’s where the mystery lies. This review isn’t a paper on meaning, so I won’t delve too much deeper into answering those questions, but they are important concepts to think about when thinking about this film.

Bob Harris is a famous, wealthy middle-aged man. He is married, has children and he’s getting his house remodeled. Now, he finds himself in Tokyo to film a Whiskey commercial that he will probably be compensated quite generously for. While in Tokyo, he is being treated like royalty by his hosts at the hotel. He seems to have it figured out: Married life, wealth, family, career, travel — he seems to have a grasp on things. On the other hand, Charlotte is a young, beautiful woman who earned a degree in philosophy at an esteemed university. She is 2 years married, to a celebrity photographer, who’s work permits them to travel the world, to places such as Tokyo, where she finds herself in the days depicted in this film. Both Bob and Charlotte have lives that from the outside, seem satisfying and that many would feel content with at the points in life that they are in. Still, for each of them — something is missing. Neither are entirely “happy,” or feel as if they have purpose or a sense of identity, in Charlottes case. At one point, Charlotte says to Bob:

“I’m stuck. Does it get easier?”


Bob responds:

“The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”


Although Charlotte seems to have a pretty satisfying job: husband, comfortable wealth, travel, etc — she is a deep thinker, and she feels as though something is missing. She expresses her struggle with finding purpose and a sense of identity. While Bob is also feeling “stuck” — because he is older and has had a lifetime to deal with these very human dilemmas, he deals with his thoughts differently. The few days of pure fun and distraction from their existential problems, that each are able to share with a new person, in a new place, proves to serve as exactly what they needed. By the end of the film, although nothing seems resolved, they have been rejuvenated and feel more prepared to go forward, even if it will be without each other.

Over the course of a few days, the two of them, each in a different stage of life, find solace in one another, as they bond and quickly form an endearing and innocent romance in an unexpected way. I say romance, although you could also think of it as a developed friendship. They form a significant bond that that never truly materializes to its full romantic potential, in part because of both of their realities of already being married and only visiting Tokyo for a few days — the land they find themselves bond in, so far away from anything either of them know, is only a temporary haven. The film doesn’t try to force an unrealistic ending where they leave run away together, leaving their old lives behind them. Coppola keeps everything grounded. It’s a classic tale of the right person at the wrong time.

In the beginning of the film, it seems as if both of them are bored, inching to get home. They are in a strange city, full of strangers, with no idea what to do. Together though, they manage to have an almost life-altering week — a mood-altering one for sure. They had unbelievable fun, laughs and moments of clarity. One of the more memorable scenes takes place one night, when they go out. They find themselves with some new friends, singing Karaoke. It’s a longer scene than most karaoke scenes usually are in films. They run all over the city, and have one of those experiences abroad that we all dream of. At one point, in a moment of reflection, Charlotte says:

“Let’s never come here again because it will never be as much fun.”

Sometimes, the key to realizing what’s missing, is not found in deep contemplation, or in your own existential sorrow. Sometimes, all you need is a fresh experience and a fresh perspective — a few days of fun with a new person (a stranger), in a new place, doing new things.

Aside from its existential themes, Lost in Translation is also just a great film to watch — it’s entertaining, hilarious and truly hypnotizing. The sporadic use of music in carefully chosen parts of the film, combined with its enchanting pace and its mood, make the film feel dreamlike. Its cultural representations also add to the film’s alluring aura. Bill Murray’s portrayal of Bob, the lonely actor who finds himself “lost in translation” at many points, as the language barrier is used to create a few comedic moments, is brilliant. Murray’s natural and blunt comedic tone is on full display. He makes funny moments out of scenes that wouldn’t otherwise be as funny. Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Charlotte, the young, philosophical woman, “lost” in her search for purpose, is inspiring. She represents the young person who finds themselves stuck in contemplation, desperately searching for their identity and purpose. Both Bob and Charlotte are extremely relatable characters, and Murray and Johansson deliver very nuanced performances in their portrayals of them.

Lost in Translation is a raw, natural and genuinely authentic story that beautifully illustrates a major element of the human experience. It’s a story of two people who are lost — both metaphorically and literally. Although the film doesn’t offer the characters any real resolution — they don’t necessarily ever find themselves — the story comforts them, and the audience, in showing that the feeling of being lost is a common aspect of being human. As you get older, and slowly come to know yourself better, and understand what you want out of life more; that feeling won’t bring you down as much. Perhaps we don’t always reach that point of pure bliss, of truly finding ourselves; but living life is the path towards doing so. Lost in Translation is a cinematic exploration of life, purpose and person. This film will entertain you, captivate you from start to finish, make you laugh, and it may just change your perspective on life as well.


Rating: 4 out of 4.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s