As its end credits roll, Lost in Translation leaves me in a mood that’s hard to describe. The story of Bob [Bill Murray] and Charlotte [Scarlett Johansson] and their improbable friendship isn’t sappy or romantic. It’s not tragic or despairing. There are no highs or lows. There are no blow ups or grand romantic gestures. These two lonely, confused souls come together for a few days and offer comfort to one another in a foreign city before parting ways. The mood the film leaves is a gentle sadness at having seen something ephemeral unfold and vanish before my eyes. This melancholy is not unfamiliar, but I also don’t know what to call it, at least in English.
It turns out that in Japanese, there is a perfect term for it: mono-no-aware. This concept, along with the complementary idea of wabi-sabi, revolve around a longing and melancholy brought about by the beauty of the transience in the world. Mono-no-aware, translates roughly as “a sensitivity towards ephemera,” and describes the melancholy one feels when thinking about the passing of time, and all that this passage entails. Similarly, wabi-sabi is a concept central to the traditional Japanese philosophy of life, where one mindfully accepts and appreciates the ephemeral and imperfect nature of things.
The centrality of these concepts in Japan are easy to spot once you know what to look for. The simplicity, asymmetry, and intentional imperfection of much Japanese art is an expression of wabi-sabi. Much of Japanese aesthetics focuses on appreciating things as they are rather than trying to make them perfect. A particularly famous example is Kintsugi, where a broken piece of Japanese pottery is reassembled with gold dusted lacquer. This technique draws our eyes to the cracks and imperfections that were repaired, creating new beauty in the process. This conception of beauty is a thread that unifies much of Japanese art and literature from Ikebana [flower arranging] to Zen rock gardens to Haikus.
This concept, though, is not limited to the arts. Anyone who’s spent time living in Japan knows that its citizens take their seasons seriously. Where seasons are the background of my life in the US, in Japan, they were the main event. Everything, from the food to the décor to the conversation is infused with the seasons. There’s New Year’s Day, where people go outside in the freezing cold and pound mochi, drink hot sake, and watch the annual relay race on TV while eating a mikan orange. People argue the merits of eating firm newly ripened persimmons and fully ripened gooey persimmons. There’s excitement surrounding the first plum blossoms in February. In April, the entire populace of Tokyo simultaneously decides to picnic in the park and have a Sapporo under a blizzard of pink cherry blossom petals. There’s summer, the season of clinking glass windchimes and local festivals, to be enjoyed with peaches and, later, grapes. And then there’s fall, which is accompanied by pear season. In autumn, the country collectively looks up at the trees, with their vibrant reds and yellows, and collectively sigh for a moment or two before heading back to work. In fact, the Haiku, known in English primarily as a three-phrase poem, is a traditional poetic form that is specifically meant to describe seasons. This sensitivity to the seasons, too, is an expression of a fascination with the ephemeral, with mono-no-aware. The seasons are all part of a rhythm, at once infinite and fleeting. That blossom that draws the eye, that fruit, with its crisp sweetness, that chilly winter wind, is not long for this world, and for that reason, it is beautiful and sad.
Understanding this feature of Japanese culture gives further depth to writer-director Sophia Coppola’s decision to set the movie in Japan. There are many locales that could have granted Bob and Charlotte the isolation that allows their story to unfurl. The sense of dislocation so central to the film could have been accomplished in Shanghai or Dubai or Moscow or Kinshasa. Japan, though, offers a thematic consistency to this film that other settings cannot. At its core, Lost in Translation is a film about finding beauty in a moment that can’t last. The unlikely friendship of Bob and Charlotte burns as bright as the autumn leaves before getting blown away. We find a particular beauty in the reds and golds of autumn because we know that it is ephemeral.
Similarly, the central friendship of Lost in Translation is so evocative because the pair takes comfort in each other’s company while recognizing the imminent pain of separation. In the spirit of wabi-sabi, the audience grows to appreciate these two people for what they are rather then what we want them to become. We all experience a sense of mono-no-aware as Bob’s imminent departure from Japan imbues every joyous moment with melancholy. It’s easy to dismiss Japan as a simple backdrop for a story about isolation. Few cities can make you feel like you’re getting blown away in a gust of humanity like Tokyo. And yet, Sophia Coppola’s choice to set Lost in Translation offers in Japan awakens far more than a sense of isolation. The feeling that the film evokes in viewers strikes at the heart of the Japan’s aesthetic identity. The film, through this feeling, translates more than one might expect.