In 2003, I was a budding cinephile, lost among the bewildering vista of choices that had burst open before me in my first year of college. At times, the world felt like a place full of opportunity, which I just needed to reach out and grab. At other times, it felt like I was drowning in indecision, uncertain what I was meant to be in a world where the guidance I was so accustomed to had abruptly fallen away. It was during this season of my life that Lost in Translation came along and spoke to me like no other film. Charlotte [Scarlett Johansson] and Bob [Bill Murray] captured the melancholy I was feeling about emerging into adulthood. They reflected my budding understanding that there is no map for life, and that instead, there’s only a creaky old compass that doesn’t always point north. The disorientation of Charlotte and Bob as they wander through Japan reflected my disorientation at entering adulthood unlike any other movie.
I was destined to fall in love with Lost in Translation. By the time I watched it for the first time, I’d been living away from Japan, where I’d grown up, for a little over four years. For an eighteen-year-old, that was an eternity, and even though I loved my life in Chicago, I missed Japan. Few American movies accurately portray the intricacies of Japan like Lost in Translation. Seeing the scramble crosswalk outside Shibuya Station, the view of Mt. Fuji from the bullet train, and the narrow winding streets of Tokyo lined with seedy little bars all elicited a pang of nostalgia for the country where I’d grown up. Nostalgia is a powerful intoxicant that can evoke profundity in even the most mundane experiences. I was not immune to it. Lost in Translation entered my list of favorite films and stayed there for years. Throughout college, I watched it again and again, falling under a melancholy trance, the evocation of which, I subsequently learned, was a hallmark of Sophia Coppola’s filmmaking. And then I watched the movie again four years ago, after not having seen it for a while, and everything changed.
The Capgras delusion is a rare psychiatric condition where a person believes that friends or relatives have been replaced by identical impostors. These supposed doppelgangers look and sound and act the same, but feel different in ineffable ways. That’s how I felt about Lost in Translation. The movie I once loved was replaced by a duplicate that had me rolling my eyes at every scene. Tender dialog between two existentially confused souls was now pretentious chatter by two people who didn’t know how good they had it. Bob, charming and wise despite his flaws, was now a bitter old man who had isolated himself in Japan by being an asshole. Charlotte, with her existential struggle, was replaced by a snob who isolated herself by scoffing at everyone’s inferiority. And Japan? That country, so engrossing with all its quirks, was nothing but a source of pain and irritation.
What happened? Thankfully I wasn’t suffering from a cinematic version of the Capgras delusion. The film hadn’t been replaced by an impostor. Instead, I had been replaced by a profoundly unhappy man in his late twenties. At the time of this viewing, I was living and working in Japan and having a miserable time. I was disappearing down my own navel, unable to see anything outside of myself and my misery. I scoffed at the spiritual travails of Bob and Charlotte. What did these two whiners know about real problems like mine? What did Sophia Coppola know about the roiling xenophobia lying under the surface of Japanese society? The film felt so naïve in its understanding of life. I could barely stand to watch it.
The experience of coming to hate Lost in Translation, which I had once loved, stuck with me. When it came time for me to pick a movie to write about, I knew that the movie deserved another shot. It’s been four years since my last viewing, and my life has entered a new season. I am, once again, a different person with a changed outlook on life. I emerged from the bottomless darkness of my belly button and found a path forward. I no longer live in Japan. Watching Lost in Translation again, I’ve come to understand it anew. Charlotte is indeed a snob. Bob is an asshole. Japan really does have serious issues that can only be experienced while living there. But Bob is also charming, sad, and honorable. Charlotte’s concerns about existence are real. More importantly, the emotions in the film are real. The sentiments in the film are earnest. Two people, adrift, come together for a week, providing each other friendship, comfort, and support. It’s a story that celebrates friendship. It’s a story that revels in the isolation that everyone inevitably experiences at some point. And it wraps it all in the melancholy beauty of the transience of life. Friendship, youth, fame, and life itself are not long for the world, and are all the more beautiful for it. The film captures the beauty of something that’s slipping out of grasped fingers.
As I’ve ventured through life and returned to Lost in Translation again and again, I’ve come to see it, and myself, in a new light. It’s served as a mirror, reflecting different people back at me on every viewing. As I drift, ever-changing through time, it’s characters and scenes and dialog interpret me from their perch, frozen indelibly into celluloid. Every time I see Lost in Translation, I am at once enthralled and melancholy that this is the first and last time that I’ll ever see this film.