Lost in Translation' Critical Essay

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More Than This, There Is Nothing: Simplicity in Lost In Translation

Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film, Lost In Translation, centers around the platonic relationship between protagonists Bob Harris and Charlotte. Bob is an aging American celebrity in his fifties who has begrudgingly traveled to Tokyo to do a series of advertisements for a Japanese whiskey company. Bob spends the majority of his time staying in his hotel, where he appears to be in a constant state of boredom and discontent until he meets Charlotte one night at the hotel bar. Charlotte is a recent Yale graduate in her twenties who is staying in the hotel to support her husband John while he does various photo shoots across Tokyo. She, too, is bored, discontent, and unsatisfied with her life as she struggles to find purpose. Each day, Bob and Charlotte encounter each other in the hotel, finally meeting at the hotel bar one night when neither could sleep. Through their mutual feelings of loneliness and isolation, Bob and Charlotte are able to connect authentically. Their relationship develops over the course of the film as they spend more time together. Strangers in a foreign land chose the comfort of an American stranger over the seductive strangeness of a foreign culture.

Existing reviews and analyses of the film articulate that the film explores themes of alienation, loneliness, and existential boredom. Indeed, Lost In Translation demonstrates this well through Bob’s and Charlotte’s insomnia and their general disinterest in Japanese cultures – such as Charlotte’s encounter with ikebana and rituals, and Bob’s unwillingness to leave the hotel. They were able to find comfort in their mutual feelings of alienation. This paper extends the conversation to Bob and Charlotte’s search for “existential authenticity”, a term coined by Ning Wang in his 1999 paper “Rethinking Authenticity In Tourism Experience”. According to Wang, existential authenticity is the “existential state of Being that is to be activated by tourist activities” (352). Why is it that Bob and Charlotte are unable to find the existential authenticity they were looking for in Tokyo, but only in each other? After all, some might argue, as the essayist Ning Wang would, as tourists in a foreign land, their experiences with Japanese culture would allow them to find “intrapersonal authenticity”. I argue that Lost In Translation shows that existential authenticity is found through simplicity. This is done by showing that Bob and Charlotte were unable to find intrapersonal authenticity in Tokyo, a city of excess (therefore, a lack of “simplicity”), but they were able to find interpersonal authenticity due to their similar goal of finding simplicity. However, by doing so, the film complicates Wang’s theory by introducing additional dimensions to finding intrapersonal and interpersonal authenticity, terms I will refer to as “appropriate setting” and “similar ideals”.

In Lost In Translation, Sofia Coppola shows us how Bob and Charlotte were unable to find intrapersonal authenticity in Tokyo. At the beginning of the movie, Charlotte travels around Tokyo and enters an (empty) temple. As she explores the inside of the temple, she stumbles across a cultural ritual, where there were several monks chanting and drums beating. Immediately, the next scene shows Charlotte calling home to her friend Lauren, tearfully revealing that she “didn’t feel anything” when she recounts her visit to the temple. Similarly, in another scene, Charlotte stumbles upon some women practicing ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. She was then invited to participate, and she proceeds to arrange flowers while watching others practice it diligently. Again, immediately, in the following scene, she sits in the bathtub with her headphones on, listening to a podcast named “A Soul’s Search” – one that intends to help its listeners find their purpose. The aforementioned transitions between Charlotte's “experiencing authentic Japanese culture” and her indifference towards the respective experiences show that she was not able to obtain an authentic experience. Bob, on the other hand, does not deliberately seek out experiences in Tokyo – he stays in the hotel almost throughout the entirety of the film. He does this as he realizes that he would not be able to find his authentic self in Tokyo. This is displayed by his alienation from all things Japanese. He flips through the Japanese television shows in his hotel room, unable to find something that could interest him, despite the extravagance that one usually associates with Japanese reality television programs.

It is not immediately clear why even though Bob and Charlotte, tourists in a foreign land, were not able to attain existential authenticity through their experiences. Consider how Wang in “Rethinking Authenticity In Tourism Experience” argues the opposite. Wang (1999) argues that an “‘authentic self” involves a balance between two parts of one’s Being: reason and emotion – the inauthentic self, therefore, arises when the balance between these two parts of being is broken down in such a way that rational factors overcontrol non-rational factors (360-361). In particular, Wang put forth two dimensions of the concept – we shall examine the first one – intrapersonal. Intrapersonal authenticity can be broken down into two parts. First, bodily feelings are the sensations of being on tour, for example, recreation, relaxation, and rejuvenation. “Self-making” is the second component of intrapersonal authenticity, suggesting that a break from societal norms and constraints, through tourism, can provide a structure in which individuals can act spontaneously, in line with their true feelings and authentic self. Bob and Charlotte are tourists in a foreign city, and their experiences with Japanese culture would allow them to experience fantastic bodily feelings of relaxation and are clearly a break from their “constraining and monotonous routine” (363). Wang would then argue that they would be able to find their authentic selves as such. However, we see that this is not the case – the characters Bob and Charlotte were not able to find their authentic selves through their experiences.

To allow us to see why Bob and Charlotte were not able to find existential authenticity in Tokyo, let us start with Johnston and Baumann’s observations about the authenticity of the food. Drawing on the current arguments in foodie discourse, Johnston and Baumann, in “Eating Authenticity”, flush out the signifiers of authentic food. More specifically, they identify simplicity as one of the main markers of authentic food. According to Johnston and Baumann, “Simple food is authentic because of the honesty and effortlessness it conveys, a trait that harkens back to the association between authenticity and individual sincerity, or being “true to oneself” (76). Lost In Translation brings this argument across to the realm of existential authenticity by showing that intrapersonal authenticity is found through simplicity. In the film, we can see Tokyo personifying excess – consumeristic, cultural, sensory – in other words, a lack of “simplicity”. Bob and Charlotte are not then able to find intrapersonal authenticity as a result of the lack of “simplicity” in the metropolitan city. A separate analysis of the representation of Japan in Lost In Translation and Demonlover by Anita Schillhorn van Veen argues that:

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Tokyo is a symbolic cityscape, one of alienation and unsatisfying pleasures, of futuristic dalliance. Tokyo’s modernity is defined in terms of Western progress, just as other, “underdeveloped” nations are. And just as a tourist may visit less developed nations to enjoy the sun and the culture, only to go home clucking about the poverty and the backwardness, so he may go to Tokyo, enjoy the flash of neon and the speed of life, then purse his lips over the sense of alienation and the glut of consumerism. Lost in Translation and demon lover offer nuanced versions of these critiques of accelerated modernity, using Tokyo as an illustration. (192-193)

As Schillhorn explains, Tokyo encapsulates a lack of simplicity – tourists may temporarily enjoy the fleeting pleasures that Tokyo may offer, only to return home with a “sense of alienation and the glut of consumerism”. Bob and Charlotte reject Tokyo’s lack of simplicity. As mentioned previously, Charlotte does not acknowledge her experiences with Japanese culture as authentic, and Bob does not even try to seek out experiences in Tokyo. For Bob and Charlotte, Tokyo failed to “demarcate the profane from the sacred, responsibilities from freedom, work from leisure, and the inauthentic public role from the authentic self” (Wang, 361). The experiences that they obtained in Tokyo were unable to give rise to feelings of intrapersonal authenticity. The film, therefore, defines existential authenticity for Bob and Charlotte as simplicity.

By invoking simplicity as an important factor to recover existential authenticity for Bob and Charlotte, Lost In Translation provides an interesting complication of Wang’s theory of intra-personal authenticity by showing that the geographic setting of the tourist destination matters. Wang’s theory of attaining existential intra-personal authenticity does not consider the geographical setting – it merely argues that intrapersonal authenticity can be obtained due to tourism which causes fantastic bodily feelings and a break from societal norms (361-363). In Lost In Translation’s Tokyo, which I have shown to be a setting that lacks simplicity, fails to appeal to Bob and Charlotte. As a result, Bob and Charlotte were not able to find the intrapersonal existential authenticity they were looking for. It is easy to argue that a more “natural” setting would be more ideal for finding intrapersonal authenticity. For instance, Lefebvre’s beach allows the body to break out of the “temporal and spatial shell developed in response to labor, to the division of labor, to the localizing of work and the specialization of places” (Wang, 362). However, the criteria for one to find existential authenticity differs from individual to individual, and the social and cultural aspects of the setting must be aligned to these criteria for the individual to achieve Wang’s “fantastic bodily feelings” and “break from societal norms”. Therefore, Lost In Translation extends Wang’s theory of intrapersonal authenticity by introducing an additional dimension that an appropriate setting, different for each individual, is required.

Despite not being able to find intrapersonal authenticity in Tokyo as a setting, Bob and Charlotte are able to find interpersonal authenticity in each other. To examine how they found authenticity in each other, we must now consider Wang’s second dimension for existential authenticity – interpersonal authenticity. According to Wang, interpersonal authenticity is the second dimension of existential authenticity, also composed of two parts — family ties and communitas. Wang explains that tourists are not just seeking an authentic Other or a ‘true’ self, but they are also in search of authenticity among and between their fellow travelers. He continues, that “communitas occurs as an unmediated, “pure” inter-personal relationship among pilgrims who confront one another as social equals based on their common humanity” (364). However, using Wang’s theory, it is easy to conclude that Bob and Charlotte would be able to find authentic human relationships between themselves and other tourists in the Park Hyatt Hotel in the film. Yet, it is evident that they do not. One instance that shows this clearly is when Charlotte and her husband meet an actress touring Tokyo. The actress, in enthusiasm, says the following line: “Oh my god, you guys got to listen! I tried this powder cleanser – it was amazing! … It feels so good to get the toxins out of your body, you know?” Charlotte feigns a smile of amusement and lights a cigarette, afterward scanning the room for an excuse to leave the conversation. In this case, it is clear that Charlotte is unable to connect with the actress, and indulged in cultural excess, representing a lack of “simplicity”. On the other hand, Bob and Charlotte were able to form an authentic relationship. Bob and Charlotte’s relationship was developed as a result of their search for simplicity. This is evidenced most strongly in the film’s iconic karaoke scene when Bob sang Roxy Music’s “More Than This”. “More than this, there is nothing,” sings Bob to Charlotte. By illustrating the idea that something “more than this” is empty, the film expresses Bob’s and Charlotte’s desire for something less, something “simpler”. So how is it that authentic relationships can be built between some tourists and not others?

I argue that similar ideals between two tourists are important when creating authentic relationships in tourism. In David W. McMillan’s “Sense of Community”, he argues that “If one can find people with similar ways of looking, feeling, thinking, and being, then it is assumed that one has found a place where one can safely be oneself” (321). Charlotte unable to resonate with the actress, was therefore unable to see her as “social equals based on their common humanity” as Wang would expect, and therefore an authentic interpersonal relationship was not formed. Bob and Charlotte, in their search for simplicity, were able to connect and communicate on a level where they could “safely be oneself” as McMillan mentions. Even though Bob is a celebrity, and Charlotte is only a recent Yale graduate, the two were able to “ease themselves of the pressures stemming from inauthentic social hierarchy and status distinctions” (Wang, 365). An authentic relationship was therefore formed between Bob and Charlotte, allowing them to find interpersonal authenticity. Lost In Translation, therefore, again complicates Wang’s theory of interpersonal authenticity. The inability of Charlotte to form an authentic relationship between her and the actress, juxtaposed with her authentic relationship with Bob, shows that similarities in ideals are an important factor – one that has to be considered when discussing interpersonal authenticity in tourism.

My close examination of the film Lost In Translation should therefore show that Wang’s intrapersonal and interpersonal authenticity is not simply obtainable through tourism – just being in a foreign land would ensure that we can obtain his “fantastic bodily feelings”, “break from societal norms” and authentic relationships. Bob’s and Charlotte’s inability to do so through their experience in Tokyo and other characters that differ greatly from their ideals tells as such. The former tells us that the appropriate geographical setting is important – Tokyo’s lack of simplicity further enhanced Bob’s and Charlotte’s sense of alienation, while the latter shows that similar ideals in people are necessary for an authentic, not superficial, connection. This complicates Wang’s theory by adding these two additional dimensions that should be considered when discussing intrapersonal and interpersonal authenticity. In fact, this tells us that there is more depth to existential authenticity than Wang seemed to argue – one does not simply experience authenticity through tourism. There are specific criteria that each individual seeks when finding authenticity, and the geographical destination and traits of other people must be considered during the discussion of existential authenticity. This paper opens up the possibility that perhaps there are, if not an infinite number of such factors, then very many.

Work Cited:

  1. “Lost In Translation”. Directed by Sofia Coppola. Performances by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Universal Pictures, 2003.
  2. Johnston, Josée and Shyon Baumann. “Eating Authenticity.” In Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape. New York and London: Routledge, 2010. 69-96.
  3. McMillan, D. (1996). “Sense of Community”. In Journal of Community Psychology 24:315–325.
  4. Roxy Music. (1982). “More Than This”. Avalon. Rhett Davies, Roxy Music.
  5. Schillhorn, Anita. (2006). “The Floating World: Representations of Japan in Lost in Translation and demon lover.” In Asian Cinema, Spring/Summer. 190-193.
  6. Wang, N. (1999). “Rethinking authenticity in tourism experience”. In Annals of Tourism Research, 26(2), 349–370.
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Lost in Translation’ Critical Essay. (2023, August 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/lost-in-translation-critical-essay/
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