Note: This review contains unfair thematic disclosures which would be prohibitive to a natural reading of the film's intrinsic qualities.
If a movie can be just a tiny little bit dizzying, it’s Lost in Translation, a film that asks not only whether the gauzy ethereal stuff of Virgin Suicides can be transferred to modern day, to big city, and to Bill Murray, and finds that it can indeed, but on its own only for one shot, the first one, and forever after that only as a contrast, as it takes up its place in the scuffle between gauzy and gaudy. This unevenness is the story of the film, which gets a lot of press as “richly layered” but whose layers resemble more a chocolate layer cake than terrestrial strata – there are layers, to be sure, but they’re not miles long and sprawling, but rather neatly constructed and carefully stacked, and you don’t so much chip and dig through one to get to the next, but observe them all at once, marveling at how distinct each one is and how well it fits exactly below another.
But why refer to metaphor with metaphor? Especially when the story on its own will play so well with audiences, a story of Americans lost in a Tokyo which is both the star of the film and irrelevant. The story’s about the Americans, not about Tokyo, and so it could easily be in any of a number of other places, but it’s something about Japan’s specific brand of culture shock that grounds the film specifically as what it is; if it were in Thailand, it would get more Golden Globe awards, Cambodia, more worldwide bannings, Vietnam, more Time magazine writeups, Laos, much less box office. There’s something about Japan’s friendliness, about the degree to which America has absorbed sushi and Dragonball Z, that makes us think we should get Japan, and so even though the movie’s about Bob and Charlotte, it wouldn’t be the same movie if they ambled among the starving children of India, not by a longshot.
If that much is clear, then it’s naïve to ignore the setting entirely in our focus on the love story therein, but the Tokyo character is so perplexing, even comic in its incomprehensibility, that if a starving-children-of-India film colors a love story with hopelessness, and a political-oppression-in-China film colors its love story with struggle, and a Merchant-Ivory film colors its love story with repression, convention and waistcoats, then the Tokyo of Lost in Translation reflects its neon graphics down onto the love story with the same staggering feeling of being out of place that the city itself imparts on the vacationing Americans in the street below.
Or even the window above, in Charlotte’s case, for her elevated viewing of the streets is the time at which we are most unable to conjure up her fear of her surroundings. In her window she is bolder, less dressed (which is to say less guarded), and it’s less clear that she’s worried about Tokyo and more clear that she’s worried about herself. The city from up here is pretty, holds less sway, and it’s only when she ventures out into the crowds that she starts getting lost from her real troubles and finding new ones – but she tends to welcome these, at least at the start of each challenge and in theory, and it’s important that we never see her at any of a thousand Tokyo McDonald’s locations.
But she does run into trouble, and does get lost, and does have difficulty feeling things where she is. Whether they’re real – whether she’d feel lost and sad if her personal non-going-away, in-America-or-not problems weren’t in the back of her mind – isn’t given away, and even if they’re not real at all, she allows them to become real, and then she runs into that trouble.
Bob Harris, meanwhile, has the same trouble, and even if his linguistic difficulties are a bit more practical, we’re clued in that the root of his worries aren’t his work frustrations but a deeper concern that would shut him down just as effectively at a supermarket in Los Angeles. So why Tokyo? If two troubled people find some refuge in each other, isn’t it as valid, even as expected an experience, if it’s in Las Vegas? Though if we want the love story to be a love story, devoid of the politics of China or the social politics of Vegas, why not move it to Wyoming, or Texas? Although then it might become a tale of something else colored by location, for any love story is influenced by its locale. If you want just the love story, and you like the translation angle, you have to move your love story to France or maybe Italy, and then audiences will assume you just wanted the most romantic place you could find.
Lost in Translation is not the most romantic movie you could find. Its meaning is on a lower layer than that, and it is lent the most accurate reflection in the Tokyo we thought we’d understand but have found out we do not, because it is here that we will find this most implausible, unconvincing love story. It’s not the age difference; the age difference serves well to blend the interim together, and the space between Bob and Charlotte, and their attraction in the face of that difference, only tells us that those years in the middle don’t mean anything, don’t change anything. It resonates, poignantly and even pleasantly, in shots designed to remind you that it stays the same: Bob and Charlotte outside the karaoke room, is to remind us that there will always be nerves; Bob, leaving Charlotte’s room, reminds us that there will always be confusion. Their love is better called mutual loneliness, between people who want something to do: Bob, an actor who wants to be On, but who needs an audience, and if finding an audience worth being On for basically means a young pretty female audience, so much the more realistic. Charlotte, who never wears much around her husband but can’t get his attention anyway - these are people who wouldn’t need to resort to each other without being so rebuffed by their surroundings, and so a trouble-free supermarket in L.A. would see their meeting passed by without a third glance.
So on to the sad heart: Lost in Translation is a metaphor for our grimmest fears: drawn together by chance (or by glance), with little in common but the broadest, most accessible references of human experience, as when Bob speaks of the birth of his child. Love, here only as a glimpse of yourself (in general, any recognized similarity; in this case, their shared whiteness) in a sea of confusing people around you whom you don’t understand and with whom communication is impossible. Tokyo intimidates, bullies and confuses, and as talk spreads of girls'-underwear vending machines, as Charlotte realizes on the subway that casual differences belie deeper, less cutely bridgeable schisms in philosophies and attitudes and that Japan is more threatening than Hello Kitty would seem to suggest, the thought arises that these people are in a tougher spot than Bob’s very funny trials reveal. If we think that culture shock is now too large an obstacle to be surmounted by conventional means, then Lost in Translation's filmic wistfulness suggests we try the big guns, and if we then decide that culture shock can be permeated only by sadness, especially shared, especially of the lonely variety, then we have won, or lost. Lost in Translation might be the truest, then, most pathetic love story of all, recalling Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, but where restraint is not of pride or decorum but only of futility, the most futile love story of Bob and Charlotte each separately, silently knowing that they are out of their league, grasping for anything that means something to them in a world where the best they can hope for is a good goodbye.