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Lost in Translation

In essence, it might really be a film about the media of life, about all the images and symbols of postmodern life that perpetually attack from all sides....

Lost in Translation

John Fraim


For those who have seen the film Lost in Translation, yes it is about what many say its about: two lonely people finding love for each other while visiting the great global city of Tokyo. All of the major reviews of the movie (and I have read most of them) mention the film’s tender love story that, unlike most Hollywood love stories, doesn’t end in bed. Many of the reviews note how Bill Murray has found the role of his career and how director Sophia Coppola has definitely arrived on the scene. Creator and director of the film Sophia Coppola observes in an interview on the film’s website “It’s about moments in life that are great but don’t last. They don’t go on, but you always have the memory and they have an effect on you.”

But for many people, there seems something else in this film other than a love story or an exploration of the short serendipitous moments in life. There seems some mystery lurking behind the glittering city, something enigmatic, like the Japanese people and culture. The attempt at understanding these subliminal messages of Lost in Translation (which Sophia Coppola might not really understand herself) has created a type of cottage industry and continuing conversation. For those interested, they might check out the film’s website at www.lost-in-translation.com or surf to the fan site of the film www.areyouawake.org.



In all of the reviews, discussions and interviews about Lost in Translation, one aspect that few have commented on is the “media ecology” that serves as a background setting for the film. This really might be the real subtle message of the film more than the love story between two people. In essence, it might really be a film about the media of life, about all the images and symbols of postmodern life that perpetually attack from all sides like frenzied hornets. In effect, it is about the modern assault of multi-media on the senses and sensibilities.  

While Tokyo might offer the great symbol city for the juxtaposition of images and symbols, these symbols and images are really that ubiquitous “wallpaper” medium of postmodern life. And, there is really no escaping attacks of non-linear images and symbols. One minute we are “safely” gathered together with the family watching that annual national ritual of sports called the Superbowl. The next minute, the teams have left the field and a bunch of rebel kids have “crashed” the “party” and taken over the center of the football field like a bunch of bulls in a china shop, and now, this young white guy is ripping the blouse off a black woman. Soon, this is over and there is an ad for erectile dysfunction and beer and then the two football teams return to the field and the games goes on.  

Our computer email boxes are constantly intermixed with messages from the wife reminding us to pick the kids up from school or from the boss sending some attached file to review. Intermixed with these messages are the urgent email pleadings to “enlarge this” or “prolong that” or “take a peek” at this.

In Tokyo these non-linear postmodern messages clash together like cars in a destruction derby. There is a huge neon sign in the Tokyo version of Times Square where giant video images of African animals parade across the screen. There is the butchering of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” in a cocktail lounge overlooking the vast glittering city of Tokyo. There is a group of woman doing aerobic exercises in the hotel pool while others are engaged in arranging plants and flowers. There is the golf scene where Bill Murray’s character hits a golf ball on a golf course. This scene simply comes and goes without any explanation.

Yet Tokyo is no more than an extreme example of all the crazy nonsensical juxtapositions that modern life brings whether watching the Superbowl, surfing along 500 channels of cable TV or going through email messages on our computer.

Importantly, Bill Murray and Charlotte are victims of this environment just like the rest of us. One might expect the young Charlotte to not have much control. After all, she is just out of college where she majored in that questioning discipline called philosophy. But Bill Murray’s character, though, is about three decades older and one would think, has more control of his life.

This is not the case, though. Once a famous movie star in Hollywood, Murray’s character is now little more than a spectator to the phantasmagoria of images and words he doesn’t understand, that continue to get “lost in translation.” He is the “everyman” of modern life, the global citizen who is an actor but really more of Guy Debord’s spectator from his The Society of the Spectacle.

On a different media level, the film is also about the role of symbols in a global context and how images and symbols get lost in translation. For example, think how the Janet Jackson episode at the Superbowl might lose a little in translation when pulled off satellite TV in little towns in the deserts of the Middle East. Or consider that many millions around the world are still watching reruns of The Brady Bunch, Leave It To Beaver or Mr. Ed and thinking what a strange place modern America is.

            The same is true of the character of Bill Murray, the washed up leading man from Hollywood who is still big in Tokyo. Like a lot of other Hollywood symbols, the rest of the world often gets access to them only in reruns. Most likely, this has been the case with Murray’s character in the film. While the American audience has gone to young upstarts like Brad Pitt and Sean Penns, the Japanese are still enamored with the adventure actor of old reruns.

Perhaps one of the real secrets behind the popularity of Lost in Translation is that it means something a little different for each viewer. Importantly, director Sophia Coppola doesn’t try to blungeon the audience over the head with a philosophy or story. Like her leading man Bill Murray, the director and the camera seem equally perplexed by the onslaught of images and symbols that pass in front of it.

In much the same way as Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic 1966 film Blow Up, the style and technique of Lost in Translation is one that doesn’t explain as much as offer up images to be explained by the audience. In effect, the audience becomes participants in creating the film.

While many people today feel little more than spectators observing the Superbowl of images and symbols that constantly blur by them, here is one brief moment in time when the spectator audience gets a chance to participate and interact with a series of images and symbols collectively known as Lost in Translation. Sophia Coppola says her film is really about rare moments in life that are great but don’t last. She has created one of these rare moments with her film.


Copyright John Fraim 2003.


About the Author


John Fraim is President of The GreatHouse Company a marketing consulting firm and book publisher. He is the author of Battle of Symbols: Global Dynamics of Advertising, Entertainment and Media (Daimon Verlag, 2003). His book Spirit Catcher won the 1997 Small Press Award for Best Biography.

He is also a leading authority on symbolism and the creator of www.symbolism.org, the Internet’s most popular site for symbolism.

His articles and reviews have appeared in a number of leading publications and online journals including Business 2.0, The Industry Standard, Ad Busters, The Journal of Marketing, First Monday, Spark OnLine, Media & Culture Journal, The Journal of Pyschohistory, Anthropology News and Psychological Perspectives.

He has a BA in History from UCLA and a JD from Loyola Law School (Los Angeles). Contact John Fraim at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for additional information or to be placed on The GreatHouse Company mailing list.