Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

Symbols in the City

Postmodern multimedia attacks Tokyo—and our senses and sensibilities.

::: John Fraim

For those who have seen the film Lost in Translation—yes, it is about what many say it’s 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 the film’s creator and director, Sofia Coppola, has definitely arrived on the scene. Coppola observes in an interview on the film’s website that Lost in Translation is “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, Lost in Translation holds something beyond a love story or an exploration of the short serendipitous moments in life. Some mystery seems to be lurking beneath the glittering city, something enigmatic, like the Japanese people and their culture. The attempt at understanding these seeming subliminal messages (which Sofia Coppola might not really understand herself) has created a type of cottage industry and continuing conversation. Those interested might check out the film’s website or surf to this fan site.

But 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 backdrop for the film. It is this backdrop, more than the love story between two people, that may be the true subtle message of the film. In essence, Lost in Translation 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, this is a movie about the modern assault of multimedia on the senses and sensibilities.

The symbol that ate Tokyo

The film is set in the city of Tokyo because of its pervasive and symbolic juxtaposition of images and symbols. Its nonlinear postmodern messages clash together like cars in a destruction derby. A huge neon sign above Tokyo’s version of Times Square shows giant video images of African animals parading across its screen. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” is butchered in a cocktail lounge overlooking the glittering city. A group of woman do aerobics in the hotel pool while others arrange plants and flowers. Bob Harris (Murray) hits a golf ball on a golf course in a scene that simply comes and goes with no explanation.

Yet Tokyo is no more than an accelerated example of all the crazy nonsensical juxtapositions of postmodern life. Whether watching the Superbowl, surfing five hundred cable channels, or going through our e-mail, these symbols and images are a ubiquitous “wallpaper” medium. And there is no escape.

One minute we are “safely” gathered with the family watching that annual national ritual of sports called the Superbowl. The next minute, the teams have left the field. A bunch of rebel kids crash the party like bulls in a china shop and take over the fifty yard line, and now this young white guy is ripping the blouse off a black woman. Once this is over, we endure ads for erectile dysfunction and beer until the football teams return to the field and the game goes on.

Our e-mail boxes hold messages from the wife reminding us to pick up the kids from school and from the boss sending some file for review. Intermixed with these are the constant and urgent e-mail pleadings to “enlarge this” or “prolong that” or “take a peek” at the other.

Victims like us

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

This is not the case. Bob Harris, once a famous movie star in Hollywood, is now little more than a spectator to the phantasmagoria of images and words he doesn’t understand, and which 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 Society of the Spectacle.

Globalist symbols

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, and Mr. Ed and thinking what a strange place modern America is.

The same is true of Bob Harris, the washed up leading man from Hollywood who is still big in Tokyo. Like many other Hollywood symbols, the rest of the world often gets access to them only in reruns. This has most likely been the case with Murray’s character in the film: while the American audience has moved on to younger upstarts like Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, the Japanese are still enamored with the adventure actor of old reruns.

Michael Eisner, please call your office

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, Sofia Coppola doesn’t try to bludgeon the audience over the head with the story or some philosophy. Like her leading man Bill Murray, the director and camera seem equally perplexed by the onslaught of images and symbols that pass in front of them.

In much the same way as Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow-up, the style and technique of Lost in Translation is one that doesn’t so much explain as offer up images to be explained by the audience. In effect, the members of the audience become 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. Sofia Coppola says her film is about the rare moments in life that are great but don’t last. She has created one of these moments with her film.

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). Spirit Catcher, his book on John Coltrane, won the 1997 Small Press Award for best biography.

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

His articles and reviews have appeared in a number of 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 him for additional information or to be placed on The GreatHouse Company mailing list.

Posted by: editor on Feb 24, 2004 | 12:00 am

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