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Lost in Translation at 20: why the film resonates now more than ever

Sofia Coppola’s 2003 polemic against individualism is striking a chord with Gen Z, the loneliest living generation

When Sofia Coppola debuted her second feature-length film, Lost in Translation, at the Telluride Film Festival in August 2003, the film received widespread critical acclaim. Based on Coppola’s own experiences in Tokyo in her twenties (which were largely spent promoting her first feature film The Virgin Suicides), Lost in Translation follows two people who meet in the city: Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a ‘has-been’ American movie star who is in Tokyo shooting an ad for a Japanese whisky brand, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), an American woman who has recently graduated from college. Both connect over their shared ‘romantic melancholy’ and their feelings of disconnectedness with the culture around them. In a country built upon collective identity and togetherness, the viewer watches as both protagonists slowly forge their own identities, shedding themselves of their Western egoism, and self-actualising through their intimate relationships. 

What distinguishes Coppola’s Lost in Translation from other chronicles of desolation is its timelessness. Twenty years after its UK release on October 28 2003, the film lives on through grainy TikTok edits and fan-made Etsy posters, the majority of which feature Johansson’s iconic pink wig and her famous line “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be.” In the comments section of one particular TikTok post, legions of Gen Z girls have commented  “I am her”.

This may be surprising to some, as Charlotte herself does not exactly give off the most ‘relatable’ vibes: she’s a Yale grad, doesn’t appear worried about money, and is staying at a luxury hotel in Japan. This isn’t something that has escaped Coppola’s notice. “I was so surprised so many people connected to it [...] I thought: ‘Who cares about a privileged young woman who doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life?’”, she said in a recent Guardian article. “But the ultimate thing it was about, to me, was a connection. And I think we’re all looking for this. It was about unexpected moments of connection.” 

Charlotte is not immune from the painful experience of feeling isolated – if anything, the film appears to drive home the message that wealth (and the pursuit of wealth) begets loneliness, and that the antidote to this is community and connection. It is this message, that loneliness is a byproduct of our capitalistic society, which appears to strike a chord with Gen Z: according to Psychology Today, 73 per cent of Gen Z report feeling alone “sometimes or always”.

This experience of feeling disconnected from the world has only worsened in the last twenty years, largely thanks to the rise of individualism. As Johny Pitts writes in the Guardian, had the film’s events happened in 2023, “Charlotte would be on that bed scrolling her socials [...] no way would she have hung out with Bob.” Technological advances, rampant consumerism and neo-liberal economic policies such as austerity are culprits for this increased focus on the individual. As state assistance has decreased, particularly in Tory Britain, competitive self-interest has prevailed and people feel more and more alienated from one another. In an article for the Guardian, George Monbiot stressed that the neoliberal ideology was also a catalyst for the epidemics of mental illness in the western hemisphere. He observed that “though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.”

There have been attempts at fixing this social dislocation. As shown previously, social media has provided grounds for connection, as people can find community online and temporarily alleviate feelings of loneliness. That being said, it also has the power to segregate people, with social comparison a leading cause of higher levels of loneliness. As we engage with thousands of posts on apps such as TikTok and Instagram, we, as Monbiot puts it, “quantify our social standing”, basing our worth on our social media presence and competing with others over who is having more ‘fun’.

Though Lost in Translation was released before the advent of social media, the premise still applies. Perhaps the biggest reason that Bob and Charlotte feel so segregated from the culture around them is because they are not used to seeing such a sense of community in ultra-capitalist America. When Charlotte visits the Heian-jingu shrine towards the end of the film, she is unable to take her eyes off the couple getting married, as if this type of connection is alien to her (this isn’t to say that loneliness does not exist in Asian countries, but that western individualism exacerbates the problem).

As neoliberal ideology becomes more and more entrenched in western society, it is difficult to imagine a world that exists outside the focus on the individual. As Mark Fisher famously explained in his book, Capitalist Realism, is There No Alternative?, “It has become easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. Lost in Translation serves largely to exemplify the consequences of this way of thinking. Bob and Charlotte arrive in Japan weighed down by their individual grievances and thus lacking personal connection. They are not just “lost in translation” in terms of language, but also ideology. It is only when they learn to immerse themselves in Japanese communality, ridding themselves of the capitalist cloud, that they truly forge their personal identities. 

While Coppola never directly alludes to the political underworkings of the film, it’s clear it can be understood as a polemic against individualism. Though social media has served greatly in uniting the masses, particularly those who lack personal connections in their everyday lives, it is important to keep an eye on its effects. With loneliness on the rise and communities eroding, as Coppola suggests, we must strive protect our commonality – even when capitalism tries so hard to take it from us.