Lost in Translation isn't about Japan. Yes, it's set there, and the film spends a lot of time lingering over the most bizarre aspects of Japanese culture: the crazy video games, the insane TV shows, the convoluted politeness protocol, the rape fetishism and so forth. But Japan is just a means to an end. Lost in Translation is about its final set-piece, and that set-piece requires a lot of groundwork. Japan's part of the groundwork.

Here's the set-piece: there's this guy. He's really clicked with this girl — in another world, they might have been soulmates. But they're 34 years apart, they're both married, and they only get this one week together and then it's back to wherever their separate lives take them. Now he has to say good-bye. But it's just so awkward... it's hard to know what to say, what to do, and when... and we out in the audience want that perfect good-bye. We need it, or it'll be too painful a disappointment to think about. So will we get it? And if we do, what will it be like?

That's about a ten-minute movie. But it doesn't work on its own. You can't just say that these people have clicked. To go off on what I hope will be an illustrative tangent — this is part of why comic book creators tend to be drawn to the Marvel and DC characters that have been around for decades rather than just writing their own stuff. I've been reading a bunch of old Fantastic Four issues lately, and there's a perfect example therein. When I was in high school, FF was running a storyline about the return of Crystal, who'd dated Johnny Storm back when Stan Lee was writing the title in the 60s. In the 70s and early 80s they'd split up, married different people, grown up... and now they were back around each other, and though they were very different people than they'd been as teenagers, a lot of the old feelings were still there... unconsciously Johnny would put an arm around Crystal's shoulders, maybe just as a subtle detail in a big panel... Now, you could run this storyline in your own comic. Issue #1, you set up that two members of the cast had dated in the past, are back around each other after years apart, and go from there. But it's just so much deeper when you can open up the back issues from years earlier and actually see them as a couple, actually feel the years passing between their breakup and Crystal's return. You have to have some sort of backstory, unless you start every narrative with the Big Bang, but it's much more satisfying when your history is real rather than retroactive.

So if the good-bye in Lost in Translation is really going to work, we can't just take the relationship between Bob and Charlotte (for those are their names) as read. We have to see it unfold. And so we have to believe that they click, that they really are a pair of kindred spirits. To be a pair, they need to have a lot in common — but they also need not to have much in common with those around them, because otherwise there's nothing setting them apart as a pair.

When you're an outsider, you tend to feel like you're the only one who doesn't belong — that's what makes you an outsider, after all, rather than just a member of some sort of alternative clique. When everyone around you accepts as natural and normal things that make you think "what the fuck?", it's quite a thing to find someone else with a "what the fuck?" face on. Lost in Translation makes it clear that it's not just Japan that makes Bob and Charlotte feel this way. This is the role of the dippy actress and the hip-hop dude in the hotel bar: they serve notice that while the film will be using Japan to convey the protagonists' alienation, they'd be having much the same experience in, say, Los Angeles. Key moment: the hip-hop dude locks in on Charlotte and tries to impress her with a disquisition on the "hella large beatz" he's been working on. "You know what I'm sayin'?" he asks, rhetorically, only to be floored when Charlotte replies with an emphatic "no."

But those who don't have to smile and nod their way through conversations like this every day, who don't feel like they're living on an alien planet, would likely have trouble relating to a pair of characters who do. This is where Japan comes in. Japan's a metaphor. It's about as foreign to most Americans as you can get while remaining at America's level of technological and economic development (which is why sending everyone to Yemen wouldn't have worked — adding First World/Third World issues into the mix would have muddied the metaphor). So people who actually do feel at home in their countries can get a sense of what it must be like to find yourself in a culture whose beliefs and practices make you shake your head in bemusement.

In the country where I live, for instance, one of the big stories of the year occurred when millions of people gathered around their televisions to watch a bunch of millionaires put on padded suits and run into each other, and during a break in the action, a woman's nipple was briefly exposed. This caused an outcry, not because said nipple was grotesquely mangled by a sharp metal rod jammed through it, but because it was broadcast on television on a program children might have been watching, and the sight of a nipple is believed by many here to somehow damage children.

In the country where I live, the controversy of the moment is whether the state should recognize when two people of the same sex publicly declare that they're going to stay together until one of them dies, and reward them with the same sort of tax breaks and visitation rights and stuff that two people of different sexes get if they publicly declare that they're going to stay together until one of them dies. Those who oppose this notion often argue that if this is permitted, then in the future people might want to declare love for more than one person, which would be sick and twisted and horrible. Their opponents counter that there's no reason to believe that this would lead to people in the future declaring love for more than one person, which would be sick and twisted and horrible.

In the country where I live, the current top movie at the box office, made by a sodomy-obsessed Holocaust denier, is a sadistic snuff film about the torture and execution of a charismatic schizophrenic whom the vast majority of people in the audience believe to have been an omnipotent deity who created the universe.

And I'm supposed to think Japan is weird?

Anyway, Lost in Translation is pretty successful overall — there some funny lines, and the good-bye sequence that comprises the last few minutes of the film is really touching. Bad Santa also has some good lines in it, but not enough to spare it a marginal thumbs-down... there's just nothing to it. If you're going to have a bunch of one-note performances and some really repulsive characters (thinking more about the kid than the title character here) then you'd better be chock full of huge laughs rather than a scattering of chuckles. Bad Santa isn't.

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