Japanese Story (Australia, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

At first glance, Sue Brooks' Japanese Story appears to be an infusion of genre stories: man versus nature, a road trip, and a mismatched romance. However, while there are elements of each ingredient in the movie, Brooks and screenwriter Alison Tilson want the finished product to be a deeper and richer mixture than one might anticipate from considering its parts. In fact, this is not an outback adventure story, but a character piece. Japanese Story looks at isolation and the fragility of human relationships. It's a poignant, unsettling motion picture that will baffle those who have become used to Hollywood's compact, tidy endings.

The film is clearly divided into three acts. The first, which is mostly setup, introduces the protagonists. Sandy Edwards (Toni Collette) is a geologist who has been drafted by her partner to escort Japanese businessman Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) around the Western Australian desert. Tachibana's father is an investor in Sandy's company, so she can't refuse the request, but she approaches the job with a surly disposition that disconcerts her passenger, who is used to docile women. Act two takes the pair into the desert, where they become stranded when Sandy's rental car gets bogged down in the fine red sand. She unhelpfully informs Tachibana that "people die out here," and her words seem prophetic when dehydration and a lack of food become issues. The desolation is complete - there are no signs of other humans - and the vast range of temperatures (frigid at night; insufferably hot during the day) proves challenging. The third act explores the aftermath of Sandy and Tachibana's desert (mis)adventures and how both are forever changed by what occurred out there.

One event in particular stands out. (If you see the film, you will know which one.) The sequence plays much as it would in real life, unvarnished by cinematic conventions. However, most of those watching will have been weaned on movies, and this sort of thing doesn't usually transpire in this way on the big screen. Brooks' approach is uncompromising, almost brutal. Yet the film could not have the same impact had the filmmakers not been so blunt. Japanese Story's themes do not crystallize until afterwards, when ideas and implications only hinted at early in the proceedings gain form.

The relationship between Sandy and Tachibana is not easy to define. It does not fall into the tradition of a Hollywood romance. There's clearly something between these two, although it's more in the nature of sexual chemistry than love. Alone in unending emptiness of the desert, each finds something captivating in the other. Their communication is largely wordless; he understands some English, but is not fluent, yet they have no difficulty understanding each other once they overcome the initial hurdle of mutual antagonism. However, as in Swept Away, it's clear that whatever connection they form will not survive a return to civilization.

Without taking anything away from Gotaro Tsunashima, who is solid, there are times when he exists in Toni Collette's shadow. Her work is riveting, especially during the final half-hour. After supporting roles in major motion pictures like The Sixth Sense and About a Boy, she has returned to her Australian roots for this outing, which features arguably the most compelling performance of her career. It's a difficult role because it requires Collette to peel back so many layers, and hit a wide range of notes. The character begins the film cold and distant, but, by the end, we have connected with her inner struggle.

One could argue that the third act slows things down too much. However, considering what the filmmakers are attempting, this is inevitable. The tone is of necessity at variance with that of everything that comes before it. During the final 30 minutes, it's the details that matter. They represent the path that leads to genuine acceptance and understanding of what Sandy is experiencing. The journey of Japanese Story is not complete until the final slow, agonizing steps have been taken.

Japanese Story (Australia, 2003)

Director: Sue Brooks
Cast: Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsunashima
Screenplay: Alison Tilson
Cinematography: Ian Baker
Music: Elizabeth Drake
U.S. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Company
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2004-01-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1