Japanese Story (2003)


(director: Sue Brooks; screenwriter: Alison Tilson; cinematographer: Ian Baker; editor: Jill Bilcock; music: Elizabeth Drake; cast: Toni Collette (Sandy Edwards), Gotaro Tsunashima (Tachibana Hiromitsu), Matthew Dyktynski (Bill Baird), Lynette Curran (Mother), Kate Atkinson (Jackie), John Howard (Richards), Bill Young (Jimmy Smithers), Yumiko Tanaka (Yukiko); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Sue Maslin; Palace Films / Samuel Goldwyn Films; 2003-Australia)

“I found the story as barren as the landscape.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A quiet, slow-paced interracial love story I had a disconnect with. Though moved by Toni Collette’s brilliant performance, I failed to be moved by this ill-fated relationship and the underwritten plot that was more baffling and trite than emotionally real.

Geologist Sandy Edwards (Toni Collette) who also runs a software design company in Perth with a business partner, Bill Baird (Matthew Dyktynski), lives at home with her widowed mom (Lynette Curran) and displays at times a bad attitude with her opinionated but well-meaning mom. Her bossy partner assigns her as a driver and chaperone to visiting Japanese executive Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), whom her company is interested in selling their innovative topographical geology software. At Hiro’s request they drive 5-hours north to Western Australia’s Outback to visit a mine in the Pilbara region, where some of the world’s largest deposits of iron ore are mined. At first the two don’t like each other and seem to be divided by cultural and class barriers, as Sandy finds him too reserved and dull and chauvinistic while Hiro finds her loud and aggressive and with a big rump. Hiro treats Sandy like a servant (as she doesn’t understand the business protocol expected and fails to bow and exchange business cards). When Hiro learns differently, he still shows little interest in the software and instead becomes mysteriously consumed by the vast open spaces and no people, which is opposite from Japan. Hiro who speaks little English, is also consumed with taking photos of himself in the barren land. Sandy finds him odd and this babysitting assignment a real chore and can’t wait to return to her usual routines, especially when he gets drunk at a Karaoke bar and she has to nurse him through it.

Things get desperate when Hiro insists Sandy drive to an isolated desert area and their rented 4WD land cruiser gets stuck in the sand. Unable to get a signal from his cell phone, they spend the night in the cold Pilbara desert and miraculously bond because of their survival experience to adapt to the fierce environment. The next day they get out of the rut and go to a motel where she corrects his English, telling him they were in a desert not a dessert. Without any more chemistry than that, she shows him her healthy Aussie bod and they make love. When Sandy learns that Hiro’s married and has children, she seems disappointed but accepts this one-night stand as part of the business deal.

But Sue Brooks’s (“Road To Nhill”) Japanese Story is not satisfied with a forbidden romantic tale, nor even with just bridging the understanding gap between two cultures who were bitter enemies during WW11 — as one Aussie in the film bluntly says, our former enemies now own our country. Instead, the filmmaker takes a far turn off the main road and brings in a tragic incident which adds undeserved gravitas to a film that seems to have gotten lost itself in the Outback. The conclusion deals with this new melodramatic development and the story moves from Sandy being all distant and bitchy to now all thawed out and digging her Japanese experience as if she struck gold. I suppose the filmmaker tries to show that sadness is common to both cultures and both can best understand each other through their common pain and fears and that inner change comes about when one’s arrogance dissipates. The result is their desert experience has changed their rigid personalities, and either made them a better person or helped them find what was missing in their life. For me that was much too artsy-fartsy a way of looking at things, especially since I found the story as barren as the landscape.

The snail’s pace of the film makes it a torturous watch, though it’s filled with striking scenery of the red sand, imposing rock formations, vast blue skies and a barren desert which act to lull away the time as I played tourist while trapped in a languid storyline.


REVIEWED ON 12/26/2003 GRADE: C +