Starring Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsunashima, Matthew Dyktynski, Lynette Curran, Yumiko Tanaka, John Howard, Kate Atkinson.
The red-and-white colours of the Japanese national flag could not look more different when seen from the air in an Australian desert landscape of iron ore and salt dunes. This is how Japanese Story opens, the credits blowing away like sand in the wind. It’s a story of two dissimilar cultures, clashing and eventually finding common ground despite strangeness in the persons of an outspoken Australian female geologist and a Japanese man, who meet and briefly travel together in the Pilbara Desert region of Australia’s North West.
Sandy Edwards (Toni Colette) is reluctantly persuaded to take visiting Japanese businessman Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) on a tour of some iron ore mines. With her business partner Baird (Matthew Dyktynski) she has developed some topographical geology software in which Hiromitsu, or his company, has apparently shown some interest. When she meets him, however, he ignores the software completely. It seems his interest lies, mysteriously, somewhere else. Gradually through the film this is revealed and it is a journey of self-revelation and growing intimacy for the two main characters as well as an appreciation for the stunning desert landscapes.
Sandy knows nothing about Japanese culture, and coming to pick him up at the airport she is ignorant of correct protocol and polite behaviour when greeting a Japanese businessman. As a result he concludes she is his driver, rigidly ignores her cheerfully casual outstretched hand, and expects her to pick up his suitcase as he climbs into the back seat of the land cruiser.
Hoping for an opportunity to demonstrate her software she takes him on the tour he has requested, where the boys’ club of mine managers and engineers all speak enough Japanese to be courteous and have the appropriate protracted bowing and business card exchanges down pat. As a woman, even a geologist, Sandy is marginalised. Hiromitsu and the men speak the same language, at the mine or later in the Karaoke bar they all go to, but she’s the one who ends up pouring him drunk and unconscious into the land cruiser and the next day driving him to the next mine. On his mobile phone to a colleague back in Japan he describes her, sitting next to him in the driving seat, as loud and aggressive and having a ‘big backside’. She in turn finds him rude and unco-operative.
Hiromitsu seems a man driven by private demons and his purpose only becomes clear at the end of the film. Their journey shows him many things that awe him, and through that awe comes to realise that his arrogance is dangerous in this treacherous country. Here sheer space is oppressive to him. "In Australia," he says, "you have a lot of space and no people. In Japan we have a lot of people and no space...(Here,) there is nothing. It scares me."
When he insists they drive into the desert. they become bogged in the soft red desert sand, stranded miles from anywhere. The realisation comes to him that not all is as it seems in the desert and that the apparency of a featureless landscape hides hazards for which his culture has not prepared him. In coping with this, he begins to adapt and open up. Their relationship ebbs and flows through fear of exposure and warmth while Sandy is finding him less strange and more fascinating.
A devastating and unexpected event changes everything and the film’s second half plunges into a completely different mood, the shock reverberating with disbelief into the audience for some time until the resolution in the final frame.
Toni Colette and Gotaro Tsunashima sustain the film and for the most part they are alone together. Colette’s ability to expose herself totally to the camera is never more evident than in the shocking pivotal scene where Sandy must deal with a situation she has avoided acknowledging for most of her life. Tsunashima provides a wonderful contrast to the Australian and the scenes where they warily tread the treacherous shifting sands of togetherness and separateness are powerful. Male vs female, east vs west, domination and submission, fear and appreciation. The distance and space between them and around them expands and contracts as an ongoing theme of the film. There are timeless moments between them where happiness is complete.
Other performances are equally fine, especially Lynette Curran as Sandy’s mother and Matthew Dyktynski as her business partner; John Howard as a bluff mining engineer and Yukiko Tanaka as Hiromitsu’s wife. Director Sue Brooks has conveyed a story of deep and far-reaching inner change with great subtlety. Director of Photography Ian Baker showcases with lasting impact the shifting moods and sheer presence of the desert.
At the end it is evident each of the two main characters has changed utterly. Hiromitsu has what he came for and let go of what he needed to in the vast emptiness of the desert and the endless blue of the sky.
© Avril Carruthers 5th October 2003
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