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Against the background of an Australian desert, Sandy, a geologist, and Hiromitsu, a Japanese businessman, play out a story of human inconsequence in the face of the blistering universe. The end of the journey leaves no one capable of going back to where they started from. Written by
It's true, it is Toni Collette's best role - a convincing lead performance. Director Brooks and writer Tilson delivered a perceptive Australian-Japanese story.
I don't know what to expect when I went to see "Japanese Story" - I didn't read any review other than hearing Toni Collette did a terrific job and the trailer is interesting. I sensed that the element of 'death' could be part of the theme/plot as I noted at a beginning scene where Sandy (Collette's character) was sitting down reading papers in her Mum's kitchen and her Mum casually remarked that death is part of life. A brief notion and director Sue Brooks continues on letting us follow Sandy around: at her office, we see her modern geological double-monitor workstation; we hear her frustrated exchange with male business partner on 'dumping' her the task of handling business client arriving from Japan. We follow her home still vexed at the agonizing thought of accompanying a Japanese client - meanwhile we're shown how matter of fact she goes about getting her chow down, with new age gadgets like a self-rotating can opener. The screen cuts to a small airfield. We see an Oriental man (Gotaro Tsunashima) in suits steps off a plane. The air about him is detached. The contrast is felt when Collette arrives in a hurry, disheveled appearance and in casual slacks. So the journey of this odd pair begins. A fascinating one at that.
It may not be apparent immediately that you'd be experiencing an emotional ride. But I found the pace just right - right there in the outback environment with the two of them, day, night, very hot, shivering cold, sweating, digging. There's a certain atmosphere to the film - can't quite label it but definitely Australian geographical-oriented - land, nature and people. Thrown into the mix is the Japanese culture for added spice, thoughtfully put together. Hence the joy, jumping for joy, laughter, joking, gentleness, intimacy, we'd understand. The turn of events edifies how unexpected life can be - the yin and yang, the ecstasy and sadness, just at the change of a moment, a motion stunned, numb. The mystery of life and death is utterly incomprehensible by man. The focus is not on grief or state of shock, nor simply on cultural differences, the aim seems further: it almost culminates in the words about the joy given to him, the chance to appreciate the vastness of the space (desert), and being able to open his heart.
The two Japanese roles were well cast: Gotaro Tsunashima as Hiro performed pitch perfect. The role of the wife by Yumiko Tanaka, though brief, is important to complement Collette's role. Both gave just the right dose and tempo to the characters.
The Australian landscape is simple yet breathtaking. Cinematographer Ian Baker and film editor Jill Bicock are both from Australia and had worked together on "IQ" 1994 and "A Cry in the Dark" 1988. Music by Elizabeth Drake and casting by Dina Mann both are former collaborators with the team of Brooks, Tilson and producer Sue Maslin in 1997 ("Road to Nhill").
The film reminds me of w-d Friðriksson's "Cold Fever" (1995) and w-d Clara Law's "The Goddess of 1967" (2000). The former is a road movie of a young Japanese businessman traveling to Iceland to observe tradition and honor his dead parents; the latter is an Australian made film with outback landscapes and an intriguing non-conforming story.
Kudos to Alison Tilson who has written an insightful script, and Sue Brooks who has confidently directed this film made in "forty days and forty nights in the desert." Production by Gecko Films, Australia, and distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Films, U.S., "Japanese Story" is a thought-provoking film to experience.
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