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This is, apparently, a love it or hate it movie. As is the case with such films those on one side have a hard time understanding the view of the opposite. I am fully in that camp, I thought this film was stark and beautiful--as moving in its silence and mundane moments as it was illuminating. For those who say there is no plot, well I clearly saw a different film, there is more story and intention in simple small details as there are in a whole series of other films. Toni Collette was amazing and Gotaro Tsunashima was perfect, capturing the emotional compression and exploration of his character with clarity and skill. In a film full of striking absolutely believable and full moments -- the furtive exploratory glances as the two leads drive through the desert, and Toni's fascination with Gotaro's nearly hairless arms say so much about the characters', their history, their assumptions, their prejudices. Incredibly moving, shattering emotionally, and ultimately deeply profound. A haiku-like meditation on living and sharing--I loved it.
It would be impossible to say anything substantially meaningful about "Japanese Story" without spoiling the film for those who have not seen it. Suffice it to say, it's set in Australia and works with a an Aussie woman (Colette) and a Japanese man (Hiromitsu) to build slowly to an emotionally potent situation - a series of moments - and then lingers in the denouement allowing the audience to savor the emotions evoked. For some, those feelings may be nil. For others they may be powerful and overwhelming. Personally, I wept. Objectively, the film, about a woman by women, is well crafted and Colette's performance is outstanding. The film deserves high marks in all aspects from cinematography to music to casting, etc. However, when the closing credits roll, your experience will have been as unique as yourself. And whatever that experience is, it will be less if you know the outcome in advance. (B+)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Japanese Story" is one of the saddest films in recent memory. This
film came and went, practically unnoticed, despite favorable reviews in
the local media. When we tried to see it, it had already disappeared
from the screens in the city. We recently caught up with it thanks to a
month long tribute to Toni Collette by one of the cable channels. It
was worth the wait, although, this film, directed by Sue Brooks with a
screen play by Alison Tilson, is not for everyone.
For all practical purposes "Japanese Story" could have been set on the moon. The Pilbara desert in Australia has been captured by the glorious cinematography of Ian Baker to create a surreal atmosphere in the development of the story. Also, the oriental themed background music by Elizabeth Drake gives the film a Japanese flavor that is never distracting; the music score sets the tone for the story.
This is a story of contrasts of cultures. Sandy Edwards, the geologist that is sent to accompany the visiting Japanese son of a wealthy Japanese industrialist, is reluctant to serve as tour guide. The areas this visiting man wants to see are remote and isolated; it might have been in the moon, for all it matters, as we don't see a soul anywhere. Basically, the story offers different viewpoints on the visiting Tachibana Hiromitsu. The Japanese are seen as the people that have come to own a great deal of Australia. Some others will never forget the WWII days, when Japan was the enemy. For his part, Tochibana is in awe of a land that is so vast and so underpopulated, in sharp contrast with the density of his home land.
This mismatched couple begins a journey that will bring them closer together, overcoming the initial dislikes. In the process, they both will discover things about the other person in a way that will make them come to like one another in more ways than expected.
An ironic twist, about two thirds into the movie, comes unexpectedly. It jolts us from the idyllic friendship and romance we see Tachibana and Sue develop into a state of complete disbelief. How could this have happened? It's a way for life interfering in a doomed relationship that wasn't meant to be.
The acting is superb. The charismatic Toni Collette does one of her best work in this movie. Ms. Collette is totally credible as this geologist that, after experiencing bliss, must face a reality she didn't bargain for. Gotaro Tsunashima, is perfect in his role. Mr. Tsunashima is at times puzzling, as well as likable, in his take of Tachibana, the man who loses his heart to the magnificent landscape and to Sue for liberating him from a rigid life dictated by honor and responsibilities.
While "Japanese Story" is not for everyone, it's worth a look because of the two stars and the magnificence of the Australian landscape.
The best thing about `Japanese Story,' an Australian film directed by Sue
Brooks and set almost entirely in the Outback, is its unpredictability.
Just as you begin to think that the story, written by Alison Tilson, is
headed in one particular direction, it does an amazing about-face and leads
us down an entirely different, utterly unexpected narrative path.
The movie starts off as a fairly standard romantic comedy, involving two strangers who don't like each other very much yet who are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time together. Sandy is a geologist whose company, against her will and better judgment, has asked her to escort an important Japanese businessman through the wilds of the Australian desert on a sightseeing tour. The film even begins to seem a bit like a landlocked `Swept Away' for awhile, as these two headstrong people he a Japanese traditionalist with male chauvinistic tendencies and she a no-nonsense, freethinking, independent woman (but both filled with doubts and insecurities beneath the surface) find themselves stranded in a hostile and remote environment, fighting for survival. But then the first of the film's numerous plot reversals kicks in and we find ourselves in an entirely different situation altogether.
I certainly don't want to spoil anyone's experience of this film by revealing just what those plot twists are, so I will merely state that the film, in the second half, becomes a fairly profound meditation on the precarious nature of life and the almost lightning-paced speed with which tragedy can intervene to bring our worlds crashing down around us. Toni Collette is heartbreaking as the feisty yet warmhearted Sandy and Gotaro Tsunashima is both tender and stoic as the man from an exotic culture with whom she eventually falls in love.
That, of course, is the predictable part. But if you think you know where this story is going, you will be pleasantly surprised at how wrong you will be.
This is as much an Australian story as a Japanese one. We are not about to
turn Japanese, but our close economic relationship over the last 50 years
has to some extent transcended the cultural gap that divides us, and the
bitterness of World War 2. On one level, this is a very personal story of
two people from different cultures who become closer than they might have
imagined. On another level it examines two very different cultures tied
together by economic necessity. These themes are played out in a truly awe-
inspiring ancient landscape, which, as others have remarked, is a character
on its own.
I've not been to the Pilbara, but I've been to places like it elsewhere in Australia, and they tend to have the effect of reminding you of the fragility of your existence. The Aborigines (represented here by only a gas station attendant) regarded themselves as belonging to the land and here you can see why. It's not clear what Tachibana Hiromitsu, the rich businessman's son, is looking for in the desert, but he certainly feels its power. Just why Sandy the tough female geologist comes to harbour tender feelings towards him is not evident either; perhaps it's the mothering instinct at work- he's not an adaptable kind of guy and perhaps she senses his vulnerability.
Apart from the firm refusal to turn this film into a romantic comedy, despite some `When Harry Met Sally' moments, there are several other things going for it. First there is Toni Collette's entirely convincing performance which overcomes some weaknesses in the storyline (and improbabilities in her character). She has a lot of ground to cover, from boredom to hilarity, from dislike to intimacy, and from terror to melancholy.
Second, the cinematography fully exploits the scenery without detracting from the story. Much of `Japanese Story' was filmed around Port Headland in the Pilbara, but it's not a tourist brochure. Third, even the minor parts are played with precision (eg John Howard as the BHP man and Yukimo Tanaka as Tachibana's wife). It's difficult to judge just how effective Gotaro Tsunashima is you'd need to be Japanese, I guess, and anyway the script is from an Australian, Alison Tilson. To my eyes he seems real enough, if we accept he's from a very privileged and sheltered background. It's interesting that Sandy seems to be the initiator of their intimacy (he doesn't resist!).
I think this film would hold up well anywhere. It has more than the usual emotional content for an Australian film, an intriguing and poignant story, good acting, and it's not too long. The admission price is also considerably cheaper than an air ticket to Port Headland.
In an age when criticism has become debased and few people are really
certain about what constitutes true worth in art, it is difficult to
use the word "masterpiece" about any film. And yet that word is
applicable here. At first this film appears to be just a bog-standard
romantic love story, in the Hollywood mould, about two very different
characters who meet and fall in love in unusual circumstances.
Opposites attract, and so on.
However, as the story unfolds one becomes aware that there are many more levels to it than one would normally expect. Everything, from the title to incidental characters and the spectacular images of the desert, has been carefully thought out. It raises profound questions about a fashionable subject: identity, but also about love itself. Are these characters in love, or is it merely the terrifying starkness of the Australian outback that has thrown them together? Finally a third person enters the relationship, who complicates matters even further. Despite the romantic overtones of this film it is lifted, ultimately, by its absolute realism. Small gestures betoken whole story lines and glimpses of other characters throw the protagonists into sharp relief. Other influences begin to trickle through: Yasujiro Ozu, Peter Weir (in his early days), Japanese Haiku. And yet this is an entirely original work.
This film had a huge emotional impact on me, but it also made me think, about my own life and about the choices I've made. It did everything that a genuine work of art should do, and without any of the fanfare that we, in the West, have come to associate with art. Small wonder that it got little of the attention that in previous eras it would have attracted. Watch it, and discover that it is still possible to make a classic.
Tender, original and moving, Japanese Story boasts an exceptional
performance from Toni Collette. The star of Muriel's Wedding plays the
ambitious geologist Sandy Edwards, reluctantly accepting the assignment
to guide Japanese businessman Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima)
through the Australian outback: a vista of spartan natural beauty
captured through expert photography. Unlikely intimacy and human
emotion beckons in the expanse, as the feisty Antipodean and reserved
Easterner clash and then connect, while getting lost in the desert.
The polarised characters of Sandy and Hiromitsu are thrown together purely for placating the relations of business, reflective perhaps of the relationship between Australia and Japan for the last fifty years as their union exists rather out of an economic necessity. Sandy accepts the assignment in order to promote her software designs, determined to persist in striking up conversation with her reluctant Japanese counterpart. Hiromitsu exhibits all the characteristics of a patriarchal tradition; conversing only with men in the language of business whilst openly rejecting Sandy as merely his chaperon not worthy of any common courtesy of niceties.
The film takes us on a road-trip journey that forces the unlikely couple further into the expansive Australian terrain. Hiromitsu seems obsessed with the amount of space the land has to offer signifying his claustrophobic existence in both his marriage and corporate structure where he is subordinate to his father. His infatuation with Australia's limitless landscape fuels his demands for Sandy to drive deeper into the unknown. Sandy meanwhile openly displays her disdain and frustration towards Hiromitsu yet a series of unpredictable enactments allow attraction, desire and romance to ensue.
Just when their relationship is tenderly developing in adversity, the film takes a dramatic turn, forcing the audiences expectations of a conventional love story to be confounded. What we get instead is a radical turn of events that cause a delineated plot leaving the audience emotionally wrenched whilst unable to fathom the film's outcome. Alison Tilson's script directed by Sue Brooks gives the film a tenderness and realism to both character and plot which could so easily have been overplayed. The film in essence is as unpredictable as life, taking you on a journey where the final destination is never a straightforward route of resolutely love and happiness. Under Brook's direction, Collette and Tsunashima give a performance that is outstanding, captivating and highly charged with emotion. Collete's naturalistic and raw emotion is powerful enough to effect even the hardest of nerves whilst Tsunashima's character transgresses from a confined man to a freer being allowed to shake off his shackles of tradition and expectation.
The film's beautifully constructed cinematography of a picturesque yet barren landscape is reflective of Sandy and Hiromitsus' relationship that exudes so much promise and beauty within an environment of unpredictability, danger and frailty. Hiromitsu even remarks to Sandy that 'You have shown me so much beauty' which rings true through the landscape, her physicality and their human emotion. The film's success lies within its examination of binaries and confounding expectations within those structures. The cultural division between East and West are temporarily eroded in the relationship between Sandy and Hiromitsu whilst gender and sexuality are displayed in a unique cinematic way. The male body becomes the object of desire through the lingering camera work both on the beach and in the hotel bedroom encounter. Both female and male body are examined equally adding to the feeling that both Sandy and Hiromitsu are temporarily detached from the world abandoning all its preconceptions and social baggage.
It is remarkable to see another resounding success for Australian cinema and so refreshing that Collette isn't just prepared to settle at what Hollywood throws at her. Japanese Story is a powerful journey into the unknown and the unexpected, leaving both the protagonists and audience emotionally exposed to what life has in store for us.
Australia has given the cinema some wonderfully adept and strikingly
effective female actors in the past twenty years or so, Judy Davis starting
a parade that includes Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Toni Collett among
others. Collett has the ability to convincingly inhabit many different
roles, her part as the depressed, suicidal mom in "About a Boy" being one of
her most memorable.
"Japanese Story" is a quirky tale about Sandy Edwards, Collette, an Australian geologist in her, I would guess, mid-thirties. She's ordered to squire about the son of a Japanese industrialist whose investment in a major project is dearly desired by her bosses. The young man, handicapped by a very poor grasp of English and virtually none of Australian, is played by Gotaro Tsunashima. He might be well known in his native country but he was a new screen presence for me.
Sandy takes him on a tour of an achingly eerie, desolate, windswept part of Western Australia. Must of the movie was filmed in the Pilbara Desert, still aborigine country.
Sandy and her charge encounter adventurous situations while, no surprise, a romance springs up. Why Sandy would be attracted to the younger gentleman is never explained and it really shouldn't have been. "Japanese Story" asks the viewer to simply accept that liaisons arise without any deep preliminary exposition of character.
I won't reveal the plot, somewhat unexpected, but fate insures that this affair doesn't proceed swimmingly. What makes the movie is Collette's superb and affecting acting. I cared about her while knowing relatively little about her character's past life other than she hasn't completely resolved mom-daughter issues.
Nothing in this film could impel me to ever wish to go to the Pilbara Desert but it does excite my desire to see Collette take on many more challenging roles. She has a strong future-I hope.
8/10. See it if it plays near you, rent it later if not. You won't be sorry.
I think it's one of those memorable movies you'll think about for a
long time, but it also seemed to go on for a long time while you're
watching it. I think Americans aren't all that comfortable with the
very leisurely pace of a lot of foreign films, and that may have been
part of the problem -- but there's only so long you can watch someone
expressing an emotion before you want to say "I get it, I get it -- can
we move on to what happens next?" The plot involves a headstrong young
Japanese businessman's visit to the most desolate part of Australia --
a rather tough geologist played by Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding) is
his tour guide. He doesn't quite understand how different Australia is
from Japan, and Collette has her hands full trying to chauffeur him
around. The movie centers around the relationship that develops between
these two very different people, set in the mind-bogglingly desolate
If your idea of a great movie involves car chases, this is definitely not the movie for you. If you like slower and more nuanced movies, then this one is definitely worth seeing.
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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