Directed by Sue Brooks
Written by Alison Tilson
Japanese Story brings together an Australian geologist and a Japanese businessman, two very different people from very different backgrounds. They don’t like each other when they meet, and since they are forced to spend time together, it’s inevitable that they will fall in love and alter each other’s lives. Even though the synopsis sounded extremely familiar, I was still curious to see how the movie would play out because I hadn’t seen it with these specific characters before.
Sandy, played brilliantly by Toni Collette, is alone and isolated like the Pilbara Desert she will soon traverse. Her only relationships seem to be with her mother, a friend and some messages on her answering machine. We meet Sandy at her mother’s house while her mother is working on a scrapbook containing obituaries for people that she had relationships with. They argue over one of the entries in the book because Sandy disagrees about the actual depth of the relationship. Sandy’s lack of understanding and frustration with the ease with which her mom develops relationships is a very nice moment that provides us with character background. We learn from this that Sandy isn’t good at relationships before the next scene, which has Sandy forgetting about plans she had with a girlfriend, but now can’t attend. Unfortunately, this is one of the few times the filmmakers show the audience the story.
The next day, Sandy is given the task to show, Hiromitsu, the son of an important Japanese businessman, around the desert. This could mean potential business for her company so she reluctantly agrees. At his request, they travel out farther and farther to more isolated parts of the desert. Hiromitsu is awed by the natural expanse of the Pilbara Region. It is so different from life in Tokyo, cramped urban spaces brimming with the constant hustle and bustle people. Unless you’ve been to Tokyo, you only know this from what he says because the viewer never experiences it. The joy from the Pilbara becomes equal parts anxiety as the void stares back.
While traveling off paved roads, they eventually get stuck in a sand bog and have to spend the night. Sandy tells Hiromitsu how bad it is to be trapped this deep out in the desert. It gets very cold and the nearest town isn’t within walking distance. “People die out here!” she yells at him. We only ever get the sense that it’s life threatening through what Sandy says because nothing appears to back up her point. We don’t see anyone’s breath in the cold air and rather than sleep in the car and use Hiromitsu’s extra clothing from his suitcase as blankets, they both sleep outside by a campfire. I would be scared of tossing in my sleep and rolling into the fire. In the morning neither wakes up the worse for wear. With a lot of wood under the tires, they are able to dislodge the car and drive out. It wasn’t difficult so why couldn’t it have been accomplished the day before, except for the need to create a traumatic event, which it wasn’t, to draw them closer together.
Once back in the nearest town, they get food and eventually a motel room. We cut to Hiromitsu, apparently naked in bed, with Sandy running her hand along his chest. Then Sandy takes her clothes off, puts on his pants and gets into bed on top of him. I was confused by what was transpiring because I couldn’t tell if they were engaging in frottage, “dry humping” for our less sophisticated deviants/readers, or if she had opened the zipper on the pants and they had intercourse through the fly.
This sequence completely brought me out of the film for a number of reasons. How were they at a point where they decided to have sex together? The camping scene wasn’t traumatic so they couldn’t have been brought together emotionally from that. Either a scene had been cut out or maybe the filmmakers felt that it didn’t matter what brought them together. The latter is certainly possible because I know there are times when on reflection I have no idea how I ended up having sex with certain women; however, since we know that Sandy has trouble making relationships, wasn’t this an opportunity to learn about her? Next, why does Sandy put on his pants? Especially when she gets back in bed with him to do whatever it is they do. The more I think about it, they must have had intercourse because they could have performed frottage with Sandy still in her panties. And finally, what guy would have sex through his pants zipper? The risk of getting skin caught in the metal teeth could weigh heavily on the mind. Yeeouch! All right, maybe after a few cocktails and a long dry spell, but he would at least attempt to avoid the potential scarring and bloodshed before giving in.
I recommend Japanese Story based on the strength of the performances, mainly Toni Collette who does a marvelous job with the range of emotions she covers. There are some interesting twists in the story that kept the film being similar to other films with the same synopsis. I will honor the filmmakers’ request and not get specific.
I do have slight reservations about my recommendation because even though I enjoyed many aspects of the film I found myself left with too many questions regarding the characters’ motivations. Not solely artistic questions regarding what the actions and decisions meant, but more why did they do the things they do. I don’t get to experience much of what the characters say so while I am able to sympathize with what the characters go through I don’t come close to empathizing with them. At the pivotal emotional scenes at the end, I was sad not because of the events of the film but they caused me think of situations in my own life. Japanese Story is similar to a shallow pool; appearing wonderful on the surface, yet lacking in depth.