Starring Toni Collette and Gotaro Tsunashima
Directed by Sue Brooks
Written by Alison Tilson
A Samuel Goldwyn Films release
Rated R; 107 minutes
Sparing in its plot but generous in charting the emotional travels of its female protagonist, Japanese Story is an oddly touching film, thanks in large part to a vibrant, revealing performance by Toni Collette.
Collette has specialized in finding both the strength and the vulnerability in a wide range of characters. Her turn in About a Boy, playing a weepily suicidal flake, gave weight to that film while also being bleakly funny. She also helped both lighten up and deepen The Sixth Sense. Her scene near the end of that film in the car with Haley Joel Osment, when he convinces her about his gift by bringing Collette a message from her long-dead mother, rings more emotional bells for me than all of Bruce Willis' angst and anger in the rest of the film (I admit it, I have mother issues).
In Japanese Story, (which takes place entirely in Australia, by the way), Collette's gift for finding the comedy in tragedy and vice versa is given full rein, helped in large part by Sue Brooks' sensitive direction. Visually, Brooks and director of photography Ian Baker make the most of visual contrasts, from the red sand and blue skies of Western Australia's Pilbara desert to the differences in skin texture between Collette and her co-star Gotaro Tsunashima, playing Japanese businessman Hiromitsu. Her hands are rough and knuckled; he's as smooth as a polished rock.
Collette's character Sandy Edwards, a geologist and partner in a computer software company, is saddled with babysitting Hiromitsu as he tours the remote vastnesses of Western Australia (she's hoping to make a business deal with his father's company). Her annoyance and impatience at dealing with this Japanese man, who barely acknowledges her existence, will strike a chord in anyone who has been forced together on a business trip with someone they barely know and couldn't care less about. For his part, Hiromitsu finds Sandy too loud, too aggressive and, well, too Australian for his taste.
A situation ripe for a plot twist, which Japanese Story duly supplies: Sandy and Hiromitsu become stranded in the desert and have to rely on each other to escape with their lives. Their shared experience leads to a brief, seemingly casual love affair that metamorphoses into something both stranger and deeper than either character is prepared for.
It's a simple - you might say overly simple - story, almost fable-like in its lack of incident. There's also a clumsiness in the early scenes, as screenwriter Alison Tilson works too hard to flatly state her themes (Sandy can't deal with death, she's cut off from real human contact). Yet by tying what story there is so closely to Sandy's emotional journey, Japanese Story achieves a power of its own.
Collette seems freed by not having to play either an American or a Brit (she's Australian herself) and she easily lets us into her guarded character's inner life. In her first sexual encounter with Hiromitsu, she undresses with a nice mix of self-consciousness and authority that seems appropriate to this woman in a man's world.
Japanese Story reminded me of two very dissimilar films: Lost in Translation and The Deep End. Like Lost, Japanese Story plays off the cultural chasms between West and East while creating a safe space for its two protagonists to connect. Like The Deep End, with its fantastic central performance by Tilda Swinton, Japanese Story sees the value in a story about the emotional unfreezing of a strong woman. Deep overloads us with melodramatic plot devices, Japanese drains them away, but both are brought home by actresses of intelligence, skill and emotional nakedness.
Japanese Story won't be for everyone; it's slow and sometimes a bit didactic. But it has the power to stick with you where bigger, busier films often don't.
Click here to read an interview with Toni Collette.