Japanese Story
review by Dan Lybarger, 2 January 2004

Despite a uniquely captivating setting and the reassuring presence of Toni Collette (About a Boy, The Sixth Sense), Japanese Story never feels convincing enough to be engaging.

Cinematographer Ian Baker's (A Cry in the Dark) breathtaking images of the rugged and forbidding Western Australian landscape -- specifically the desert region known as the Pilbara -- only seem to emphasize that the humans in this film aren't as interesting the hills and wastelands.

The people in this tale seem to fight or fall in love on cue. Any viewer whose watch stops during a screening of this can reset it by synchronizing it with the plot.

Collette plays a brusque, no-nonsense geologist named Sandy Edwards, who has the thankless task of carting around Japanese businessman named Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima). Tachibana is visiting the region for more than a simple vacation, and Sandy's associates hope to strike a lucrative pact with Tachibana's crew.

If the matter were left simply between the two of them, no deal would be struck. Sandy speaks no Japanese, and Tachibana's English is limited, although it's doubtful he'd speak much even if he were fluent in the language. When he's calling home on his cel phone, he complains about her loud, butch behavior.

Needless to say, it's not love at first sight.

Because of his insistence on seeing the most remote landmarks, the two wind up with their vehicle stuck in a sinkhole. After the two finally work together long enough to get back on the road, they start bonding. From here, a thin but mildly interesting setup quickly goes south.

The mishaps that happen when they are both in and out of love seem irritatingly telegraphed. After a few minutes, it gets tiring guessing what the characters discover about each other or even what their next lines will be.

The nudity doesn't help. While Collette and Tsunashima at least look committed, it seems more of an act of desperation, as if screenwriter Alison Tilson and director Sue Brooks had run out of ways to show the two were hitting it off despite the fact that Tachibana is married.

True, movies like Monster's Ball and Last Tango in Paris needed the sex scenes in order to be effective. But Japanese Story never really achieves the intellectual or visceral weight to lead viewers to believe that its couple has teamed up for any reason other than boredom.

It seems like a cheap shot to compare this flick with Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, but with both films feature Brief Encounter-like relationships and cultural clashes and share 2003 release dates.

One of the things that made Lost in Translation work was the writer-director's loose, improvisational approach. She made the eventual boding between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson appear unaffected and natural. It is preordained, but it doesn't feel like it.

Coppola also managed to achieve more emotional peaks by leaving her actors' clothes on. There's more passion in Coppola's longing than in Brooks and Tilson's consummation.

The final act of Japanese Story seems to be Brooks and Tilson's attempt at jolting viewers, but it rings false and fits poorly with what came before. Tilson does deserve some credit for understanding Japanese social customs, and there is a funny sequence where Sandy and Tachibana have the misfortune of being stuck with an old man who, try as he might, can't help but spout racist slips of the tongue.

Japanese Story is a movie I desperately wanted to like. After all, it has won dozens of awards back in its native Australia and has been omnipresent on the festival circuit. Nonetheless, on this side of the Pacific, it goes over about as well as Yahoo Serious and vegemite.

Directed by:
Sue Brooks

Starring:
Toni Collette
Gotaro Tsunashima
Matthew Dyktynski
Lynette Curran
Yumiko Tanaka
Kate Atkinson
John Howard
Bill Young
Reg Evans
George Shevtsov
Justine Clarke

Written by:
Alison Tilson

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult 
guardian.

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