JAPANESE STORY is an ambitious film that does something intriguing. It plays like life itself. At times tedious, at times ridiculous, at times infuriating, at times moving almost beyond our ability to bear it, becoming in retrospect a memory to be savored and to be pondered. It reminded me of nothing so much as the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium. You know, nothing happens for a really, really long time and then, boom, a whole new species pops up in a heretofore unexpected ecological niche just to shake things up and take us into a new era. The majestic therapsid giving way to the dinosaur who in turn exited stage left making way for the mammals.
Toni Collette proves what a goddess of the screen she is here. She is ferocious, tender, and funny as Sandy, the standard issue career gal whose life is very full but not fulfilling. Shes a partner in an Australian geological engineering concern with no time for play but plenty for crunching numbers and planning strategically. Bad luck lands her the job of playing tour guide to Hiromistu (Gotaro Tsunashima) a visiting Japanese businessman, whose fathers company is thinking of buying a vast tract of land from Cassandras company. The two meet cute when she shows up late at a remote airport and he mistakes her for the chauffeur. There are a few more cross-cultural misunderstandings as rowdy Oz meets demure Nippon with predictable results. Foreshadowing complications yet to come, the camera, showing us Sandys point of view, lingers suggestively over Hiromitsus slender but toned physique as he emerges from a swim and towels himself off. The camera moved back to Sandy and Collette with a barely perceptible twist of her mouth and flick of her eyes registers the surprise Sandy feels first for noticing Hiromitsus body and then for her sudden attraction.
Its just a matter of time before these two unlikely lovers get together, the which they do after a detour to a particularly desolate part of the outback that Hiromitsu insists on taking almost gets them killed. Their coupling as they return to civilization burned, dehydrated, and very dusty works on the level of an affirmation of life in the face of death and as a kind of wakeup call for Sandy. The morning after with its awkward silences and careful politeness works, too, as both are blindsided by the depth of emotion the experience engendered. From there, though, the violent attachment Sandy forms for Hiromistu, who is guarding his own set of secrets, is carefully revealed to be less about romance and more about her dawning realization of how truly empty her life has been, an emptiness mirrored in the vast outback landscape the two of them roam. Perhaps its the way that director Sue Brooks photographs Collettes face in close up, emphasizing the broad features and seemingly enormous teeth. As Tsunashima shrinks to elfin proportions by comparison, his existence as a separate entity similarly shrinks. Sandy as the aggressor throughout the relationship takes on an unsettling and almost predatory cast even if, or perhaps because of, the longing propelling it is a palpable part of the passion. From comedy of manners to an odd couple romance, our story progresses to questions of life, death, and the meaning of existence. This is a breathtaking leap of faith for any film to contemplate, much less attempt. Though jarring in the extreme, it is Collettes performance that carries us through the rough spots with her sure grasp of the truth about the emotional life of this character. She gives us some genuinely affecting moments, ones that still linger as I write these words, as the weight of existence suddenly slams onto her broad shoulders and knocks the wind out of her.
JAPANESE STORY is at times, as I mentioned before, infuriating. Things happen for little if any reason, heavy scenes are played out with lengths that remind one of David Lynch, but without his subversive view or his trick of catching the absurdity of everything from the dull routine of daily life to tragedies of epic proportions. It is only in retrospect that a sort of narrative emerges linking each moment to the next imbuing those moments with inevitability. A midlife crisis precipitated by the randomness of life is an interesting idea and Brooks and screenwriter Alison Tilson are to be congratulated for acknowledging its complexity by taking an unorthodox way of bringing the point home. If you stick with it, even through its dead spots, it reveals itself as a profound work that more than repays the effort.