With Japanese Story, director Sue Brooks has crafted a flick that encapsulates both the buddy flick and the road adventure genres in what is most obviously a distinct tale of love and loss.
It's a culture-clashing scenario and it's a simple story: What starts as dislike turns to love. Tada! And it's mostly told in a simple way—in fact, almost too simple, with a clear tri-part basis: a beginning, middle and end.
Step One, The Beginning: Australian geologist Sandy Edwards (Toni Collette—Hey, wait! Sandy. Geologist. Just the first arrow from the symbolism arsenal) is not someone you want to be friends with. She lets her pals down, yells at her aging mom about preoccupations with death and is ultimately a sour person.
But she's competent at work. So she's instructed by her partner Baird (my new crush Matthew Dyktynski) to accompany to the Australian desert a potential Japanese land buyer, Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima).
Sandy, who is full of shallow stereotypes, doesn't want to go, just 'cuz she's a brat. And when she meets Hiromatsu, he turns out to be a pansy who makes her pick up his luggage. She had him pegged! Or did she? It's fairly obvious what's to come.
This is where the force-fed symbolism begins, representing the conflicting cultures. He's quiet, well dressed, yapping on a superpowered cell phone and he's overly stuffy in that dusty, criminally spawned land. Sandy is peculiarly aggressive, physically capable and fashion retarded (but her outfits work as real geologist clothes).
Step Two, The Middle: Ruddy sands and crystalline billabongs make this film visually splendid. Sandy and Hiro get stranded in the ethereal Australian outback, the Pilbara, and all of The Middle of the film takes place in the glowing backlands where the characters pitch their cultural divides and unite through nature.
The elegant scenery is a character to contrast the human stars of this film, who are not particularly attractive by general Hollywood standards. And maybe that's why I don't care so much about following their romance. Or it could be because the romance of these two self-involved folks just doesn't make a lot of sense. Love develops solely because the movie needed to go somewhere, not because the characters polarly connect or find a world in which they need each other.
As viewers, we're there for the ride; we see their tawdry, pained looks when the sound guy dots the film with affecting music. We know what they are feeling. But it's implausible because neither person is particularly interesting or warm, and ultimately it's just hard to feel sympathetic to these mildly developed characters. We learn that Hiro earlier faked not knowing English plus he's a philandering family man. This doesn't seem to bother Sandy as she repeatedly yanks off her shirt. Frankly, I don't see why they'd want to be friends with each other let alone get the suki on.
Step Three, The End: There's a haunting climax at the closing stages of The Middle that seems abrupt, and all of a sudden the oft-disengaged Sandy is overcome with emotion. I might be called disengaged for not shedding a tear with Sandy, but that's because I'm still perplexed about why she fell for this jerk in the first place.
The story is thin and only loosely moving, but the film is completely salvaged by Toni Collette's skills. With her big blue peepers and crooked smile, she's absolutely on target as Sandy. Across the board she's a regular King Midas with her acting, dazzling in every film she's appeared in (including Muriel's Wedding, Sixth Sense, About a Boy and The Hours). Okay, maybe it's not fair to say she single-handedly saved Japanese Story. But without her, there would have been a lot of snores.