May 6, 2004

Cornell Cinema

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Sandy (Toni Collette) is a tough, rough-around-the-edges Australian geologist who is free-spirited and independent. Tachibana (Gotaro Tsunashima) is a rigid Japanese businessman from Kyoto who is making a surprise inspection of his father’s mining company. Both are used to getting their way. The two clashing personalities are forced together by circumstance when Sandy is ordered to accompany Tachibana during his Australian visit. When the two are stranded in the Australian desert due to Tachibana’s firm desire to venture into the vast open country, the two must work together to survive. Is this just another East meets West tale of culture clash? The formula may seem cookie-cutter generic, but where Japanese Story takes us from this commonly referenced point of exposition is far from where you would expect.

Not at all a buddy survival movie, Sue Brooks’ film is more of an effort at articulating how to deal when life throws you unexpected turns, leaving you in uncharted territory. The film carefully traces the continuously evolving relationship between Sandy and Tachibana, from their initial, thinly veiled disdain for each other, evident through numerous facial expressions and muttered comments, to their later intimacy.

A cold night spent in the desert brings Sandy and Tachibana together romantically, a development that could be attributed to the common hardship the two experienced together. A stolen glimpse at Tachibana’s wallet reveals a miniature picture of his smiling wife and children back in Japan, and we instantly know that this story will have a far from simple ending. Perhaps just a fling or perhaps a manifestation of needs hidden within both Sandy and Tachibana, the two characters’ rapidly developing relationship is treated with sensitivity by Brooks.

Vast shots of the Australian landscape tint the movie a warm, glowing shade of red, emphasizing the importance of emotions and the intimacy wrought from relationships. Coupled with background music flavored by a slow, main theme, Japanese Story achieves a kind of spirituality derived from the pure elegance of simplicity. In this natural landscape apart from the distractions and obligations of our predictable lives, a bare truth is realized, and it is this common insight that brings Sandy and Tachibana together.

Contrary to the norm, language and words are often barriers rather than facilitators of knowledge and comprehension in Japanese Story. Sandy and Tachibana are initially hindered by a language barrier, although their evolving relationship soon proves that mutual understanding cannot be so easily restricted by verbal limitations. Brooks’ emphasis here is not on dialogue or verbal dexterity, but rather on actions. She lingers patiently on fleeting glances, flickering gazes, and hesitant touches. The subtleties of human expression is thoroughly explored and given center stage in Japanese Story.

Collette is perfect as Sandy, a complete portrait of a believable woman. Her range is wide in its scope from the uncompromisingly hard gazes that Sandy initially directs towards Tachibana to her later softened looks of tenderness. Tsunashima is similarly effective, playing a man who knows much more than he lets on. Both Collette and Tsunashima portray the changes each of their characters go through with attention to detail, which justifies the later comfort and happiness shared by Sandy and Tachibana. Movies with admirable plots and quality endings are rare but Japanese Story is definitely one of them. A later development in the storyline drastically changes the lives of the characters and Brooks forces her actors to deal with these unprecedented situations with strikingly accurate conveyances of uncertainty and doubt. It is a learning experience for both the characters and the audience as conventions are defied and emotions are strained.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang