East meets Down Under

Gotaro Tsunashima, left, and Toni Collette put a Down Under spin on a tried-and-true formula in <i>Japanese Story</i>. Hey, it worked for Elvis.

Gotaro Tsunashima, left, and Toni Collette put a Down Under spin on a tried-and-true formula in Japanese Story. Hey, it worked for Elvis.

Rated 4.0

Sandy (Toni Collette) is an unmarried Australian geologist and mining expert who smokes cigarettes and is not afraid to speak her mind to her mother and work associate. She has a hard edge that can crack into a toothy grin, along with an earthy sensuality. She is the woman of Helen Reddy’s moldy-oldie pop song, though she probably would never listen to such sugary twaddle, and she can hold both her own and her liquor in the company of men.

Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) is the son of a wealthy Japanese businessman who has invested in the geological software company that employs Sandy. His visit mixes business with pleasure. He is reserved, formal, eager to explore the deserts Down Under and quite the trigger-happy wilderness shutterbug after weathering a sloppy, drunken night at a local karaoke bar.

In the alternately naturalistic, dreamy and jarring Japanese Story, these two people seem destined to clash. Sandy sizes up Hiromitsu as a “Japanese prick who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow” even before she meets him. And she reluctantly becomes his personal tour guide ("I’m a geologist, not a bloody geisha"). Hiromitsu refers to her during a cell-phone call back home as “loud, aggressive, stubborn, with a big bum.” And he wears the badge of a male-dominant social order on his starched white dress shirt, makes Sandy load his suitcase into her rented Land Rover and sits in the back seat alone rather than joining her up front.

Hiromitsu feels stereotypical at first, and the film threatens to become an adult Walkabout when Sandy’s vehicle becomes stuck in the loose red desert dirt that doubles as a road, and the couple faces possible death by dehydration or heat exhaustion. But director Sue Brooks and writer Alison Tilson have more on their plate than the baked beans Sandy eats over toast for dinner. Their tale builds as a sort of fish-out-of-water romance warmed by gradual personal enlightenment that includes the admission of mistakes before taking a sudden, unexpected turn that I will not spoil here.

Brooks uses the outback as a metaphor for cultural differences and the two main characters’ awe of nature as a social icebreaker. “You have lots of space and no people,” says Hiromitsu. “We have lots of people and no space. It scares me.” Tilson’s script is smart enough to make us wonder whether she is talking about the panorama before him or life in Japan. And it is subsequently rich enough to allow pauses to sort of speak for themselves.

Japanese Story is a character study with morality-play implications. Hiromitsu’s explanation of his customary response of “Hai” to most questions or comments is a lesson in inflection and attitude. ("It means I am listening. Yes. What. I don’t know. Sometimes it means no, but nobody ever says no.") An Aussie rowboat owner talks of the lingering prejudice against the Japanese since World War II. ("You see ‘Made in Japan’ on it, and you put it back on the shelf.") And the desert, which is home to only the hardiest of flora and fauna and has taken many human lives, proves also to be a catalyst for personal revelation and growth in a world awash in mind-boggling vastness, coincidences, relationships, euphoria and loss.

The acting is excellent. Collette is pitch-perfect as a career woman who is just as comfortable with her independence as she is with her femininity. The sex here is mostly off-screen, but the one scene in which she strips and then dons her lover’s pants says volumes more than the soft-core carnality embraced in many films today. Tsunashima is just as credible and modulated as an educated modern man who nonetheless has much to learn about himself and the world around him. And their relationship is dramatically complemented by a recurring Japanese melody that sounds like the Stone Poneys exotically channeled through an Asian Janis Ian.

The film acts as a tale of human strengths and frailty as well as a barometer of cultural diversity. "I’ve been a wife. I’ve been a widow. Some things are the same the world over," says Sandy’s mother. "That’s bullshit, Mom," says Sandy. And she’s been there and back and has the T-shirt to prove it.