Australian filmmakers tend to turn to the desert when they’re looking for trouble. The desert is where white men go mad in our films, like the redneck roo-shooting maniacs in Wake in Fright or the murderous motorheads in Mad Max 2. Black men, on the other hand, often have special powers and savage nobility, as in Walkabout. The desert doesn’t necessarily represent death to them, although few of our films have bothered to consider Aboriginal views of landscape, beyond a crude sort of pop spiritualism.
Japanese Story takes off into the desert to look for something new.
Director Sue Brooks and writer Alison Tilson (who made Road to Nhill together) are seeking revelation – like many who have gone to the desert since Jesus – but of a more contemporary sort. The film has no real rednecks, no frill-necked lizards, no wise old tribals, no killer truckies.
It does have a huge open-cut mine, a couple of sterile mine cafeterias, featureless hotel rooms and the stunning, iron-red landscape of the Pilbara in north-western Western Australia, shot superbly by Ian Baker.
Virtually everything man has made in this place is ugly, but the filmmakers don’t carp about it. They’re interested in deeper questions, which is one reason the film has an air of freshness. It’s never quite predictable, even if it starts out looking like it might be. That’s partly because the filmmakers don’t allow the characters to resolve their place in the landscape; they are always on the edge or above it, wondering how to penetrate it. That is their unspoken dilemma, one of the film’s many buried themes.
While it took several trips to Japan and boxes of tapes to find accomplished Japanese actor Gotaro Tsunmashima for the male lead, the character of Sandy had been written with Australian actress Toni Collette in mind. When the filmmakers received an amazingly fast response that she was indeed interested, they flew out to meet her — and were in for a surprise. Instead of them pitching the part to Collette, the actress went through the script scene by scene, telling them what she loved about it. “So we just sat and shut up,” recalls producer Sue Maslin. Collette for her part describes the story as, “very beautiful, and real and subtle and kind of uncomfortable.” In other words, stimulating.
Beneath the surface of anyone or anything, there is incredible complexity. This is a central theme in “Japanese Story,” represented by the unusual exploration of acquaintance between an Australian woman and a Japanese businessman thrown together in a car by circumstance.
Geologist Sandy (Collette) and her business partner Baird (Matthew Dyktynski) desperately need a sale after years spent developing their mining software and Hiromitsu (Tsunmashima), visiting his father’s steel works in Australia, just might be it. There is just one catch. He wants to see a lot of the country first, and a lot of it is a long way away. Unwilling to miss his son’s birthday, Baird relegates the task of showing their visitor around to a less than thrilled Sandy, and from the minute she and Hiromitsu meet at the airport, things get off to a bad start.
To Sandy, Hiromitsu is arrogant, condescending and sexist. To him, his tour guide is loud, rude and annoying. Their cross-cultural barriers remain safely in place throughout their lengthy drives, until Hiromitsu demands Sandy take him to an abandoned ore mine in the Pilbara desert.
That is as much as I’m allowed to divulge without being maimed for life, and it’s actually better this way.
Attached to this film comes a list of accolades and festival prizes that would qualify as a small book. Best film, director, producer, actress, cinematography and music score from the Australian Independent Film Festival, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and the Australian Film Institute — each.
Often audiences are rightfully wary of such distinctions, but in the case of “Japanese Story” they are well deserved. It’s a great and surprising story with some amazing acting moments (Collette being impeccably matched by Tsunmashima), and spectacular visuals. A rare treat.