Toni Collette plays Sandy, a highly-strung geologist who is forced to take a Japanese investor, Hiromitsu, on a tour of central Australia. Each finds the other unbearably rude, until their car gets stuck in the middle of nowhere, and they are forced to spend some time together, and connect.
Like a Shirley Valentine in the outback, this is a story about busy people finding themselves in the beauty of nature. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the Australians choose to set this story at home rather than abroad, but the imbalance between the two characters’ journeys borders on the offensive.
Hiromitsu is simply a stereotype – rigidly courteous, sexist, and prone to childish giggling. We see him at karaoke, of course, where he can’t hold his drink; and he takes photographs of everything. He evens laughs about this later on, once Sandy has helped him to relax’, and it is clear from the start that he is the one that really needs to change.
As a result, the romance between the two never convinces, as they are both fairly unpleasant, as well as being badly matched. Director Sue Brooks papers over this and other cracks with a kind of visual shorthand; we see the pair gaze meaningfully at each other, and understand that they are now romantically linked, but we never see why, as they never manage to hold a conversation.
The film’s central message is equally fuzzy. We’re clearly supposed to understand that their journey has something to do with the landscape, that the beauty of the outback has helped them grow and get back to nature. It’s an appealing idea, but what does it actually mean?
Still, much of the film is impressive. The cinematography is remarkable, giving a unique, awe-inspiring view of rural Australia, giving the film an epic feel despite the fact that most of it takes place in a car. At one point they visit an enormous mineral mine, and its sheer power is breathtaking.
The performances are good too. Toni Collette proves once again that she is Australia’s finest actress, and Gotaro Tsnashima does a good job of investing some humanity into the rather thankless role of Hiromitsu.
Japanese Story won a stack of Australian film awards last year, and it’s a visually striking film, but the focus on Sandy really jars, particularly later in the film, and the presentation of the Japanese is disappointing.