Japanese Story

Maudlin art-house weeper from Australia starring Toni Collette.



With Troy, western civ's original grudge match, treading hard on the heels of The Punisher and the mawkish Mexico bashing of Man on Fire, cinephiles may be tempted to decline another multiplex retribution-fest and rent Japanese Story, an acclaimed film from Australia about forgiveness, the lingering pain of old wars, and the hazards of cross-cultural love. That would be a mistake.


Few things are as demoralizing as morally uplifting art, and Japanese Story wears its intentions, if not on its sleeve, then on its outback-burned Aussie arm. The story of a strange love affair between an Australian geologist (Toni Collette) and a Japanese businessman (Gotaro Tsunashima), Japanese Story nearly swept the Australian Film Institute awards and won much critical acclaim abroad for its director, Sue Brooks (though not universal; Slant's Ed Gonzalez dismissed it as "a sheltered Australian housewife's contribution to world affairs").


Gonzalez's barb is not entirely gratuitous. The film opens with Collette chiding her mother for her "obsession" with death; clearly, Brooks and writer Alison Tilson are telling us, Collette has some things to learn about the circle of life. That opportunity comes when Collette is required to escort the brooding and effeminate Tsunashima to isolated mining sites around the country. As a dramatic story arc requires, the two dislike each other immediately, but then bond when they get stuck in their rental car. Before you know it, Collette is getting into Tsunashima's pants (literally) and the international healing begins.


The beginning of Japanese Story does have its moments. Collette seems uncomfortable in her own home as she prepares a meal she could very well have made outside a tent, but her character subsequently feels false, particularly when the two are stranded, something to which an Australian geologist should be accustomed.


But most alarming is the treatment of Tsunashima, who's written as a circa 1980s tight-lipped slave of obligation. There's even a scene in which a boatman transporting the two bemoans how the Japanese now own the country (sadly, a character from Ron Howard's Gung Ho did not emerge from the water and shout "Banzai!").


Purportedly struggling to illuminate cultural misunderstandings, Japanese Story is ironically facile (i.e. a courier mixing up Kyoto and Tokyo), particularly its last third, which will have discriminating viewers asking "Do soundtracks never cease?" And as the credits roll, said viewers may wonder what it means when outdated stereotypes are at the heart of both revenge flicks and maudlin art-house weepers.


--Joshua Avram

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