Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Feb 18, 2004 11:56 pm 
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Sad, sad story

Japanese Story builds off a cliché but it packs a wallop. A down-and-dirty Aussie woman geologist, Sandy Edwards (Toni Collette) has to be the very unwilling tour guide for a spoiled Japanese client, Hiromitsu Tachibana (Gotaro Tsunashima). Collette is an intense if unsubtle actress who violently telegraphs her disgust and unwillingness. Tsunashima exemplifies the polite, precise, withdrawn Japanese man who’s so condescending he treats Sandy as a mere chauffeur: his father heads a company that owns a substantial chunk of an Australian mining enterprise. First there’s a night out where Hiro sings karaoke very badly and then gets completely drunk. After a tour of the mining company, he forces Sandy to take him into a remote desert where a stone came from. The depiction of culture clash goes slowly forward: she more and more disgusted and angry, he cell-phoning a pal in Japan to complain about her bad manners – and, disdainfully at first, describing her blonde, blue-eyed looks. Then the car gets stuck in the sand and the pair have to spend a cold, scary night beside it.

This near-death experience with the terror of the void makes the two bond and the next day, when they get out, they begin an affair. She seemed crude and rough to him; now she becomes real and warm and alive. He seemed just some dumpy Asian businessman in a suit; naked, he’s lean, delicate, and pretty, a Japanese Alain Delon. A wordless sequence – not the only one -- shows how exotically beautiful she finds his face.

The affair continues briefly, and then ends tragically. Whereas the earlier part of the film is at best workmanlike, making its points bluntly, the contrast of cultures and the desert setting both seeming nothing if not conventional, once the sexual attraction blossoms out of the antipathy, a certain magic happens. And the tragedy, long and wordless initially, is unbearable and powerful cinema. Again time moves slowly and even more so than before, but with the quality of grief in real time. Instead of conventional, Japanese Story comes to seem classic, like Antonioni’s L’Avventura or Resnais’s Hiroshima mon Amour.

Collette’s character is in shock. She’s both angry and shattered. The actress’s almost excessive intensity continues, but now she’s imploding. Hiromitsu is dead. Sandy insists on getting involved in the arrangements. The man’s wife comes to accompany the body back to Japan. Mrs. Tachibana is a round-faced, opaque, prim woman. She’s conventional enough; her grief is invisible. The wife gets a roll of film developed that her husband had in his camera when he was with Sandy showing them together smiling and happy, arm in arm. There’s also a note Hiro wrote for Sandy to read after he’d returned to Japan. As the two women meet ceremonially before departure, Sandy attempts an apology in crude Japanese, says Hiro spoke of her in his last days and said she was a good wife, and then blurts out in English that the accident was her fault and she could have prevented it and she’s so terribly sorry. Hiro’s wife simply bows, hands the photos and the note to Sandy, and says in English, “Thank you.”

Mrs. Tachibana shows such elegance and control at this moment, such a completely Japanese submission of ego to the demands of the situation, that it’s as impressive as it is touching beyond words. To understand what happened between Hiro and Sandy and yet to accept, to have no reproach, to subsume her feelings in respect for the dead and out of recognition of her husband’s happiness in his last days, shows a degree of class and discipline that is quite stunning. It’s a sign of how well the film is working by this point that the moment is so simple, yet has such powerful reverberations.

Typical of Australian cinema and again not at all original is the sense of a vast, threatening and dangerous nature and of clashing cultures and races. Yes, we all know Walkabout. There’s only one aboriginal in the film for a minute but you can’t miss him or the sense of ever-present knowing helpfulness he exudes. There’s a brief sense of crude prejudice toward the Japanese left over from the war, but also a depiction of the practiced relationship of Australians to Japanese for business, the ritual presentations of business cards and bows and exchanges of polite phrases in Japanese.

Japanese Story is in three sections. The opening one is rough and a bit tedious. The middle one where the two connect is raw and touching. The final tragic grieving one is quite powerfully sad, riding entirely on the irresistible force of Ms. Collette’s repressed intensity. As with Antonioni, one isn’t sure the slim screenplay can quite bear the weight of significance laid upon it. It’s not certain that the brief encounter has been given sufficient resonance to justify all the emotion of the final segment. What may tip the scale in the film’s favor is the long wordless sequence immediately after the tragic accident. The excruciating real time of this passage recalls Gerry’s struggle to rescue his pal from where he’s stuck on a hillock in Gus van Sant’s film, but it's far more painful and awful. Whether or not Sandy was in love with Hiro, there’s enough to show that the incident is a terrible trauma for her. It’s important to note that Collette doesn’t carry Japanese Story alone. Tsunashima’s presence is essential: he provides an intelligent, nuanced performance as well as a suitably mysterious sexiness.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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