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Japanese Story (2003)

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 106 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

From ‘Walkabout’ to ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, from ‘Burke and Wills’ to ‘The Tracker’ – hell, even Crocodile Dundee at a stretch – the desert in Australian cinema is a mythical space of savage isolation, where the trappings of Western culture and identity are quickly erased, essential truths force themselves to the surface, and, in the absence of proper Aboriginal guidance, people tend to lose (and occasionally also find) themselves. Except that in ‘Japanese Story’, as in the earlier ‘The Goddess of 1967’, the Western woman lost in the desert is accompanied by an Eastern man, so that she is also Lost in Translation.

When Tachibana Hiromitsu (Otaro Tsunashima), the son of a powerful Japanese iron magnate, comes visiting Australia, geologist Sandy Edwards (Toni ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ Collette) becomes his reluctant guide. At first there is as much stony distance between the two travelers as between the different steelworks and opencut mines which they tour in the Pilbara desert. When, however, at Hiromitsu’s insistence they drive even further off the beaten track and their vehicle gets stuck in the middle of nowhere, their shared experience brings them closer together, and they begin to transcend the cultural and linguistic barriers that separate them, as the beauty and danger of the desert brings them mutual understanding, however short-lived.

Sue Brooks’ ‘Japanese Story’ comes well recommended, having scooped just about every Australian film award on offer in 2003 – and its inherently dramatic scenario (a man and a woman facing vast nothingness), as well as the rich themes of cultural exchange which it mines along the way, give the film an appeal which travels well beyond Australia’s borders. Yet Alison Tilson’s script is so minimal, and both Sandy and Hiromitsu so barely sketched, that in the end it is the landscape more than anything else which grabs the attention, engulfing not just the characters, but the film itself – so that the urban Perth scenes which bookend the film seem weak by comparison.

As might be expected, the cinematography is superb (by Ian Baker), capturing an awesome, timeless desertscape of arid ochre sands and seductively cool waterholes, where everyone looks like an alien just passing through. The acting from the two leads is finely nuanced, even if we have little idea of who they are – and it is always refreshing to see characters who are not immediately likeable. Also impressive, in a nearly speech-free rôle, is Yumiko Tanaka as Hiromitsu’s wife Yukiko. The real star though is the Pilbara desert, proving to be a natural at playing tough, silent and inscrutable.

It's Got: Stunning cinematography, nuanced performances, and tips on the versatility of the Japanese term hai.

It Needs: If it were just a little less minimal, then the journey undertaken by its two main characters might be more engaging.


Big setting, but a small film – and its depths, once plumbed, turn out to be just a little too shallow.