In the end, I’m much happier with the Australian cut, of course, because that’s my original cut. But I can see that there are logistical, pragmatic reasons for cutting it for the American audience.
—Sue Brooks, commentary, “Deleted Scenes,” Japanese Story
Looking on their protagonist, Sandy (Toni Collette), director Sue Brooks and screenwriter Alison Tilson suggest that at the beginning of Japanese Story, she is “boxed in.” This despite the fact that the first shot of their remarkable film shows what Brooks call “the extraordinary Pilbara,” a shot that “we almost lost” for lack of funding. “I wanted to spiral down into the story, down into the earth,” recalls the director.
In her office and her home, however, the contrast between the desert (where she will become lost, found, and lost again, over the next few days), Sandy is quite confined. A geologist who spends most of her time poring over charts and rocks in the Australian desert, Sandy pokes around her office and home, restless and smoking cigarettes (which apparently annoyed American distributors, according to Tilson and Brooks, though they consider it a “character defect” that allows her room to learn about herself).
For the most part, Sandy has settled into a routine sort of frustration. She’s annoyed at her death-preoccupied mother (Lynette Curran), resists dating the dull guys her mum likes, gives precious little thought to her nightly meal (baked beans in a can), and tends to let down her friend Jane (Justine Clarke) (“I like the fact that she’s got a friend, you know, it’s often that you don’t have friends in films,” observes Brooks). Focused if not exactly ambitious, she complains of extra assignments but finds herself unable to, as Jane suggests, “Just say no.”
As Japanese Story opens, Sandy takes on yet another project, namely, looking after a wealthy Japanese investor, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima). Their first meeting goes badly: she arrives late to the airport, he reads her chattering skeptically, assuming she’s a driver who will carry his luggage. Later that first evening, Hiro drinks too much and performs an awful karaoke version of “Danny Boy,” which her coworkers appreciate as much as she detests it.
In this moment, for Sandy, Hiro reveals the worst of both male worlds, as stereotypically formal as any movie-conjured Japanese character, as crass as any Westerner. Rolling her eyes, she asserts, “He’s a real jerk, boring as bloody catshit.” (As Hiro stumbles onto the sidewalk and Sandy must gather him up, Brooks notes, “Toni and Go had an fantastic working relationship together… Both of them respected each other’s work enormously, even though they came from completely different angles. Go’s work is much more precise and careful, his work is very talked-through… And Toni doesn’t talk about her work a lot. She’s inclined to say ‘Got it,’ and then we’ll move on and just do it.”)
While Sandy’s perspective is plain enough, Hiro’s remains more obscure, a function of his “otherness,” but also of the movie’s close attention to her lack of insight, context, or empathy. During a five-hour drive out to the company mine, she sighs, grimaces, smokes. In the passenger seat, Hiro speaks into his cell phone in subtitled Japanese: “She’s very loud and aggressive,” and moreover, “She’s got a big bum.” Not so Hiro, whom Sandy observes swimming, from some distance. Pretending to read a magazine, she surreptitiously studies up on Japanese (she knows nothing of the language or the culture), while sneaking looks at Hiro’s slim legs and taut belly, captured in tight frames that recall usual modes of cinematic objectification. As Brooks puts it, “This scene is the beginning of her looking at him… Usually the blokes get to look at the women, and here we turned it on its head, as she gets to look at him, and his body.”
Such immersion in Sandy’s evolving perceptions shifts the film away from what would seem its generic romance outline (opposites will attract), and into other territory. On the most literal level, this shift begins with the couple’s journey into the Outback (“There is nothing,” Hiro says of a particularly striking vista, “It scares me”). As Sandy becomes increasingly impatient with Hiro’s stiffness, he’s also uncomfortable revealing any weakness. They visit a blast site, which impresses Hiro and bores Sandy (Brooks recalls that Toni “hated the scene of the degradation of the earth”). Tilson says the mining (a “cut in the earth”) reflects that, in spite of technological advances and the ability to cut through rock with explosives, “We’re all just flesh and blood, frail and mortal.”
When their vehicle gets bogged down (“in what we call the bog scene,” offers Brooks), they spend a night spent out in the desert (which Hiro consistently mispronounces as “dessert,” initially a source of annoyance for Sandy, and then, as they come together, a joke between them). Cold and grumpy with each other overnight, they manage an unexpected escape the next morning, which leads to something like instant bonding, as well as positively giddy singing (“On the road again!”), like they’re old buddies.
Their relationship develops over cafeteria food (during which Hiro instructs Sandy on the delicacies of intonation for “Hai”) and then a motel room sex scene. This event, at once predictable and delicate, again focuses on Sandy’s experience. She strokes her lover’s slender torso, the camera close on her hand, then cutting to her face, more thoughtful than passionate. She walks across the room to remove her clothes for his observation, pausing before she slips on his trousers, which fit her well—throughout, the film treats their gender subversions and intimate crossing over tenderly, as they are discovering more about themselves than one another. “It’s not a logical thing, it’s a moment between them,” says Tilson on the commentary track. The actors “didn’t ask a lot of questions about ‘Why does this happen?’” adds Brooks. “It was just, ‘Why not?’”
Sandy straddles Hiro on the bed, still in his pants, moving slowly, with the camera slowly creeping up over the back of his head to show her face. Simultaneously looming and warm, Sandy at last finds and even appreciates herself in her openness to someone wholly other from herself. Even when she learns that Hiro is married (spotting a family photo in his wallet), Sandy’s strangely reluctant to judge him or herself, and instead values their brief, bracing moments together.
For a couple of days, they explore the desert, themselves, and each other, rarely running into another person (“By now,” Brooks asserts, “the idea was that you would be not quite knowing where on earth this story was going, because it’s taken some fairly unusual turns.”) When they take a boat across a lake, the old-timer boatman tactlessly jokes about Australian-Japanese history. “In the war, we thought you blokes were coming after us. We had stuff stashed away up in the hills, evacuation plans… Now you blokes own the place.” As Tilson puts it, “It’s about these two people who are floating together, whether floating in water, or floating on land, wherever they are, and in that image, they’re encapsulated, in this tiny just floating boat together, with all the preconceptions they have about each other and everybody else has about them.”
The boatman’s sentiment gets Sandy’s attention, her earlier resentment of Hiro now recontextualized. “Funny thing, life, isn’t it?” asks the old man. She smiles warmly at her Japanese lover, and he accepts her tacit apology. Following several more scenes that suggest their gradual affiliation, he thanks her. “Here in the dessert,” he says, “You have showed me something beautiful. Thank you.” They have, it appears, come to what Brooks calls a way of “being in the moment,” even as it starts to unravel.
Sandy and Hiro’s alternately sober and dizzy efforts to communicate across different languages and cultures complicate what might seem a simple, sentimental, and sensual relationship. And so, the film’s drastic change-up in mood and meaning, brought on by a truly unexpected plot turn, also connects with its thematic interests, in fragmented experience, isolation, and identity, as these are affected by Sandy and Hiro’s collision. Ultimately, Japanese Story is not very “Japanese.” Rather, it’s about the damage done by stereotypes and expectations. Sandy’s efforts to think beyond her own horizon occasionally fall short, remaining “boxed in,” but she comes to understand her limits.