A more accurate title for Japanese Story might be “Australian Story.” Much of it takes place in the Pilbara desert, where a relationship evolves between workaholic geologist Sandy (Toni Collette) and Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima). The two meet when Sandy is asked to escort Hiromitsu across the Pilbara, a gorgeous, sparsely populated desert in northwestern Australia, in order to secure funding for her work.
At first, Sandy and Hiro are visibly repulsed by each other, their cultural differences a basis for misunderstanding and mutual derision. She sees Hiro as too manicured, privileged, and willfully ignorant of his surroundings (he wears a suit for their trip into the desert). He mistakes her for his driver and is clearly uncomfortable with her gruff demeanor and “unfeminine” behavior. After their vehicle is unexpectedly stuck in mud overnight, the two are forced to spend a freezing night in the desert together, during which Hiro begins to appreciate Sandy’s authoritative knowledge of desert survival. They emerge from the experience a couple. While this development sounds like that of a formulaic romantic comedy, Japanese Story mostly avoids clichés. Like the striking landscape where it is filmed, the movie is unpredictable, hard-edged, and strangely beautiful.
The desert itself is lovely but deceptively hostile, while Sandy and Hiro are the opposite, outwardly antagonistic but harboring deep loneliness that makes them long for connection. Sandy is open about her ignorance of “the Japanese.” She is put on the defensive when her equally scruffy colleagues show that they already know proper cross-cultural business etiquette: they pass out business cards on cue and bow respectfully to Hiro, while Sandy looks lost. In response, she takes time to secretly read up on Japan, curious about Hiro’s culture but too full of pride to ask him about it directly.
Unsurprisingly, Sandy’s brusque exterior covers a longing to connect. In early scenes of the film, she appears a stereotypical careerist single: she unabashedly wolfs down baked beans alone in a sterile apartment and misses a date with a friend because she is working. Sandy and Hiro’s extended time in the desert allows her to reveal a more playful side to her personality.
It is appropriate, then, that Sandy and Hiro’s first love scene displays her multiplicity, her tendency to dominance and vulnerability. She seduces Hiro by putting on his suit trousers, and wears them as they make love. This scene turns Hiro’s initial discomfort with what he sees as Sandy’s aggressive behavior on its head. Director Sue Brooks cuts between both Hiro’s perspective looking up and Sandy’s looking down at her new lover, demonstrating that Sandy and Hiro now accept each other completely. During this scene, they find figurative middle ground in their conflicting expectations about gender and “appropriate” conduct.
The two quickly develop a deep bond, despite the fact that they don’t speak each other’s language. Paradoxically, as they grow closer, the “classic” culture clash between Sandy and Hiro is also intensified by the reverberating politics of the Pacific arena during World War II. The film explores how memory of national events, even those generations removed, can inform personal experience. In a key scene, Sandy and Hiro take a rowboat to a touristy spot on a desert lake, sitting silently while their elder Australian guide recounts the reasons for his “suspicions” of the Japanese, owing to the fear of an invasion during World War II. Now, the guide clearly resents having to rely on Japanese tourists for his livelihood.
Hiro can’t help but understand the gist of this invective, and Sandy remains silent. Given her previous outspokenness, it seems odd that she allows her lover to be subject to this overt racism, until you remember (as she may also) that she too has made racist presumptions. It is moments like these, when the film steers away from tidy messages about love and unity, that it complicates our own presumptions, about awareness and prejudice, genre and character.
Sandy is an untraditional heroine — fallible and judgmental as well as sympathetic — in a film that subverts two traditionally “feminine” genres, romantic comedy in the first half and melodrama in the second. Midway through the film, Sandy unexpectedly loses her relationship with Hiro, and it is here that the film veers into melodrama. Sandy was “in her element” in the desert, and the desolation of the Pilbara shelters Sandy and Hiro’s fledgling affair. This allows both of them to accept themselves by opening up to each other in the relative safety of their isolation. Suddenly back in the city and in the midst of her job and acquaintances, Sandy is alone again. Her challenge is allow the fearlessness she displayed in her sojourn in the Outback to seep into her life at home.