Monday, 14 June 2004

Review: Japanese Story

(Warning: this review gives away spoilers on a turning point in the film. I'll put an appropriate warning just before the spoilers.)

Sometimes, someone flies in like a comet in your life, and the beauty of it is in the evanescence of the interaction. In Japanese Story, director Sue Brooks gives us a geologist named Sandy (Toni Collette), and a protagonist named Hiro (Gotaro Tsunashima). Their names may be obvious, but little else is about their characters: Tachibana Hiromitsu (to use his full name) is the straight-laced, buttoned-down product of Japanese cultural norms and stifling family business, while Sandy is the hard-as-nails geologist. No hearts on sleeves here. There's obviously more to the two main characters, of course. Collette does a wonderful job of depicting Sandy visibly softening as she gets into contact with Hiro. Collette's face, looking upon Hiro emerging from the water, is a wonder of multiple emotions: curiosity, aesthetic appreciation of his body, archness. And Hiro clearly has reserves - an offhand reference to a Mayan temple, for one - that are untapped (geology metaphor deliberate).

Sandy's supposed to show Hiro around and sell him some geological software in doing so, which makes for some standard, but funny, cross-cultural misunderstandings. This is the first time I've seen Toni Collette in an Australian movie since Muriel's Wedding (not sure if it was her first Aussie movie post-Muriel), but she was amazing in that and she brought redemption to what could otherwise have been a completely pitiable character in About a Boy. And so no surprises to find her physicality marks her powerful acting in this movie: at the start, she's visibly hard, her powerful shoulders taking the load of bearing this boy-man.

Ah, but lulled into a different world, enduring the intensity of the outback landscape, the two slowly fall for each other. Under that searing desert sun, what are cultural differences, after all? There's a transporting quality to certain landscapes: it's similar to the way the intensity of the Mexican sun makes a mockery of age differences in Japón (the Mexican film I watched at last year's Singapore Film Festival). Actually, Japanese Story made me think a lot about Japón. Superficially, both feature Japan in their titles; more pertinently, both feature wide expanses of uninhabited space and that overpowering sun with its shimmering mirages and the joy and madness therein. Maybe it's because the condition's so alien to someone who's most used to city life and who was shocked at the amount of empty space in Massachusetts (gives you an idea how cramped Singapore is) but filmic depictions of vast expanses of alien landscape (like the Joshua Tree National Park in twentyninepalms) and the quality of sunlight on sand (see
Y Tu Mama Tambien) have a tendency to scorch my mind. The endless outback in Japanese Story creates a kind of hypnosis, and Ian Baker's nifty camera work in depicting it makes it easy to see how both parties crumble and fall for each other.

That leads to an initial sex scene both awkward and tender, and constantly remarked upon in other reviews: Sandy puts on Hiro's trousers, climbs on him and the two make love. What does wearing the trousers mean? That the only way past the impasse of their cultures is for her to slip into his clothing? That the only way past his initial sexism is to literally wear the pants in the coupling? That she needs clothing initially because she fears intimacy? All of the above?

But then, the film also suggests, perhaps we cannot know all there is to know about a person. The scene where Sandy screams at her mother for presuming to know what the Japanese are like spoke to something in me: people - both Asians and non-Asians - like to say "well, Asians are like that". But all we can say, really, is generally people of a certain nationality might behave in certain ways. How much can we say or know about an individual? Easy enough to pigeonhole Hiro, but this is a man who hid the existence of his family; a man who has poetry in him; a man who was boorish; a man who hates karaoke - in other words, an individual.

*** (spoiler ahead) ***

Events in the film take a sudden turn halfway through, with the death of Hiro. The scene where the couple's stuck SUV gets out of the bog and Hiromitsu jumps up and down in celebration is pure unbridled joy, and I was genuinely affected thinking about it later on, at the moment of Hiro's death. Which leads to the central question in thinking about the film: what to make of Hiro's sudden death? When he died I thought of the abrupt ending of the Mill on the Floss, with pages upon pages of aching emotions and turmoil ended by a sudden flood. (I also thought of the abrupt death by spontaneous combustion in Bleak House, but we'll leave that aside.) There's a stark sense of sadness at Hiro's loss of life just at the moment that he's found himself, but the ending makes the death somehow redemptive. In a way, death enabled Hiro to avoid the natural, inevitable closing of his now-open heart.

In the end, there's a lot on the value of things left unsaid: Hiro's wife, coming to Australia to claim the body, looks through the photos of Sandy and Hiro, and passes Hiro's note on to her. Perhaps Sandy and Hiro, affectionate as they are, could not really have bridged the language gap in the long run. Perhaps aspects about each other would've driven the other mad. Perhaps. But there was a joy in the transience itself: he came into her life, and she came into his, a sparkling moment, all the sadder for being abruptly cut short.




my favourite clothing brand from japan is bape


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