Japanese Story (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

One thumb down, one up.

Scoop's comments in white:

The basic structure of this film is familiar. It's a tragic romance in the form of a three-act play.

Act 1: They hate each other. An Aussie woman and a visiting Japanese man are at odds over their cultural differences. She talks too loud. He's too arrogant and patronizing and sexist. Yadda yadda.

Act 2: They love each other. They end up bonding when they are stuck together in the desert. They form the uneasy beginning of a romantic relationship.

Act 3: They lose everything. He dies in an accident while they are deep in the outback. She has to go through the very difficult process of carrying him back to their vehicle, driving his corpse back to the nearest town, and seeing how his body is handled in a small town with no doctor, in which the undertaker preserves bodies in an ice house. She spends the rest of the film dealing with grief, and her own guilt about his death, and his widow. (Turns out he was married with two children.) She is sometimes overwhelmed by the sense of having lost someone before getting to know him as well as she wanted to.

Japanese Story is only about 95 minutes long, but it took me about 8 hours to watch it. I watched 20 minutes, then surfed the web for Other Crap, then watched 10 minutes, then checked the ball scores, then another 20 minutes, then went out to work on my spikes for a while (I play volleyball), and so forth. I took not one but two naps during this movie.

I won't say it isn't good. That would not be fair, but I just couldn't get through this Aussie movie, despite the fact that it won just about every award the Aussie Academy had to offer, and features an excellent performance from character actress Toni Collette, who got to play the romantic lead for a change. Lots of respected critics loved it, Tuna really liked it (see below), but I just couldn't ever get into it.

Why? Well, most important, it is one of those movies that only shows a very few scenes, but virtually shows them in real time. People gather to talk, one woman walks out of the room silently. The camera follows her every footstep. She changes her mind and walks back in to say something. The camera follows her every footstep. I guess it's just me, but I really prefer some compression in my movie scripts. As I see it, fealty to Aristotle's unity of time makes for mighty boring viewing. That sort of direction makes my life difficult enough when it involves city scenes, but this film also used that technique in the desert. Car driving, driving, driving, driving, driving .... I got the goddamned point. Car keeps driving through nowhere. Great vast, dirty, red expanses of nowhere. Point delivered. Move on.

If this sort of pacing doesn't bother you (it didn't seem to bother many critics), then the film may be your cup of tea more than it was mine.

There was a second reason that it was irritating. It has a bizarre, patronizing view of Japanese culture. It assumes (as I guess many Westerners do) that because the Japanese come from a fairly rigid culture, that they cannot really ever leave Japan, because they expect the rest of the world to adapt to their ways when they arrive on foreign soil. You know, I find this completely illogical, as well as contrary to my own experiences. Japanese businessmen have been successful throughout the world, both in forging local relationships and in devising solid business systems. Of course they have their own ways of doing things, and they adhere to those ways when they are among one another, just as we adhere to our ways when we are the only ones in the room, but Japanese businessmen are educated very well in general. Now when we are going through school, we learn that other people have different ways of looking at life, and that other cultures have different signs of respect and disrespect, and arrange their priorities in different orders. We learn that our ability to adapt to other cultures affects our likelihood to make a sale in their country. Why do we assume that the Japanese are not privy to this same wisdom? Why do we assume that Japanese people do not also take those same courses in Sociology and World Geography and Marketing, and learn the same things we learn. I just have to assume that the Japanese out of Japan are not generally the cloistered and inflexible buffoons pictured in movies.

We have one Japanese man visiting Australia by himself in this film. Is he going to assume that all Australian women are his inferiors and that he should let them carry his baggage for him? Is he going to do all the traditional Japanese bowing and handing the business card with two hands, and acting like a Japanese caricature from a 1930s movie? Are intelligent Japanese people incapable of functioning outside their own culture? I don't think so. He hasn't been living in a monastery, for heaven's sake. I think he is aware that Australia is not a part of Japan, and he would therefore make an effort to adapt to Aussie customs, probably reading up on local customs in advance, just as an American, Brit, or German would do if he called on someone in Indonesia, for example. I reckon he would realize that Australian women can be CEOs and scientists. If he were stuck in the desert with his life in peril, I don't think he would refuse to use his cell phone to call for help, because of the shame of getting stuck out there. Hey, the Japanese may have a rigid and tradition-oriented culture, but that doesn't mean they are stupid and want to die for no good reason.

At one point, the Japanese guy turns to his Aussie companion and says, "your country is so big, and there are so few people." You mean that just dawned on him after a week or so in Western Australia? He wasn't aware of the size and population of Australia from his studies back in Kyoto? He wasn't aware that just about all of non-coastal Australia, especially the mining area, is a vast expanse of mostly uninhabited outback? Give me a break. We would never believe that a Dutchman or a Swede would be this naive. Why would we accept it from a Japanese character?

Furthermore, a really savvy Japanese businessman would never say something like this in Australia to an Australian, because it plays right into the Xenophobic belief of some Australians that the Japanese want to buy up Australia because they are running out of room in their own country. The Japanese know that this flaming paranoia exists, and they would not deliberately fan that flame.

Frankly, I found this whole portrayal to be well-meaning but actually subtle, patronizing racism.

I had two other, more minor, objections to this film.

1. The scene transitions drove me crazy. I mentioned before that there are very few scenes, but each one is explored deliberately. That technique means that there are sometimes very large storyline gaps between scenes - too large, in my opinion. One example: after the two mismatched companions escape the desert, they head back toward civilization. The two of them have never kissed or held hands. They stop driving when it gets dark. CUT. New scene begins - the Japanese guy is lying in bed on his back, shirtless, and the Aussie woman is playing with his nipples. She gets undressed, then puts on his pants, then mounts him. No talk, no kissing, no handholding. Straight to the chase.  I guess I should probably praise them for an innovative approach which avoided all the clichés, but I felt uncomfortable. I looked away in embarrassment as if I felt they shouldn't have been there together, and I wondered how they got to that point. Seemed very ungainly to me.

2. The finale of the movie consists of his voice reading a letter he wrote her, a note which she was supposed to read after he boarded a plane back to Kyoto. He did end up on that plane, of course, but he was in a pine box at the time. The sad Japanese music plays. It sounds like all the notes are made with different cowbells. Based on the soundtrack to this movie, I have concluded that Christopher Walken would love Japan, because it's the one place where he would never need more cowbell. As the voice-over speaks the words of the letter in pidgin English ... well, I don't really have to tell you what it said. If I had been directing this movie, I would have nuked the "letter from the dead" in a New York Minute. Now that the 1930s are over, this technique should be restricted only to Mariah Carey movies.

(In case that reference was too obscure, they used the same cliché in Mariah's "Glitter")

It would be unfair for me to say that the movie is not good. Too many people liked it, and I take away many great memories of it.

His death in the billabong.

The small-town part-time coroner who stores bodies like cases of beer.

The spectacular redness and rugged emptiness of Western Australia.

The iconography was memorable.

The movie, however, good as it may be (and I'm not convinced it is that good), has a very tiny but very appreciative audience. I tried to like it because it is just so earnest, but I couldn't.


Toni Collette shows her breasts and buns before and during the sex scene.

Tuna's comments in yellow:

Japanese Story (2003) is an Australian cross cultural communications study and a look at just how relationships, however fleeting can impact our lives. It is told within a tragic love story. Toni Collette is a bright geologist, and partner in a firm trying to sell its software modeling program. She is called upon to play tour guide to a visiting Japanese businessman, and, hopefully, get him interested in the product. She knows nothing about Japan or the Japanese, and is not thrilled about this baby sitting task. Their initial meeting doesn't go well at all. He gives her his business card, and she unceremoniously stuffs it into her back pocket. He waits for her to load his luggage into the van. She is sure he is an arrogant asshole, and he sees her as nothing but a driver with a loud mouth and a big butt.

It is not until he forces her to drive off the highway and they get stuck in a bog in the middle of nowhere that they start communicating. Somethign about being in a life or death situation breaks down the barriers. Seems he was experiencing burnout, hence his trip to Australia. It is two short steps from understanding to bed, and then she discovers that he has a wife and kids in Japan. Meanwhile, he no longer feels like his life with family and work obligations and an overcrowded country are closing in on him.

Spoilers Ahead

He breaks his neck diving into a shallow billabong, and the rest of the film deals with notifying his wife, making arrangements, and Collette making peace with the wife and herself. This third act is really the meat of the film, and it is very well crafted.

End Spoilers

It is a character piece start to finish, and we understand the depths of emotion of all the principals as well as exactly how deeply a brief encounter can touch us. The photography is stunning. Those who know something about Japanese culture will probably get more from it than those who don't. This is a C+. If it is your sort of film, and you should know by now, it is very well made.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus three and a half stars. James Berardinelli 3.5/4, Roger Ebert 3.5/4, BBC 4/5.

  • It won 8 AFI awards, including Best Picture.

The People Vote ...

  • American Box Office - $590,000 in arthouse distribution in big markets only. It was never on more than 21 screens, but lasted many months without falling off. On Feb 1, it was on 17 screens. On May 9, it was still on 17 screens!
  • It had a similar record in the Australian Box Office. It lasted about 15 weeks in theaters, but ended up taking in only about three million koala bucks, never reaching more than 40 screens. (Blockbusters in Oz play on about 400 screens)
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. Read the descriptions carefully. If you like that kind of film, this one was a big award winner.

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