Japanese Story

Building on its international debut at Cannes in May this year, Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003) has utilised three main attractions to build an audience locally and to sell in overseas territories. The first attraction is the Pilbara region in Western Australia, its vast natural scale matched by the gargantuan mechanical scale of the iron ore mining industry, courtesy of BHP-Billiton. The second attraction is a narrative premise based on a contrast of scale between figure and landscape: two miniature urban figures arrive at an unexpected moment of intimacy in the vast, “unmapped” outback. The third attraction is Toni Collette’s return to screen in a quintessential Australian role, a role honed into national recognition through a series of iconic performances of Australian masculinity by the likes of Chips Rafferty, Bill Hunter, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson and Ray Barrett.

Japanese Story had its origins in a proposal from Film Australia’s Sharon Connolly to scriptwriter Alison Tilson several years ago. Connolly was interested in a film that would explore the cross-cultural tensions ignited by a relationship between an Australian woman and a Japanese man. Tilson’s imagination was seized by Connolly’s vision of a Japanese guy driving alone through the Australian desert. Film Australia commissioned two script drafts before its charter changed, preventing it from investing in feature films. Inspired by Connolly’s vision, Tilson (together with producer Sue Maslin and director Sue Brooks) developed a cross-cultural plot, based on an encounter between an Australian geologist, Sandy (Toni Collette), and a Japanese businessman, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima). The backdrop to this encounter was eventually shifted from the Whyalla industrial area of South Australia (where Tilson grew up) to the remote and spectacular Pilbara iron ore region in Western Australia.

Although Collette’s performance as Sandy, the Perth-based geologist, is being promoted by the film’s American distributor (Samuel Goldwyn) as a potential Oscar winner, the Australian version of the film begins with Gotaro Tsunashima as the somewhat enigmatic Hiromitsu, neither tourist nor businessman, though he goes through the motions as both. The film’s post-Mabo consciousness is marked by Hiromitsu’s sampling of Australian music on CD, with Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty” playing in the hire car as Hiromitsu photographs his own estranged presence in the empty Australian outback. The narrative then shifts to Sandy in Perth (at work, at home, at her mother’s place) before she is thrown together at a regional airport with Hiromitsu. Their initial encounter turns into a wry comedy of cross-cultural misunderstanding as Sandy and Hiromitsu make their way, somewhat haphazardly, by 4WD into iron ore country. Here the film takes on a documentary tone as Sandy and Hiromitsu experience a Lilliputian shift in scale at the BHP-Billiton mine. It is this shift in scale, this diminution of mundane worries (as much as an unscheduled night bogged in the desert) which takes Sandy and Hiromitsu out of themselves and leads to an idyllic cessation of conflict as they embark on a serendipitous detour together, “off the map”.

In the first act of Japanese Story, broadly recognisable national differences are mapped onto (slightly bent takes on) gender and sexuality, producing low-key comic moments. In the second act, the ironies of gender and tensions of sexuality are resolved. Cultural differences between Japan and Australia become a point of reciprocal exchange between Sandy and Hiromitsu, rather than sources of mutual misreading. However in the third act, the film’s intimate encounter between an Australian geologist and a Japanese businessman takes an unexpected turn. By taking its characters “off the map”, the film loosens, momentarily, the cultural moorings of identity. Breaking with the melancholy, defeated endings typical of landscape cinema, Japanese Story hopes that, by delivering a sudden shock, it will take the audience with it on Sandy’s journey out of habitual isolation, both personal and cultural. This turning point contains a new idea, suggesting that it is grief rather than sexual intimacy that is capable of breaking down the defensive hide that preserves a certain insularity in Australian national identity. The strength of Japanese Story lies in its belief that the audience will change gears and go through grief with Sandy to arrive at a deeper, though no less intimate, form of self-recognition through the eyes of an other.

Japanese Story

An undercurrent of grief makes itself felt early in the film, somewhat inexplicably. On the surface we have a cross-cultural conflict between two equally stubborn characters. Sandy, surly but hardworking, is irritated by the imposition of Hiromitsu’s polite but determined demand for a driver to chauffeur him on a pointless and potentially hazardous trip to random destinations in the Western Australian desert. Hiromitsu’s restraint, by contrast with Sandy’s brusque manner, has warmth and charm. At first their journey is fraught with tension as they share a cold night bogged in desert sand. This misadventure leads to a rapprochement, and, inevitably, to a sexual encounter which opens the way for a stolen moment, for breathing space from work and family. Together, Sandy and Hiromitsu find a waterhole, a rocky oasis, somewhere out there, beyond the iron ore mines, off the map. And there the idyll comes to an end. As events prove, Sandy was right to adopt a tough stance towards Hiromitsu’s cavalier embrace of wide-open spaces.

To its credit Japanese Story delivers much more than we have come to expect from Australian films in the way it resolves its premise. The final act complicates the film’s initial themes and intensifies our experience. A sustained denouement occurs through the slow accretion of finely observed details. Unlike the meandering trip into the desert, the return journey takes the most direct route home. As the 4WD heads south, we recognise the magnitude of this return for Sandy as she begins to feel the full weight of her responsibility to Hiromitsu and his wife. As Sandy re-enters the urban world, we recognise that the intimate encounter in a vast open space has stripped her of emotional safeguards, softening her defences against the unbounded territory of grief which awaits her in Perth. Japanese Story is prepared to go the distance with grief, but this entails leaving the desert landscape behind. In its final passage, the film shifts scale one last time. The timeless space of the outback gives way to the city whose space is beset by global meshings of capital, technology and labour. The universe recedes and everyday necessities re-assert their claim on our attention. A distinctive view of life is expressed in the film’s shifting of gears back and forth between the closely-observed minutiae of everyday life and sudden, devastating moments of clarity about our common fate, writ large. This contingent view is evident in earlier films by the Gecko creative team (Brooks, Maslin and Tilson). It is manifest in their acute observation of the accidental details which make up a life, and the sudden rupture of the everyday by fate or accident. It is this moment of rupture which carries the denouement of the film into relatively unexplored territory in Australian landscape cinema. In Japanese Story this territory of grief and loss is connected directly to the landscape and the body in a way that suggests cultural difference is not untranslatable. Rather, cultural difference can be translated and understood through the body. Sandy, as her mother’s daughter, and Hiromitsu, as the son of a powerful off-screen father, embody certain culturally recognisable emotions and gestures handed down from one generation to the next. The task of the final act of the film is to show how Sandy’s embodiment of grief opens up the possibility of understanding an other culture, beyond the sexual and linguistic exchanges of the first two acts of the film. This attempt at translation takes place in the context of an inward-looking, post-Mabo sense of Australian nationhood.

While Japanese Story was in development during the late 1990s, a road trip into the Australian outback became the leitmotiv of two other feature films involving a romance between Australian and Japanese characters in lead roles, Heaven’s Burning (Craig Lahiff, 1997) and The Goddess of 1967 (Clara Law, 2001). Like The Goddess of 1967, Japanese Story explores cross-cultural incomprehension in terms of gender and sexuality. Both films take their mismatched characters on a road journey which reveals the inhospitable outback as a productive although not entirely liveable space for the mining industry. In all three films the trip into the outback opens up the possibility of translating Australian experience into an international idiom through the eyes of an other. Japanese Story also deploys some of the same spatial and temporal tropes as Heaven’s Burning. Both films share a sense of the outback as a breathing space for the Japanese characters seeking escape from the pressures of corporate Japan. Both films cast the Australian characters as laconic locals, attuned to the dangers lurking in wide-open spaces. Minor characters in both films register an unforgiving national memory of Australia’s wartime enmity with Japan, a memory which persists alongside economic and cultural acceptance of Japanese investment and tourism in post-war Australia.

Like The Goddess of 1967 and Heaven’s Burning, Japanese Story was conceived in the mid-1990s when the national agenda was dominated by heated debates over the republic, refugees, reconciliation, One Nation’s anti-Asia stance, the report on the Stolen Generation, and the Mabo and Wik judgments on terra nullius and Native Title. However, Japanese Story was not released until after September 11, after the Bali bombing and the “Coalition of the Willing’s” war on Iraq. This belated release has created a time lag, producing an altered context for the reception of Australian films over the past two years. Many films conceived in the pre-September 11 era continue to address the inward-looking national agenda of the 1990s described above. Yet they have been released in the post-September 11 era, producing an odd effect of belatedness as filmmakers face the task of accompanying their finished films into a changed national and global context.

The sense of an inward-looking gaze, despite the cross-cultural plot in Japanese Story, arises from its revival of familiar Australian landscapes (remote, desert, outback) and character types (brash, laconic, independent) as the bedrock of an Australian identity based on white settler masculinity. In this regard, Japanese Story reprises an unmarked, Anglo-Celtic, rather than cosmopolitan or multicultural, concept of Australian-ness. The film emphasises the difficulties of cultural translation in terms of national differences (even in the iron ore industry where doing business with Japan has long been part of the daily routine). This emphasis harks back to a core sense of Australian-ness honed into the body from one generation (of films, of screen actors) to the next.

Japanese Story

The landscape tradition in Australian cinema has to some extent been the crucible of national gestures, embodied and honed by icons of Australian masculinity. The longevity of the non-urban, outback landscape in Australian cinema over several decades has perpetuated the idea that somehow the national character, forged in the bush, will always be defeated by the desert. There’s a certain melancholy at the heart of this tradition, yet, in Japanese Story grief breaks through the toughened emotional exterior of melancholic, settler Australians. For once, this melancholic settler is embodied as female by Sandy and her mother. By contrast, Hiromitsu and his wife, Yukiko, through the emphatic formality and precision of their gestures, seem capable of expressing with great self-possession and cultural ease, the subtle emotions aroused by betrayal and loss. Ultimately, the film insists that cultural difference can be translated and understood in ways that go deeper than the exchange of business cards or even the erotic encounter of bodies. Sandy’s journey takes her to a rare moment of cultural translation near the end of the film, when, resting on the arm of a chair, she takes on the embodied composure, presence and stillness we have come to associate firstly with Hiromitsu and then his wife.

There’s something in the way that Collette’s performance reaches this moment of composure, by backtracking through familiar icons of character and landscape, that is deeply tied to the post-Mabo era. This era demands that frontier history be remembered and worked through, that settler Australia do the work of mourning entailed in giving up a form of emotional insularity which turns a blind eye to our place on the map and to the myth of terra nullius. Taken as allegory, Japanese Story is indebted to the landscape tradition in that it imbues its characters and landscapes with the sense that what ails urban white settler Australia is a barely-felt spiritual malaise. This malaise is registered by the film in Collette’s lean, taut body, her emotional distance, and unadorned face. Collette’s boney embodiment of the laconic Sandy contrasts with the full-bodied Muriel, the female grotesque of Muriel’s Wedding (Paul J. Hogan, 1994) who launched Collette’s career and made her an icon of “quirky Australian comedies”. Since then, Collette’s international career, and her various nominations for supporting roles, has put some distance between her screen persona and Muriel. Thus, it is intriguing to see Collette return, a decade later, to the Australian screen in a reprise of a laconic masculinity whose lineage stretches from Chips Rafferty to Russell Crowe. Some may object that Collette in fact reprises the resourceful and independent bush woman, renowned in Australian film and literature since the 1920s. An argument could be made for that position, however, a post-Mabo reading might align Sandy (and Collette’s face in the film) with Ross Gibson’s description of “the generic Central Queensland face that takes shape in every generation of settler-descendants” (1).

A landscape unto itself, this face can still be seen today in pubs and diners, in the cabs of trucks. The mouth is a serrated horizon-line. Furrows mark a neck and jaw-line champed to the rigours of adversity. Eyes are tarped with forebearance. When one encounters the face in bus stations and roadhouses, it is usually not reading or talking. It is persisting, wasting no vigour, wisely, and keeping to itself whatever it knows (2).

In this face Gibson sees “a regional ‘affliction’ … Or … history” (3). It is this afflicted face that is feminised in Collette’s face (eyes-widened, lips filled out) yet stripped to the bone, honed to an abiding grief which Japanese Story, in its final movement back to Perth, refuses to deny.

Without setting aside the film’s interest in the cross-cultural encounters opened up by late modernity’s global flows of people and capital, it is the post-Mabo “opening of the heart” to grief which I take to be the unexpected, unpredictable move which connects Japanese Story to the recent set of backtracking moments we have seen in the revival of the desert landscape tradition in a series of films from Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002) to One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins, 2001). Although Japanese Story does not directly confront the abiding issue of white-settler misrecognition of Indigenous land rights based on terra nullius, the film does connect grief and loss to landscape and national identity. This connection has become more overt in Australian films of the post-Mabo era and need not be mistaken for a return to earlier forms of national insularity.


  1. Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland, University of Queensland Press, 2002, p. 93
  2. Gibson, pp. 93-4
  3. Gibson, p. 94

About The Author

Felicity Collins is Adjunct Associate Professor, Creative Arts and English, La Trobe University.

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