Japanese Story has been frustrating critics from one end of Australia to the other; not because it’s a bad film, indeed, quite the reverse, but because it is almost impossible to actually discuss what the film is about without opening up a whole billabong of spoilers. This will be one such review.
I caught the film on the opening night of MIFF on a very rainy night in Melbourne in July; being transported to the red heat of Western Australia was welcome relief, even if only cinematically. Cast and crew were present, and the scriptwriter actually asked us not to give away the ending; I believe Hitchcock made the same request of his audience, so we had to be in for something interesting.
So, spoiler free, and some could argue content free, here’s my running account: The film starts out ordinary, even banal; mis-matched strangers are thrown together and, well shucks, they get to like each other. Around this part the film is so by-the-numbers that it wanders over into suck country. Then there’s an unexpected development, and by the time you’ve processed that, the film has become extraordinary, with a lyrical but in some ways unresolved ending of near-perfection.
An armload of AFI awards later, it seems that Japanese Story is the best Australian film of 2003. I’d tend to agree. I was struck by similarities to Clara Law’s Goddess of 1967 (superficially perhaps, both feature an Aussie/Japanese tag-team road trip); whereas Law and cinematographer Dion Beebe made the more visually arresting film, Sue Brooks’ has more heart.
Four key factors contribute to the success of Japanese Story: an intelligent exploration of an unexpected issue; the lyrical music, blending as it does Australian and Japanese emotions; the cinematography, but then no-one ever did too badly pointing a camera at the Australian outback; and above all Toni Collette, whose talent at the current exchange rate surely must be worth at least 9.1 Nicole Kidmans.