This Australian film can be looked on as a sort of mirror copy of “Lost in Translation.” In Sue Brooks’s picture, the setting is the wide open spaces Down Under instead of the crowded streets of Tokyo, and the visitor in the quasi-romance is a Japanese businessman who’s out of his element, rather than a visiting American actor. (He links up with a brassy Aussie woman who becomes his unwilling tour guide.) But while “Japanese Story” is, like “Translation,” basically a rather slight two-hander, it takes a turn that’s far more passionate and dark than anything in Sofia Coppola’s surprise hit, and raises issues of paths not taken and regretful necessities more bluntly than the earlier picture did. The deliberate pacing and curiously brooding atmosphere are unlikely to endear this “Story” to as many viewers as “Translation” won over, but in its curiously muted, ruminative fashion it proves oddly affecting.
Toni Collette is onscreen almost continuously as Sandy Edwards, a geologist whose boss Baird (Matthew Dyktynski) persuades her to take Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), the son of one of their clients, out to an excavation site in Western Australia although she’s reluctant to do so. He turns out to be a stiff, demanding fellow who irritates her to no end, and she’s angered even more when he demands to be driven deep into the forbidding Pilbara desert and she has to comply for business reasons. A series of misadventures follows–one of the most engaging comes when the duo is stranded on an isolated road and must work together to get their truck out of the sand–and as they proceed, Hiromitsu gradually loosens up and Sandy warms to him. But what looks to be heading into romantic territory diverges sharply, though it would be unfair to reveal precisely how. Suffice it to say that Hiromitsu’s home ties figure in a denouement that’s surprisingly powerful, given the relative lightness of the picture’s first hour.
The success of a two-hander, which is what “Japanese Story” basically is, depends largely on the leads, and in this respect the film is very fortunate. Collette manages to remain likable even though toward the beginning she has to be brusque and antagonistic and in the late reels must register deep sadness and regret. Tsunashima matches her with a performance that ranges from laconic rigidity to an almost childish abandon. In lesser roles, Dyktynski registers nicely as the pleasant bloke who’s Sandy’s boss, and Lynette Curran makes the most of a few short scenes as her mother. Yumiko Tanaka also makes a strong impression as Hiromitsu’s wife. But the best supporting turn comes from the Australian locations, which are stunning and very well captured in Ian Baker’s expert cinematography.
There’s a simplicity to “Japanese Story” that’s quite winning and, in the latter stages, moving as well. Its deliberate, elegiac style does make for some longueurs, and you may find that, especially toward the close, it tends to repeat its point a bit too insistently. But overall the makers sustain its fragile, delicate and touching spirit with considerable skill.