Japanese Story (review)

Sue Brooks (dir.) Japanese Story. 2003.

I was determined not to like this film, and so, unsurprisingly, I didn’t.

On one level, this is a film about a woman’s being forced to face and accept the reality of death. That part of it, which occupies the last twenty minutes or so, is mildly emotionally affecting. It is not, however, a particularly original theme, and nor is it exceptionally well-executed here.

The rest of the film, which is about an encounter between an East Asian man and an Australian woman, has little to recommend it. My first grievance, which I commonly hold against Australian films, is that it indulges in a view of Australia that is dominated by the outback. Since the majority of our population lives in state capital cities and their suburbs, this prevents such films from accurately representing Australian life even as they use farms or ‘the red centre’ to visually signify their Australian-ness.

Japanese Story also manifestly misrepresents East Asia and the Australian relationship with it. Why, for instance, does this encounter occur between a Japanese man and a white Australian woman? It’s not the 1980s anymore, and Japan is no longer the world-fascinating economic miracle that it once was. China and Southeast Asia are stronger presences in our cities, our culture, and our international political and economic contexts.

Accepting, though, that for whatever reason, scriptwriter Alison Tilson decided to focus on Japan (I would have done the same, Japanophile that I am), the representation of Japanese culture is stereotyped and outdated. Hiromitsu, and later in the film, his wife, are completely alien presences, whom the female protagonist, Sandy Edwards (Toni Collette), evidently struggles to understand or communicate with on all levels but those of primal emotion and desire. The Japanese characters appear, also, to have come out of the distant past, adhering assiduously to the idea prevalent in the West of the 1970s and 1980s that Japan is an unfailingly rule-bound, reserved, formal and traditional culture. To make this impression even clearer, scenes that are meant to be emotional, such as the sex-scene between Hiromitsu and Sandy, are overlaid with traditional Japanese music, rather than the J-Pop that would be more familiar to most Japanese ears (and also to many Australian ones). I get a stronger sense of Japanese contemporaneity from some historical films, such as The Last Samurai (set directly after the Meiji Restoration of 1868) than from Japanese Story.

In addition, this is a story about a gauche, uncosmopolitan Australian’s relatively neat encounter with Asia. Hiromitsu arrives on a business trip, sees some of our iconic landscape, has sex with Sandy twice, dies, and then is taken back in a coffin by his Japanese wife. Hello Asia. Goodbye Asia. This is not the Asia that Australians engaged with it know. This is not the Asia where some of my good friends, who I have known for several years, were born. This is not the Asia whose daughters I have dated. It is not the Asia some of whose values I have learned and adopted, by learning about Zen and about classical Chinese philosophy. It is not the Asia that I buy $6 meals from in the Melbourne CBD. It is not the Asia where I intend to teach English after I finish my PhD.

The director, Brooks, and scriptwriter, Tilson, seem to have no real knowledge about the realities of Asian (in this case, Japanese) life or culture, or about the ‘Australian’ relationship with Asia. For them, Japan is just a novelty, a disposable piece of the exotic.

In conclusion, here’s a list of other things that I found noteworthy about Japanese Story:

  • Before Sandy has sex with Hiromitsu for the first time, she gets naked, then puts on Hiromitsu’s pants. She then rides him, cowgirl style, without us seeing her taking off the pants. Why she puts the pants on is unclear. It is also unclear how they were able to have sex, since the pants would have made it difficult, if not impossible.
  • There are far too many shots of cars driving down roads, and of other things which do not advance the story or develop the characters. There is also not enough dialogue. This makes the film unneccessarily boring.
  • The film was funded by numerous government agencies. This is a disgrace. Even if it had been a good film, it would still be a luxury, and the government has no business taking our money only to give it back as luxuries we did not choose. I propose an immediate end to all government funding for the arts.
  • The most valuable lesson Japanese Story has to teach us is this: never dive into a body of water before you check that it is safe to do so.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.