£ Building on its international debut at Cannes, Japanese Story (Sue Brooks,
< 2003) uses three forms of backtracking to build an audience locally and to sell in overseas territories.20 The first backtrack reprises the desert landscape as a timeless template of national character. The story is set in the spectacular Pilbara region of Western Australia, its vast natural scale matched by the gargantuan mechanical scale of the iron ore mining industry, courtesy of BHP-Billiton. The second backtrack involves a journey to the desert: two miniature urban figures arrive at an unexpected moment of intimacy in the vast, 'unmapped' outback. The third backtrack entails Toni Collette's return to screen in a quintessential Australian role, a role honed into national recognition through a series of iconic, laconic performances of Australian masculinity by the likes of Chips Rafferty, Ray Barrett, Bill Hunter, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe. Together, these three backtracking movements in Japanese Story expand a restricted national palette of laconic emotions to include guilt, grief and the desire for reparation.
Japanese Story had its origins in a proposal from Film Australia's Sharon Connolly to scriptwriter Alison Tilson in the mid-1990s, a period dominated by One Nation's populist stance against Asian immigration and debates about whether the Prime Minister should apologise to the Stolen Generations and those who continue to suffer as a result of colonisation. Connolly was interested in commissioning a film that would explore the cross-cultural tensions ignited by a relationship between an Australian woman and a Japanese man. Film Australia commissioned two script drafts before its charter changed, preventing it from further investment in feature films. Inspired by Connolly's vision of a Japanese man driving alone through the Australian desert, Tilson (together with producer Sue Maslin and director Sue Brooks) scripted a cross-cultural road movie, based loosely on romantic comedy's battle of the sexes, involving an Australian geologist, Sandy (Toni Collette), and a Japanese businessman, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima). The backdrop to this encounter was relocated, before the shoot, from the Whyalla industrial area of South Australia (where Tilson grew up) to the more remote Pilbara iron ore region in Western Australia.
Although Collette's performance as Sandy, the Perth-based geologist, U opens the American cut by the film's distributor (Samuel Goldwyn), the a Australian cut of the film begins with Gotaro Tsunashima as the somewhat z enigmatic Hiromitsu, alone in the desert, neither tourist nor businessman, g though he goes through the motions as both. The film's post-Mabo con- r sciousness is marked by Hiromitsu's sampling of Australian music on CD, f with Yothu Yindi's 'Treaty' playing in the hire car as Hiromitsu photographs his own estranged presence in the emptiness of the Australian outback. The narrative then shifts to Sandy in Perth (at work, at home, at her mother's place) before she is thrown together with Hiromitsu at Port Hedland regional airport. Their initial encounter turns into a wry comedy of cross-cultural misunderstanding as they make their way, somewhat haphazardly, by four-wheel drive 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 mutual recognition and 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 cultural differences are mapped onto (slightly bent takes on) gender and sexuality, producing low-key comic moments typical of the misrecognitions of romantic comedy. Broad differences are played out on the road as Sandy and Hiromitsu warily assess each other according to gender as well as cultural stereotypes. In the second act, cultural differences become a point of reciprocal exchange between Sandy and Hiromitsu, rather than sources of mutual misreading. In due course, the ironies of gender are put aside in favour of the more subtle tensions of sexuality and desire. As initial prejudices give way to sexual intimacy, Sandy dons Hiromitsu's black trousers in a slightly surreal expression of the enigma of antagonistic desire central to romantic comedy.
Although the first two acts of the film are structured by a familiar plot device of mutual antagonism followed by sexual rapprochement, a disturbing undercurrent of buried feeling makes itself felt early in the film through Sandy's emotional obtuseness towards her colleagues, her sexual partners and her best friend. The film establishes early, through her mother's collection of obituaries, that Sandy is habitually careless with her own feelings and insensitive to how others see her. When she is forced to go on the road with Hiromitsu, she glimpses herself through his eyes, and feels what it's like to be in his clothes. This recognition leads to a stolen moment, a breathing space, desired by both characters, from family, work, and self. Together, Sandy and g Hiromitsu find a waterhole, a rocky oasis, somewhere out there, beyond the js iron ore mines, off the map. And there the idyll comes to a shocking end. " By taking its characters on a final detour, off the map, the film loosens the cultural moorings of identity for a moment of freedom before shock releases
< a deluge of affect for Sandy, and for the tolerant spectator willing to indulge 2 Collette's sustained performance of shock, loss and grief.
u Breaking with the melancholic, defeated endings typical of Australian
« landscape cinema, Japanese Story uses the third act to deliver a sudden
< shock, contravening narrative expectations set up in the first two acts of the £ film. The dramatic turning point is based on a deeply embedded, culturally
< specific foreboding, to which Hiromitsu, as an outsider to Australian bush lore, is not privy. This turning point hangs on a single moment of horrified recognition when Sandy, and the knowing spectator, realise that Hiromitsu is about to dive into the waterhole. Generations of Australian childhoods are captured in the suspended moment of impending catastrophe. For the audience that grew up on dire warnings of holiday drownings, shark attacks, snake bites, tourists perishing in the desert, and children lost in the bush, Hiromitsu's dive embodies the dangers lurking everywhere in the foreignness of the Australian landscape.
Japanese Story invokes this cultural habit of dread in order to break with the early comic tone established in the first act and to extend the film's initial premise of cultural and gender difference. Against expectations, the resolution to cultural difference is worked out in terms of guilt, grief and reparation, rather than sexual intimacy. The fatal snag beneath the serene surface of the waterhole suggests that whatever lurks below the surface of Sandy's becalmed life cannot be appeased by an idyllic moment of escape to the desert. The strength of Japanese Story lies in its belief that the audience will change gears and let go of the love story to arrive with Sandy at a deeper, though no less intimate, form of self-recognition through the eyes of another. It is here that the film speaks most forcefully to contemporary Australia, suggesting, through Sandy's hidebound character, that a profound shock, a sudden moment of realisation, can break through habitual barriers of cultural insularity and emotional numbness.
Japanese Story delivers much more than we have come to expect from Australian films in the way it resolves its premise by opening up a space for amae. Ifwe follow Berry's argument that in Japan (among other places) there is a positive acceptance of the social need to indulge the public performance of grief, then the title, Japanese Story, takes on an unexpected meaning.21 In this sense the film's Japanese story is to be found in the sustained attention to the problem of how to turn Sandy's grief and guilt into an act of reparation. This process of taking on responsibility for the dead is performed through the slow accretion of finely observed details. A distinctive view of life is U expressed in the film's shifting of gears back and forth between the closely a observed minutiae of Sandy and Hiromitsu's encounter with each other's z difference, and the aftermath of a sudden, devastating moment of clarity g about our common fate, writ large. This contingent view of life is evident in r earlier films by the Gecko creative team (Brooks, Maslin and Tilson).22 It is f 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.
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 of1967 (Clara Law, 2001). Unlike these two post-national films, Japanese Story reprises an unmarked, Anglo-Celtic rather than cosmopolitan or multicultural concept of Australianness. The film emphasises the difficulties of cultural translation in terms of national differences (even in the iron ore industry where doing business with Japan is part of the daily routine). This emphasis harks back to a core sense of Australianness honed into the landscape and the body from one generation (of films, of screen actors) to the next.
In Japanese Story the territory of grief and guilt is connected directly to the landscape and the body in a way that suggests culturally imbued habits are enigmatic but 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 inculcated 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 reparation between antagonistic cultures, beyond the sexual and linguistic exchanges of the first two acts of the film.23 This attempt at translation takes place in the context of an inward-looking, post-Mabo sense of Australian nationhood.
The landscape tradition has, over several decades, distilled a repertoire of national gestures, embodied and honed by icons of Australian masculinity. The longevity of the outback landscape in Australian cinema has perpetuated the idea that the national character, forged in the bush, will 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 settler Australians. For perhaps the first time in landscape cinema, this melancholic settler is embodied as female by the emotionally inarticulate Sandy. By contrast, Hiromitsu and and his wife Yukiko, through the emphatic g formality and precision of their gestures, seem capable of expressing with js great self-possession and cultural ease a subtle, ethical response to the emo-" tions aroused by betrayal, guilt 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 2 or even the erotic encounter of bodies. As the film draws to a close, an u exchange of objects takes place between Sandy and her mother, and Sandy « and Yukiko, suggesting an ethical alternative to the business economy and
< the sexual economy explored earlier in the film. The reciprocity between £ Sandy and Yukiko is grounded in Sandy's identity as her mother's daughter,
< affirmed at a moment in the film when Sandy needs to make a new move.
Sandy's return home from the desert takes her to a rare moment of cultural translation near the end of the film during a formal reception with Yukiko and her Japanese attendants. Resting on the arm of a chair, Sandy takes on the embodied composure, presence and stillness we have come to associate first with Hiromitsu and then with Yukiko. There's something in the way that Collette's performance of grief reaches this moment of composure, by taking on cultural difference, that is deeply tied to the post-Mabo era. This era demands that Eurocentric Australians do the work of mourning entailed in giving up a form of emotional insularity which turns a blind eye to our history and place in the Asia-Pacific region.
This national habit of insularity is registered in Collette's lean, taut body, her laconic distance, and unadorned face. Collette's bony embodiment of 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 early 1990s quirky comedies. Since then, Collette's international career, and her various nominations for supporting roles, have 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 an awkward, 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 prefer to 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'.24
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 u whatever it knows.25 t z z
In this face Gibson sees 'a regional "affliction" . . . Or . . . history'.26 It is g this historically afflicted character that is feminised in Collette's face, eyes r widened, lips filled out, yet stripped to the bone, honed to an abiding grief f which the film, in its final movement back to Perth, wishes the spectator to indulge.
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 we take to be the unexpected, unpredictable move that connects Japanese Story to the recent set of backtracking movements we have seen in the revival of the desert landscape tradition in a series of films from Tracker and Rabbit-Proof Fence to OneNight the Moon. 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 guilt to the landscape tradition and its investment in a laconic, masculine national identity. This connection has become more overt in Australian films of the post-Mabo era and need not be mistaken for a reprise of earlier forms of national insularity. Rather it is an invitation to the audience to indulge the public performance of grief and guilt in a national cinema that tends to shy away from the emphatic emotions.
In Japanese Story guilt (in the positive sense of taking responsibility and expressing remorse) is worked through in astute detail in the last third of the film (a part which has left some critics cold precisely because of its sustained indulgence of grief rather than catharsis). One way of thinking about this section of the film might be to revisit the Kleinian notion of mourning as a work of reparation that moves the subject from numbness to affect, from guilt to love. Sandy begins this journey of reparation not through the affair with Hiromitsu, but through taking on the full weight of responsibility for his body. The film makes us feel this dead weight, literally, as Sandy struggles to lift his body into the back of the four-wheel drive. When she reaches a town and finds that the coolroom is the only morgue, she has no words for what has happened. Back in Perth others take over the arrangements, telling Sandy to take a break - she's done a good job. However, her work of bearing witness to Hiromitsu's death is not done until she formally admits her guilt and remorse to Hiromitsu's wife, Yukiko, adopting a modicum of Yukiko's composure (and a few halting phrases in Japanese) to do so. This scene takes place between the two women as Hiromitsu's body is being loaded onto the plane. The film avoids a transcendent ending by making its final setting the g departure lounge at the airport. Sandy has to struggle against protocol and js against pragmatic arrangements in order to create a moment when she can " step forward, take responsibility and express remorse. The film shows how easy it would be not to take that step.
< Sandy's inchoate struggle to meet her social obligation to show remorse 2 and accept guilt resonates with the post-Mabo politics of reconciliation. How u does a nation reconcile with its colonial past, with its exclusionary White
< Australia policy as the very basis of nationhood at Federation in 1901? Gibson
< argues that a mature citizenship 'attains composure' through a process of £ mourning, through 'processes of realisation' which enable participation 'in
< the complex dynamics of social and historical obligation'.27 Sandy breaks a pattern in Australian cinema, overcoming the tradition of tight-lipped resistance to the indulgence of those painful emotions which must accompany full acknowledgment, through sustained grief, of the injustices endured by Indigenous Australians.
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