Japanese Story might be as accurately titled The Toni Collette Movie. The Australian actress (an Oscar nominee for her role as Haley Joel Osment’s mommy in The Sixth Sense) is on-screen in virtually every scene. Collette’s Sandy Edwards is a briskly unhappy geologist who takes an outback trip that changes the entire course of her life.
Basically, Sandy is stuck with the chore of babysitting a spoiled and diffident Japanese client, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima). Their antipathy is instant. She arrives late to collect him at the airport and fails to present the requisite business card. Her associates know the drill, but she seems hopelessly unaware of Japanese protocol. (There’s a funny scene in which she decides to study a bit of the language while sitting on the beach.) For his part, Hiromitsu is distinguished by his casual arrogance and barely concealed insecurity. After regaling a bar with his toneless karaoke version of “Danny Boy,” he gets sloppy, falling-down drunk, collapsing into Sandy’s unenthusiastic care.
In short, the two live out every possible cultural misunderstanding even as they venture deeper into the wilderness—a region that for Sandy is a nuisance to navigate but for Hiromitsu has all the terror and attraction of the cosmic void. For a time, Japanese Story is one kind of adventure story—Sourpuss and Wacko on Mars. She fixes him with her killer glare while he uses his cell phone to call his friends in Japan to complain about her. Then this odd couple get stuck in the middle of nowhere in a situation where they might easily perish.
More interesting than affecting, at least until it kicks in, Japanese Story presents problems for the reviewer. Indeed, the distributor has requested that accounts not describe the action past a particular point. Suffice to say that the characters bond—for a time—and that the road of their adventure continues through predictable territory and then swerves into a violent switchback. Cultural misconceptions continue to play out for the remainder of the movie, but in a more complex and surprising context.
Japanese Story is a suitably laconic title for a movie with more than its share of long, life-changing scenes played for maximum emotional content. Totally convincing in a physically demanding role, Collette carries the movie on her shoulders—and that weight is what it’s all about.