Sunday, July 31, 2005

#10: On JAPANESE STORY & The Hero’s Journey 5/20/2004 When it opened in the United States late last December, the Australian film JAPANESE STORY was variously described as a love story, an adventure, a culture clash & an odd-couple comedy all in one. Watchers of Australia’s rich film industry noted this apparently hard-to-categorize film because its director, Sue Brooks, had gained international attention in 1997 with her feature film, ROAD TO NHILL. Brooks has been working with writer Alison Tilson & producer Sue Maslin, along with several actors in this new film, for a decade of award-winning Australian film & TV. Now here was this quirky story of two people from different cultures getting stranded in the Outback. JAPANESE STORY also marked the return home of Australian actor Toni Collette. Since MURIEL’S WEDDING in 1994, she’s had a string of successful American & British films, including THE SIXTH SENSE (for which she was Oscar-nominated), ABOUT A BOY, THE HOURS, FAR FROM HEAVEN, & CHANGING LANES. The just-released CONNIE & CARLA is in the multiplexes now. But here, Collette delivers her best performance so far. As the cranky, distracted Sandy, she’s ordered to chauffeur a prospective client during a week’s visit. ”I’m a geologist, not a geisha!” she snarls at her boss, to no avail. Sandy’s reluctance to accept the task that leads ultimately to transformation is one of the first tip-offs that a hero’s journey is commencing. If we see it that way, suddenly JAPANESE STORY also contains other heroic elements: a series of escalating ordeals, the possibility of annihilation & a “dark night of the soul,” encounters with various figures besides foes – a sage, shape-shifters, a temptress, & some redeeming prize or “boon” to carry home. We might expect, if the hero is a woman, some variations on how this journey plays out. First off, where would you locate such a hero’s journey in this day & age? It’s been said that a tale’s “beginning presences a world.” JAPANESE STORY opens with wheeling aerial view of the craggy, golden-red, light-soaked mountains of the Outback. Not at all an omniscient God’s-eye view, this long, quiet opening shot is clearly what some particular person is seeing from a plane that’s circling to land. Self-contained, vast but ocean-bound, requiring a seriously sobering effort of its visitors to get there, unfathomably ancient & evocative of magic, the Australian landscape itself is a formidable presence. Most obviously, that plane’s passenger would be Hiromitsu, the boyish Japanese industrialist sent by his father to visit an iron mining company. Since Hiromitsu ignores all efforts – from polite to exasperated – to dissuade him, & Sandy’s company needs this deal, he drags her on a side-tour of epic dimensions. From one lookout point, he comments that Japan has people & Australia has space. Though captivated by its enormity, the space, he says, scares him. Throughout the film, Brooks dramatically alternates between panoramic shots that dwarf people within the natural world & claustrophobic close-ups of the budding relationship shoe-horned into the four-wheeler. And if the space scares Hiromitsu, well it should. Of the later scene in which he dies, Brooks says she was aiming to show the effect that landscape can have on people. I would elaborate, particularly people unprepared for what they will encounter – in either strange landscapes or cultures - because they have been separated in some profound way, often by technologies. I say “technologies” in the plural because the film really plays with a range of the meanings of technology - from concrete, literal tools to what me might call cultural technologies, including language & the rituals & manners that we take for granted will support us – until they don’t. Previews for JAPANESE STORY tell us that Sandy & Hiromitsu will be “stranded,” & we’re prepared for a harrowing survival story, the two marooned in the Outback, perhaps dying of thirst, eating bugs, stumbling through desert wastes. Well, they are marooned – but only overnight. Getting literally stuck overnight accomplishes several things. Their machines fail them. Sandy emerges as enormously capable in her strategies for getting them unstuck, but up to now she’s been buried in machines. Computers, laptops, cell phones, electric can openers, cameras, maps, guidebooks, mining equipment & planes, these folks can barely take a step without some tool. Because there must be this journey, the vehicle is resurrected next morning. After the night’s cold, the sand is hard enough that they simply back out & drive away. This lays the ground for an exploration of the many ways we may be stranded as in “stuck” without necessarily being trapped literally. From this point they have crossed some line with one another, so that Hiromitsu throws away his map, puts down his camera. Each must lay aside linguistic assumptions too. In one comic scene, Hiromitsu explains the many nuanced meanings of the single Japanese word, “Hi,” which he had repeated to every question in the first moments they met. It’s clear that we, no less than Sandy, assumed earlier that the only English word he knew might be the greeting. Women contend relationally. Sandy’s ordeals are intimate ordeals with herself & with Hiromitsu. They occur in a setting that’s active – the Australian Outback, conceived & experienced as virtually a character in the tale, not simply a device that allows the male hero to leave home & serve to isolate him from familiar supports & entanglements. Further, the heroic journey’s traditional stock elements of the shapeshifter & temptress occur here within the relationship between Sandy & Hiromitsu. He is a slight & fastidious man. This contrasts with Sandy’s athleticism. He’s small enough for her to lift, to load in her truck once when drunk & later when dead. Between these events, she literally wears his trousers during their first sexual encounter. Next morning their intimacy allows for her to teach him how to hold a Western-style fork properly without taking offense. Though reticent & used to being in charge, his boyish capacity for excitement erupted early while he watched a mining explosion. The two universal exchanges that transcend technology & culture seem to be “I’m sorry” & Thank you.” Between Hiro & Sandy, & later between Sandy & the Japanese widow who comes for her husband’s body, these simple exchanges are turning points. Her apology wins for Sandy Hiro’s message to her, which he’d meant to give her before he left. His voiceover provides the last words of the film – “My heart is open” – as she watches the plane bearing his casket taxi off-screen, now dwarfed by the gigantic terminal window frame. JAPANESE STORY has not played in Central New York theatres, but it came out last week on DVD & local video stores stocked it right away. That’s a good thing. (1116)