Here's where we get into all kinds of trouble. Culture-clash stories live or die based on the prejudices of the cultures that behold them, so what you think of "Japanese Story" will have a lot to do with which of its two protagonists (if either) you innately claim as your own.
On the one hand, there's Sandy Edwards (Toni Collette), a beleaguered Australian geologist who's apparently been worn down to her penultimate nerve. (In an early scene, she's seen snapping at her mother over the old bird's habit of clipping obituaries for preservation in a scrapbook album.) Or you could embrace Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), a visiting Japanese businessman with a command of English only slightly more extensive than the sparing syllables he'll venture while Down Under. Hiro is in Australia to inspect some iron mines his company co-owns, and Sandy gets the unenviable task of ferrying him from one far-flung location to the next. She's unimpressed by his withdrawn, standoffish manner -- or maybe she's just terminally unimpressed -- but she'd really hit the roof if she could understand the comments he's muttering about her in Japanese to an unidentified party at the other end of his cell-phone connection. Key observations: She's loud and has a "big bum."
Still, as their rented station wagon ventures further into the Australian desert, we get the impression Hiro secretly hopes for some sort of forced encounter between them. That's just what happens when their vehicle becomes bogged down in the sand, and the hardship nudges their relationship into an intimacy that seems ridiculously abrupt yet wholly predictable in movie terms. Fifteen minutes later, however, the script makes a sharp turn into genuinely unexpected territory, and its real interests -- and hazards -- emerge.
What happens at that moment, I'm not at liberty to say: Working under the assumption that critics are incorrigible spoilsports (oh, wait -- most of them are), the picture's handlers have asked reviewers not to disclose its big plot twist, either in their chosen media or verbally. So I guess if I ever blurt it out at a party, a representative of Samuel Goldwyn Films is entitled to slap me silly. Here, I'll only disclose that Sandy is made responsible for Hiro in a way that transcends the isolation-fueled impulsiveness of their dalliance. Suddenly, she has to assume an emotional burden that forces her to consider the feelings of his family and the meaning of his nationality.
It's a professional jackpot-hit for Collette, who gets to supplement her character's underwritten testiness with some believably eardrum-rending keening and teary-eyed self-reproach. The conflict, though, is all internal, and that's the problematic conceit on which "Japanese Story" turns. By refusing a genuine showdown between cultures, the movie is at best submitting an example of empathy that reaches across continents to trump personal hurt. At worst, it's simply affirming that you can do anything to the Japanese and they'll always bounce back, because they're so wise and quiet and polite and all. Back home in dingo-land, Japanese Story was reportedly the most celebrated film of 2003; I'd love to know what audiences in Tokyo make of it.