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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Japanese Story (2003)

Hiromitsu: In Australia, you have a lot of space, no people. In Japan, we have many people, no space.
Sandy: Yeah? You ready to go?
Hiromitsu: There is nothing. It scares me.
Sandy: Yeah?

- Gotaro Tsunashima, Toni Collette

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: June 15, 2004

Stars: Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsunashima
Other Stars: Matthew Dyktynski, Lynette Curran, John Howard, Yumiko Tanaka
Director: Sue Brooks

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality and language
Run Time: 01h:39m:32s
Release Date: May 11, 2004
UPC: 043396044623
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- BA-A- B-

DVD Review

In life, it is said, opposites attract, and in the movies, opposites regularly end up falling into bed together (often quite quickly). Japanese Story, a measured, emotional character study that won eight Australian Film Institutes last year, is one of those films that celebrates the power of an impassioned fling with a near-stranger to make you re-evaluate you life. Luckily, this well-worn premise sits at the center of a fairly fresh screenplay, made better by reserved, poetic direction from Aussie Sue Brooks.

Sandy Edwards (Academy Award nominee Toni Collette), an ambitious, rather cynical geologist, is annoyed when she winds up playing babysitter for Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), a solemn Japanese businessman who wants a guided tour of the Australian desert. Hoping to win her software company a major contract, Sandy agrees to drive him around the barren outback. As the two spend more time together, the cultural barriers between them begin to break down, and a potentially life-threatening situation awakens an unexpected attraction that will change them both forever,

Now, I admit, that's a rather scary plot description, dangerously close to a hokey romance like The Bridges of Madison County. But while the central themes of Alison Tilson's screenplay are familiar, the way she and Brooks bring them to life feels refreshing and, following an abrupt shift-of-focus midway through, fairly original.

A story that should feel schizophrenic doesn't, thanks to careful handling of often wildly divergent material. The beginning feels almost like a cultural clash comedy, as Sandy's brash personality conflicts with dour Hiromitsu's. First she offends him by botching the traditional Japanese greeting, then she has to cart him home when he gets drunk in a karaoke bar ("I hate karaoke," he later says). Soon, however, the story takes a left turn when the two are stranded in the middle of the desert when their vehicle gets bogged down. For a while, it seems like we'll be watching the two-person version of Cast Away as the pair struggles to free the truck or face death.

The story then shifts again, rather abruptly, into a romance as two lonely people find comfort in one another's arms. Sandy and Hiromitsu share a few tender scenes, and apparently enjoy themselves a bit (she even teaches him to improve his English). Before the story ends and Hiromitsu returns to Japan, the plot twists again, and in the final half-hour or so Sandy is forced to re-evaluate her life once again when she is faced with tragedy.

Throughout this shifting story, Sue Brooks maintains an even course, charting the characters' emotional exploration with a still camera and the stark backdrop of the Australian desert. Brooks favors long takes and allows cinematographer Ian Baker's artful compositions room to breathe. Tilson's screenplay makes sparing use of dialogue and is never too on the nose, even when characters take to musing about the scenery or the scarcity of Japanese imports in Australia. Elizabeth Drake's score, at times, sounds a little too American Beauty for my tastes, but it takes a turn in the second half and really enhances the methodical pacing.

But the film really works because of Collette and Tsunashima, both of whom wholly inhabit their rather vaguely defined characters. Tsunashima is low-key, but his reserved performance fits his character's personality, and his few moments of anger and humor, subtly played, are all the more powerful for it. Collette, meanwhile, starts off big and brash but handles her big emotional scenes with a delicate touch that never feels less than genuine. Late in the film, Sandy has to go through a difficult ordeal on her own, and in these scenes Collette's intensity is startling and wrenching.

Japanese Story is, as perhaps the title implies, a pretty familiar tale, but it's so well written, acted, and directed, it's still worth hearing.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: New releases tend to look very nice these days, and Japanese Story is no exception. Colors look wonderful, and coupled with the excellent fine detail, show off the stark beauty of the Australian landscape very well. Blacks are rich and deep and shadow detail is excellent. I noticed a bit of grain and the occasional flaw, but for the most part the source print looks to be in pristine condition. I didn't spot any edge enhancement, but there is a touch of aliasing on some complex patterns.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Japanese Story is a small-scale drama, but that doesn't mean it can't have a wonderful sound mix. And while this one won't wow you with flash, it is an excellent, subtle, and atmospheric track. The front soundstage handles most of the action, with dialogue anchored in the center channel and the score and effects mixed to the mains. Sound effects, from the engine of a car to lapping waves on a lake, are presented across the mains with good stereo separation are directionality. There are several instances of front to rear panning, but for the most part, the surrounds are used to highlight the noises of the lonely landscape (there is one particularly evocative moments when Collette's voice echoes across a lake that I found especially effective). LFE isn't really a big factor, but it does kick in during an early scene set at a mining facility.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring My Life Without Me, The Code, The Statement, The Secret Lives of Dentists, Passionada
5 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Sue Brooks and screenwriter Alison Tilson
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo gallery
Extras Review: Director Sue Brooks and well-monikored screenwriter Alison Tilson provide a rather refreshing audio commentary. The two discuss the work that went into bringing the story to the screen, obviously, but (and here's the unusual thing) they spend very little time rattling on about how much they love this or that scene and all the actors involved. In fact, they actually discuss conflicts in the creative process, from dialogue Tilson wasn't happy with that stayed in the film anyway to a disagreement over how much of the Japanese dialogue to subtitle. There is no mud slinging and nothing that could be considered a fight (or even a heated debate) but it is nice to hear some honesty in the typically self-congratulatory world of commentaries.

Five deleted scenes are also included. In total, they run about 12 minutes and feature optional commentary from Brooks. Interestingly, she reveals that several of them (including a fairly significant scene extension) were included in the original Australian cut of the film but were deleted for "commercial appeal" in America. The cuts were a stupid and unnecessary idea, if you ask me (and it isn't like the movie was ever going to be big here). At the very least, the DVD should offer both cuts, especially since Brooks says she prefers her "original vision."

A trailer is included for the feature, along with spots for My Life Without Me, The Code, The Statement, The Secret Lives of Dentists, andPassionada. A small photo gallery rounds out the bonus material.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Japanese Story is a small, emotional film blessed with the epic backdrop of the Australian desert and two gripping lead performances. The central conceit—to strangers find they have more in common they they could have imagined—is a bit rote, but I give the filmmakers credit for making their point with a story that, even when it's rushed, feels original. Columbia TriStar's DVD is praiseworthy as well. The audio and video quality is outstanding, and the small selection of extras, worthwhile.


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