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JAPANESE STORY

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsunashima, Matthew Dyktynski
Director: Sue Brooks
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Commentary, deleted scenes, talent files, photo gallery, trailers
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: May 11, 2004

"In Australia, you have a lot of space, no people.  In Japan, we have many people, no space.  There is nothing.  It scares me."

Film ***

Stories which bring people of vastly different cultural backgrounds together tend to be quite enlightening.  Such tales, serious or humorous in tone, provide ample potential for self-discovery and re-examination of one's values.  They impart upon their audiences valuable lessons about the worthiness of tolerance and cooperation.  Such is the case with Japanese Story (2003), a film set in Australia about an encounter between an Australian woman and a Japanese man.

The feminine half of this unlikely pair is Sandy Edwards (Toni Collette), a geologist currently working with a local mining company.  One day, she is asked to take care of a representative from a prospective partner company in Japan.  When that gentleman, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), arrives, he turns out to be as reserved and quiet as Sandy is out-spoken.  The two have little in common, and Sandy is all the more irritated when she is then recruited as a very reluctant chauffeur and glorified tour guide to accompany Hiromitsu during his stay in Australia: "I'm a geologist!  Not a bloody geisha!"

In spite of her protests, Sandy dutifully transports Hiromitsu from place to place.  They visit a ship yard and strip mine, then drive out to a potential dig site, and then drive ever further into the Outback.  In fact, they travel so far into the remote expanse of this harsh and uninhabited land that when their vehicle inevitably becomes stuck in the sand and cannot be dislodged, Sandy and Hiromitsu have no one else but each other to rely upon for their own survival.  Being alone in the middle of the Pilbara Desert quickly forces this odd couple to appreciate one another's company.

Part of the charm which then ensues in Japanese Story arises from the diametric culture clash between Sandy and Hiromitsu.  Sandy is an open-minded, highly-opinionated working woman.  Hiromitsu is a typically repressed Japanese male; his mild mannerisms are the product of years of inhibitions and humble subordination under the polite restraints of Japanese society.  Being dependent upon one another forces Sandy and Hiromitsu to ignore their differences, in essence establishing a unique bond of friendship borne of adversity between them.

The pair eventually do find a solution for their predicament and make their way whole-heartedly back to civilization.  However, the unusual experience in the desert stirs a sense of excitement in Hiromitsu, who requests to be shown more of Australia.  Despite Sandy's initial protests to the contrary prior to meeting Hiromitsu, she does indeed end up traipsing about Australia with the Japanese man, showing Hiromitsu the abstract beauty of the Outback and the seldom-visited far reaches of the Australian continent.  There are numerous wondrous scenic sites - the canyons and hills of the desert, the soothing calm of coastal waters, the serenity of secluded swimming holes.  The more Hiromitsu witnesses, the more he recognizes the oppression nature of his city life.  Here, in the openness of Australia, Hiromitsu is seemingly reborn, discovering in himself a sense of fruitful contentment: "I stand in the desert.  The sky is so big, so blue.  There is so much space, and my heart is open."

Likewise, Hiromitsu's rejuvenation and its effect upon Sandy is significant, too.  As a career woman who hitherto had placed little emphasis upon emotional fulfillment or joyful reminiscences, Sandy is transformed by her few precious days of friendship with Hiromitsu.  Before his return to Japan, Hiromitsu awakens long-dormant feelings in Sandy, allowing her to experience once again the full scope of human emotions, from unadulterated happiness to plaintive sorrow.

Japanese Story does take a sudden and unexpected turn near the film's end, a shift that significantly changes the scope and tone of the story.  But even as the tale assumes a more poignant mood, especially with the inevitable parting between Sandy and Hiromitsu, it still remains a celebratory embrace of life, of the experiences and eye-opening revelations which may lead to a re-assessment of one's life or role in society.

Video ***

Japanese Story is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen format.  The images are bright and certainly picturesque, as should be expected of any movie photographed extensively in the Australian Outback.  The video quality is fine with a mildly grainy texture.

Audio ***

The audio quality in Japanese Story is restrained yet softly dynamic.  The sounds complete the illusion of traveling through the arid desert regions of the Outback.  There is also a laughably-bad karaoke scene, but then again this would not be a "Japanese" film without some karaoke, would it?

Features **

The disc opens up with trailers for Robert Altman's The Company and the romantic comedy Passionada prior to arriving at the main menu.

From there, several interesting bonus features await.  First is a commentary with director Sue Brooks and writer Alison Tilson.  They discuss the film's two central characters and their interactions together.  Brooks and Tilson also mention much of the beauty and remoteness of some scenes and images in the film.  Overall, the commentary is decent if not particularly revealing.

There are also five deleted scenes with optional director commentary.  Among them are a few scenes found in the film's Australian version but absent from the American cut.  Brooks rationalizes these changes as a means of focusing the story more on Sandy's character.  Interestingly, an alternate opening is shown with Hiromitsu; this was the opening for the Australian and international cuts of the film.  I would strongly advise on seeing the film first before viewing any of these deleted scenes, as they give away some crucial plot elements.

Lastly, there are a few promotional extras.  A small photo gallery contains eight production stills from the film.  A "Talent files" section features mini-biographies for the film's primary actors, director, producer, and writer.  The DVD closes out with trailers for Japanese Story, My Life Without Me, The Secret Lives of Dentists, The Statement, and The Code.

Summary:

Japanese Story won numerous Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Film and Best Actress for Toni Collette.  Tender yet bittersweet, this film possesses a quiet sensibility that will touch audiences.

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