Japanese Story Review

Sandy Edwards (Toni Collette) is a geologist working in Perth, Australia, designing computer software for the mining industry. She’s asked by her business partner and ex-lover Bill Baird (Matthew Dyktynski) to show a potential Japanese client around the steelworks and ore fields of North-Western Australia. Sandy is less than pleased, and even more so when she collects Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) and he turns out to be patronising and sexist. But they soon get to know each other, and an episode where they are stuck overnight in the Pilbara Desert brings them closer. They become lovers but nothing happens quite as expected…

You may have heard that Japanese Story contains a notable plot twist, which always makes reviewing difficult. I could review this film with a prominent spoiler warning at the start, as I have done before with other reviews on this site. However, this is a new film, of one which did not receive an especially wide release in the UK, so it’s far to assume that many people didn’t see it (or, as in my own case, weren’t able to see it) in the cinema. So I will be avoiding spoilers in this review, except to note that the twist isn’t one of discovering something that we didn’t know previously, but a surprising plot turn that changes the film entirely. The less you know about the plot before seeing this film first time round, the better.

Working from an original script by Alison Tilson, director Sue Brooks, in only her second feature (after 1997’s Road to Nhill, which I haven’t seen), shows considerable confidence. She holds her nerve, telling the story at an unhurried pace. At base, this is a story of character rooted in culture clash. For much of its length the film is a two-hander and we watch as Sandy’s insecurities dissolve and Hiromitsu’s salaryman stiffness at the beginning – in the first scene, we see his absurdly-formal pose for a photograph at the roadside – turns into something more relaxed. Toni Collette shows herself one of the finest actresses at work today, in an intense performance that’s both strongly physical and emotionally draining. Gotaro’s role is more circumscribed by the script, but he ably suggests a man letting layers and layers of inhibition melt away. As he says in the film, “he finds joy in the desert”. Japanese Story is a love story filled with subtlety and nuance, and a study of how small miscalculations can have considerable consequences.

Technically the film is also first-rate. The film is shot in Scope (in the Super 35 process), a decision which may well have been influenced by the director of photography Ian Baker. Baker has shot all but one of Fred Schepisi’s films, and they frequently use the format. Brooks and Baker use the wide format intelligently, both to give a fairly small-scale drama a more expansive feel, and to capture the awesome, primary-coloured, beautiful but dangerous desert landscape. Also, at times they use the format to emphasise loneliness and isolation, picking out a single figure in a wide space, an approach which pays off in the long final shot. Elizabeth Drake’s music score, mixing Western and Eastern elements, is another plus.

Japanese Story is an intriguing, subtle film that may be a little too slow-paced for some. But it needs the time it takes to establish and get to know the characters before fate and the scriptwriter springs a surprise on them and us. It also showcases a fine performance from Toni Collette. Strongly recommended.

Japanese Story was shot in Scope, but the sleeve gives the ratio as “1.85:1”. The opening Fortissimo Films logo fills the whole of a 16:9 screen. But don’t worry: as the opening credits begin, the transfer switches to 2.35:1 (anamorphically enhanced) and stays there. This is a generally good though slightly soft transfer, which copes well with the vibrant colours in this film, particularly in the exterior scenes, and shadow detail is not a problem. There’s also a soft, but not unsightly, grain in many scenes. Some of these problems – and let’s stress they are minor ones which don’t detract from the film – may be explained by a lowish bitrate, which spends much of the film around the 5Mbps mark.

There are three soundtrack options: Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 and a surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0 (the default). I listened to the Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and I had no complaints. Dialogue is importantly very clear (though some strong accents may trouble viewers) but it’s well balanced with the score and a surprising amount of directional effects. There’s nothing too flashy but the surrounds are used quite frequently. There’s a notable subwoofer moment with the mineshaft blast 23 minutes in.

Apart from translating the Japanese dialogue, there are no subtitles. Tartan regrettably are making the same mistake as their nearest rivals, Artificial Eye, in not subtitling their English-language material, which immediately puts the hard of hearing and non-native English speakers at a disadvantage – and that’s assuming they are able to follow Collette’s Aussie accent, let alone Gotaro’s strong Japanese one.

There are sixteen chapter stops. Up to now, Tartan’s DVDs have tended to be labelled Region 0 (though at least two, The Idiots and The Lovers of the Arctic Circle are actually Region 2). Japanese Story is encoded for Region 2 only.

The main extra is an audio commentary from Brooks, screenwriter Alison Tilson and producer Sue Maslin, which is a good example of its kind – not wildly entertaining or hilarious but consistently interesting and informative. Needless to say it contains several plot spoilers but you wouldn’t be listening to this before watching the film, would you? However, do make sure that you see the feature before watching the other extras, with the possible exception of the trailer. There’s one deleted scene, “We Were Swimming”, which is anamorphic 2.35:1 and runs 2:14. It has an optional commentary from Sue Brooks. Without giving too much away, this is a scene that many other films would consider an essential part of the narrative, so it’s interesting and effective that the filmmakers left it out. The trailer itself (anamorphic 16:9, running 2:14) does a good job of intriguing the audience without giving too much away. Another substantial extra is a Q & A with the filmmakers. Popcorn Taxi is a series of films followed by Q & As that takes place in Sydney and Melbourne, and interviews from the series occasionally turn up on Australian DVDs. This one took place in Melbourne, and on stage were Brooks, Tilson and Maslin. It’s certainly interesting, but a lot of it replicates information in the commentary. It’s shot on video in anamorphic 16:9 and runs 32:01. It begins with a prominent spoiler warning, which should be taken seriously. The packaging mentions the usual Tartan Trailer Reel, but this wasn’t present on the checkdisc I received.

Japanese Story is available in both Region 1 and Region 4. The Australian release from Fox is much the same as this, though with a few more minor extras: biographies and a stills gallery. The Region 1 from Columbia TriStar has five deleted scenes instead of the one on the other releases. However, Tartan’s Region 2 edition appears to be the only one with a DTS soundtrack, which will undoubtedly be a selling point for some.

This is a fine film, and Tartan have done a generally good job with this release. Picture quality is good, though maybe could have been a little better, sound is fine, and the extras are well chosen and interesting.

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