It may be set in Australia, not Japan, but Judge Joel Pearce still says this is a compelling romance.
Some stories can change your life.
Japanese Story actually doesn't take place in Japan, but rather in Australia, though it tells a love story between a Japanese man and an Australian woman. Bolstered by great cinematography, solid performances, and a fascinating script, this gem from down under has now been released in the Northern Hemisphere by Columbia.
Facts of the Case
A female geologist named Sandy (Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense, About a Boy) is instructed to act as tour guide for a Japanese businessman named Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima). He is connected to a company that owns a significant portion of their business, so they feel it's important to keep him happy.
At first, she is resistant of this role, which only increases once he arrives. The two do not understand each other well, in terms of language or culture, and neither of them have any desire to get to know each other better. When they are in a possibly life-threatening situation, however, they begin to understand each other and embark on a much different type of relationship. This relationship goes through a number of twists and turns that change the nature of their relationship. This culminates in a truly shocking turn of events, which is impossible to see coming and not only changes the nature of the relationship, but of the film as well.
The hardest part of writing this review will be not writing about a shocking turn of events that happens part of the way through the film. This event changes the nature of the film, but to speak of it here would really spoil the film. As a result, I am not able to discuss the most important and well-handled theme of the film.
The other towering accomplishment of this film is how director Sue Brooks handles the cultural distance between Sandy and Hiromitsu. He is an outsider in Australia, and he is often treated with contempt and rudeness. This is compounded by the fact that he is Japanese, and accustomed to a much more ordered and polite society. At the same time, Hiromitsu treats Sandy with the same rudeness and disrespect, talking about her in front of her on the phone with a friend and mocking her. In most films of this nature, this situation is normally one-sided, with a group of people that need to learn how to embrace an outsider. Here, though, both characters need to learn to accept the differences between their cultures.
This aspect of the film is best handled during the sequence when the two get stuck in the sand on a remote dirt road. Sandy, with her understanding of the outback and frustrations at having to be wasting her time babysitting Hiromitsu, simply wants to phone for help. She knows that the harsh weather conditions could cause them to die within a couple days. Hiromitsu feels ashamed for causing them to be stuck, but he believes that he must get them out of the situation himself to avoid losing face. The cultural collide in this situation is frustrating for both of them, but when they do get through the situation on their own, it's also a situation that allows them to accept each other and grow closer. Although their romance starts too quickly after this to be fully plausible, there is a feeling of relief and closeness because of this situation that makes their relationship more believable than many screen romances.
Both of these roles are very well acted. Toni Collette certainly deserved her best actress award from the Australian Film Institute, as it may be her best performance to date. Sandy is a very strong character, a geologist who clearly knows what she is talking about. She is a feminist, but does not make a fuss about being a feminist. Her transition from fascination through frustration to infatuation with Hiromitsu is right on, believable at every turn without being sappy. As the film progresses, she continues to show more depth as she must deal with situations that she would not have imagined.
Gotaro Tsunamisha also does an excellent job as Hiromitsu. His motives at the beginning of the film are so unclear, and yet his performance suggests a depth about to unfold. As the film goes on, we begin to understand what he is doing in Australia, and what type of man he is. As their relationship develops, we learn that he is a man fascinated by the land of Australia, so much space with so few people…a stark contrast to Japan. At times he seems like a boy, but it is not because he has never grown up. Instead, it is because he is finally in a place that he is free to act without the constraints that he normally feels.
Another important element of their characters is the language difference that divides them. When two people who can hardly communicate speak, there can often be several conversations going on. At times, both of them are able to say what they want to say to the other person without being understood. This is an interesting situation, and one that's handled well throughout the film. In film, it is difficult to show the disparity between what we think and what we say, but this film shows how that works in a practical way.
Their relationship is very equal as well, which is both unusual and refreshing. Hiromitsu is immediately fascinated by Sandy, but she is also interested with him, and we often see her give him sideways glances. These actions are normally reserved for men in romantic films. Because of this, Sandy is able to take on an active part of the relationship, and she is never simply an object to be obtained. Because their relationship happens in such seclusion, they are able to forget everything they have left behind and focus fully on each other, on the time that they have together.
Because there is so little verbal communication between characters, so much of Japanese Story is communicated visually. The Australian scenery is used to great effect, and it is both desolate and beautiful. The cinematography of the film is remarkable, carefully using framing and juxtaposition to emphasize certain elements. Color is also used to create meaning, but it is used subtly enough that it never stands out. Columbia has done justice to the film with a beautiful widescreen transfer. The image is sharp, colors are accurate, and I didn't notice any flaws.
The sound is also quite good. The music is mixed well and the dialogue is usually clear. Because of the strong accents and some quiet volume levels, I did find myself fiddling with the volume sometimes in order to understand all of the dialogue. For those who struggle with understanding accents, there is an English subtitle track available.
Considering that it is labeled a special edition, the disc is somewhat light on features. That said, it does have a valuable commentary track with Sue Brooks and writer Alison Tilson. It's a great commentary track, as the two of them discuss the conceptual issues in the film, as well as the process of making it. They have a lot of interesting things to say, and answered almost all of the questions that I had from watching the film.
Also included are a number of deleted scenes, with an optional commentary with Sue Brooks. All of them are good scenes that further develop the characters, but they were cut for a variety of reasons. Troublesome are several cuts that had been included in the Australian cut of the film, but were cut from the American release of the film. It's incredible what ten minutes of footage can change in a film, so I will always wonder now what other scenes are missing from this version of the film. One of the scenes is an extended version of a scene, several minutes longer and better (in my opinion).
There are also a couple minor features, such as a photo gallery with a few stills from the movie and talent files for the cast and director. The deleted scenes and commentary are good, but this still doesn't seem enough to make this disc a true special edition, especially considering it does not have the original cut of the film.
Several small complaints aside, Japanese Story is a really solid film that I would recommend in a second to fans of romantic drama and cross-cultural love stories. If it hadn't been for the commentary and deleted scenes, I wouldn't have realized that it's a compromised cut of the film. Even if you don't feel it would be worth purchasing, this disc is well worth a rental as this is a film that deserves to be watched and appreciated.
All charges are dropped, but if Columbia continues to release cut versions of foreign films, they may find themselves sentenced to a very long walk through the outback with no water.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director and Writer
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