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When an Australian film comes along with some artistic merit it seems the whole country can’t get enough of its eventual success. The film industry might be in dire trouble but occasionally along comes a story which ranks right up there with the best from overseas, resulting in an eventual sweep of the local award ceremonies. Japanese Story is the jewel in a rather dodgy-looking crown that is the Australian movie scene; the kind of story that can give filmmakers a glimmer of hope and confidence that they need not churn out clichéd, tired old stories year after year and inflict them on a disappointed public. If they can create more productions like Japanese Story more consistently then there’s hope for Oz cinema yet.

Amid the Australian desert, where the space is endless and the possibilities just as great, Sandy Edwards (Toni Collette), a geologist and director of a computer software company, must chaperone a Japanese businessman named Tachibana Hiromitsu with a view to securing his company’s investment. The unwilling Edwards struggles to communicate with Hiromitsu, mainly due to the familiar language barrier thanks to Hiromitsu’s sketchy grasp of the English language.

Japanese Story: Special Edition
As the businessman becomes more ambitious in his demands and the developers remain keen for his business, Sandy is increasingly frustrated having to drive a naïve Japanese man around a desert which he never fully understands. The West Australian landscape is a lonely place and becomes even more so when the pair find themselves in a spot of trouble. This is where the crux of the story lies, as the two characters find out much more about each other than they initially bargained for. An odd couple road movie soon becomes a brooding tale of emotion, with many unpredictable turns along the way.

The relatively inexperienced Sue Brooks shows a deft hand in charge of a difficult piece with minimal dialogue and a sharp focus on the visuals. She manages to get the best out of her two leads, with their interaction and poise an absolute standout. Toni Collette is regarded in local circles as an accomplished actress who could very well join the likes of Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts in the mainstream Hollywood arena. Her performance here is nothing short of sensational, fully deserving of her best actress AFI award last year. Gotaro Tsunashima’s turn as the Japanese businessman is sensational in an extremely tough role. The character arc of Hiromitsu is quite broad and he handles things with a deft touch that will surely be noticed back in his home country. The support cast don’t have much to do but perform quite well, particularly Matthew Dyktynski as Sandy’s co-director.

The film’s success stems largely from the portrayal of the harsh Australian landscape and the ability of the actors to keep things interesting with scant amount of dialogue. The progression of the story is never predictable, although the characters’ motivation at times is a little unclear. The third act in particular seems to run on far too long, with those precious minutes possibly better suited to fleshing out some of the other events earlier on in the film. But that’s only a minor gripe with what is an outstanding film. Sure, the story may be similar to many that have come before it (including the Rose Byrne Aussie drama The Goddess Of 1967) yet the poise and control with which the story is constructed lifts it far above your stock-standard emotional road movie.

If nothing else this is worth a look just to see what Australian filmmakers are really capable of. Instead of flocking to the endless conga line of drab local comedies, sink your teeth into a real story that gives us hope of a better future for Aussie film. Toni Collette continues her push for some meatier roles overseas, and with performances like these she should get what she deserved much sooner rather than later.

Japanese Story: Special Edition
The big bonus with shooting in the arid landscape of the West Australian desert is that you’ve got some great scenery in which to photograph. The deep reds and browns are captured perfectly in this 2.35:1 transfer, with everything looking extremely sharp and vibrant throughout. The colours are outstanding and the print is free from any visual nasties, although some of the tougher landscapes tend to lose their sharpness a little in a few instances. Night time scenes are helped by some less conventional lighting setups but the blacks are always incredibly deep without losing any clarity. In all this is a very impressive transfer from the folks at Fox, showing off the brilliant colours of the desert quite admirably.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix given to this release has little to do in terms of surround use but still sounds quite good overall. Ambient sounds are shifted around the rears from time to time but the rest of the surround action is reserved for the musical score. Composed by Elizabeth Drake, the musical score is a combination of strings and percussion instruments to create a unique sound which accompanies much of the film. While it gets rather repetitive in the drawn out final act, the score itself sounds great for the most part and becomes the major feature of the 5.1 soundtrack.

Fox have put together a decent extras package for this release, adding much needed value to the disc. The first piece is a Q & A session with director Sue Brooks, writer Alison Tilson and producer Sue Maslin. Anyone familiar with the Melbourne film scene will know about the Popcorn Taxi sessions held at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The trio sit on a couch and answer questions fired at them from the host and members of the audience. Thankfully the questions are displayed in text on the screen followed by an answer from those involved. Anyone interested in the filmmaking process or Japanese Story itself should get some value out of this as the three panel members are very articulate and provide some interesting insights into the making of the film.

Japanese Story: Special Edition
The next extra is an audio commentary track with the three women involved in the Q & A session. Each of them imparts a little more about the film and it doesn’t seem like they double up too much on the information from the previous extra. The three of them are quite comfortable talking about the movie and touch on a whole range of issues, particularly the cast members, script writing and the structure of the story itself.

There is one deleted scene included in the film, though it’s hard to explain the content without giving away too much of the story. Let’s just say it is quite an important scene that would have definitely been able to stay in the story and may well have helped add a lot more weight to the end of the film. Without it the final act drags out a lot more and it would have been great to intercut this piece into the final version. There is also an option to include a commentary with the three crew members, who explain that they were quite fond of the scene but were keen to move to a different location and not cover ground that would be explained later on in the film.

Rounding out the collection of extras is the theatrical trailer, a selection of cast & crew biographies, a stunning little photo gallery and some trailers for other Palace Films releases, including The Rage In Placid Lake, I’m With Lucy, Facing Windows and Plots With A View. In all it’s a decent extras package without really providing anything outstanding.

Japanese Story: Special Edition
Japanese Story ranks up there with some of the finest Australian dramas of recent times. Sure, there’s not too much competition coming out of the local film industry at the moment but to put this production in the same category as Lantana is a tribute to the film’s effect. Toni Collette and Gotaro Tsunashima give outstanding performances, while the visuals come up trumps on the impressive DVD. This is a film-lovers movie, so pick it up and enjoy.