It’s a shame that Japanese Story went largely overlooked on theatrical release early this year, but it’s not entirely surprising. At the time, the world and his wife (and his wife’s favourite style magazine) were going cock-a-hoop for Lost in Translation (2003), and the subject matter of the Australian film was so similar it was tempting to see it as a less fashionable cousin. Both centre on an unlikely romance; both are built around visuals rather than plot. And whereas Bill Murray’s Bob was a bewildered visitor to Japan in Coppola’s movie, here Hiromitsu (Tsunashima) is a Japanese visitor to Australia. But to harp on about the parallels is to do both films a disservice – it’s co-incidence, and nothing more. Now that things have died down, Japanese Story can be appraised for what it is: a powerful, handsome piece of work.
There’s a slight risk that the film might lose something on DVD. It hinges on being lush and panoramic, but it’s still impossible to overlook the beauty of the Australian landscape as illustrated here, and the digital palette does show it off to good effect. Against this backdrop, geologist Sandy (Collete) unwillingly plays nursemaid to Hiromitsu. His dad virtually owns the company, and he’s visiting Australia on some trumped-up mission. His English is limited, and his buttoned-down manner severely winds up acerbic Sandy. As they barrel about the Outback, though, they become far more involved with each other than they were expecting.
Comparisons have been made with antecedents such as Walkabout (1971) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), and indeed all three films share a similarly spare economy as well as the Australian backdrop. Possibly this is almost too measured, but there are mighty emotions conjured up which draw the viewer in. In this respect Toni Collete, always a considerable talent, really dazzles. It’s a masterclass in human frailty played out against breathtaking scenery and towering technology. It seems that Australian cinema never really gets its due credit. This looks terrific, the acting is exemplary, and the splashes of endearingly sun-dried humour are quite wonderful. (It beggars belief that Aussie hit bowling comedy Crackerjack (2002), from two years back, never got a British release, and instead we got the similar yet severely underwhelming Blackball (2003). Lucky old us…)
As far as the DVD package goes, again, it’s a little spartan. The ‘deleted scenes’ total one, and a brief one at that. A behind-the-scenes feature is actually a filmed question and answer session with the director, writer and producer at an Australian art-house, and it’s disappointingly po-faced and humourless. Much the same can be said for the commentary with director and writer. It’s a remote affair, which doesn’t add much to the enjoyment of the feature. Nevertheless, it can’t detract from the fact that the film’s a grand achievement, a feast for the eyes and the heart, and quite possibly one of the year’s finest films.