Japanese Story: The Essential Australian Cut

Perhaps a better term for it would be the International cut, because the United States is pretty much the only country in the world that didn't get the original, full-length version of the Australian film Japanese Story released in our country. Instead, we got an abridged version on DVD, wherein director Sue Brooks happily shares and restates that this is not her preferred version of the film. Our DVD also has less extras... except it's got more deleted scenes. Because that's because it's got more footage cut out of the main feature!
If you'd written this one off as just another quirky independent slightly comedic romances (not that there's anything wrong with those), I definitely urge you to go back and find this film. Japanese Story isn't so much a story of romanticism so much as an exploration of life once all the illusion romance has been stripped away from our vision.  Toni Collette is amazing as a geologist who has to take a Japanese business man (Gotaro Tsunashima, who should get more work) on a tour of her company's mining facilities in the outback. Unfortunately for her, she's stuck indulging his whims while he seems to be abusing his authority, using the trip simply as a thinly veiled vacation. Yes, a culture-crossing affair blooms, but it's far from a saccharine tableau, and that's even before the story takes a very dark turn. To go any further would be stumble into some very hefty spoilers, but it film quietly becomes a very powerful and moving look at the existential choices we make with our lives, and questioning the issues people spend the most effort avoiding thinking about.

It's a great showcase of talent all around. Not just the two leads, who naturally command the spotlight, but the entire supporting cast is quite good. It's got some excellent, 'scope photography and a great score that slowly sneaks up on you right up until the very ending. Great writing, excellent direction; it's the whole package. I can't even really think of any nitpicks, and if you know me, that's quite a statement.
So, let's talk cuts. The US release is 99.37 minutes long, and my copy of the original Australian cut is 101.19 minutes long... and that's with PAL speed up. So really over six minutes have been cut, which is considerably more than just shaving a few frames off a particularly graphic scene here and there. In fact, there really aren't any particularly graphic scenes in this film... though I suppose one or two are, a bit. You know, it's an R-rated film; but this is no bloody horror film or anything. In fact, none of the cuts were made for censorship reasons. Someone - I'm guessing the US distributors, though the filmmakers don't specifically name them in their commentary on the matter - urged them to trim it down for pacing "Americans have shorter attention spans" reasons. It's tempting to find that insulting, but they're probably right. Either way, though, this is a very deliberate film. When a scene unveils slowly, it's because it's trying, and in this case very effectively, to put you into the reality of that moment with the character. Cutting these scenes down is working pretty specifically against the film, in the same way that cutting the gory shots out of a splatter movie or the nudity out of a porn film would. Ironically, you're cutting away exactly what the audience came to see in the name of satisfying your audience.

Admittedly, you could look at any one of those moments and say, "I don't know if it's that essential." And certainly, no one clipped out any major plot points that confuse the story. Watching the original opening as a separate, deleted scene, for example, could feel like excess well trimmed. And the majority of the film is still on screen and its emotion is still there - a lot of American viewers still probably cried. It's an effective film in either version, but it's even more effective in its uncut state. The "excess" doesn't feel excessive in context, it's all part of a journey that pulls you in deeper and gets you more invested in the final act. Plus, there's one particular cut I can't imagine anyone justifying, but for the sake of spoilers, I won't specify. If you're familiar with both versions, I'm sure you know which one I mean anyway.
So this is a 2003 film, meaning it was a new release when it hit DVD. So naturally there were plenty of DVD editions released around the world in 2004, but as it was an independent film, it's been pretty quiet since. I've got the US DVD from Columbia Tri-Star here for comparison's sake, but really you want a DVD from pretty much any other country. Naturally there's an R4 Australian disc, there's a French disc... Personally I went with the UK one from Tartan, but as long as you're avoiding the shorter, US cut, you're fine.
2004 UK DVD from Tartan on top; 2004 US DVD from Columbia Tri-Star bottom.
Transfer-wise, they look pretty identical, which makes sense as they're concurrent editions of a brand new release. Despite one being PAL and NTSC, there's no conversion issues or ghosting/ interlace junk. Both are anamorphic (thank god). The film's handled properly and very professionally. The Tartan disc naturally has the PAL speed-up, though, if that bothers you. But that's just standard region 2 stuff. Tartan also offers more audio options: English DTS 5.1, English Dolby Digital 5.1 and English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, where as the US disc only has the English Dolby Digital 5.1. The subtitles for the Japanese lines are optional/removable in both cases.
Tartan excels again in the extras, though neither disc is barebones. Both discs have director's commentary, though I prefer the R2 of the two. There's naturally a lot of repetition between them - I'd only recommend getting both to a super completist - but she (and her producer, Sue Maslin) just come off as a little more informative and involved on that one, which probably not coincidentally, they recorded first. The US commentary also spends a lot of time explaining what was cut and why - which is good if you've only ever seen the US cut. But you're better off just watching the uncut version and sparing yourself that whole compromise all together. Then the US disc has 5 deleted scenes, all with optional commentary. 4 of those scenes are material cut from the international cut - so they're also on the UK disc, just in the film, not as extras. And the fifth deleted scene is also the sole deleted scene on the UK disc. Both versions have commentary on that scene, too; and even there the UK one is superior, as she talks about the content of the scene and why it was cut, whereas in the US one she just tells us it was cut and that it's "interesting" to see deleted footage.

So there's that stuff, the trailer (on both releases) and some bonus trailers. But then the Tartan DVD also has a 32+ minute featurette called Inside Japanese Story. It's actually a Q&A session filmed at the Australian Center for the Moving Image in December 2003 with Brooks, Maslin and screenwriter Alison Tilson, plus moderator Michael Agar. It starts off a bit dry, but once it finds its groove, it's a pretty interesting. It's professionally shot with multiple cameras, individual mics and they've edited in clips and music, etc, to keep it tighter than just the rough and raw footage a lot of Q&A extras are. It's definitely a nice addition and helps the package feel more rounded out. The Tartan disc also has a nice, fold-out insert with poster art and notes by Tim Robey, where the US disc just has a single sheet with chapter titles.
Looking at these screenshots, it's obvious the film would get some serious benefit out of an HD transfer. And it's hard to get too excited about the multiple audio options on the Tartan disc in the age of uncompressed tracks. Unfortunately, though, I doubt this film is on the radar of any blu-ray companies, so this is probably all we're going to get. And considering the Tartan doesn't just have better extras and audio options, but crucially, a superior cut of the film; I can't think of any reason not to add it to your collection, either if it's your first time getting the film or if you're replacing your US DVD, it's well worth it.

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