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The un-famous Shunji Iwai

Using unconventional methods to convey complex themes, Love Letter is an intriguing film that's definitely worth a second look

Admit it: we don't watch enough Japanese cinema.

Of course, this isn't true for ALL of us, but I would wager most of us, we true and devoted anime fans, myself included. Many of us fanboys and fangirls can (and do) devour large amounts of Japan's animation and comics, yet when it comes to live-action media, most of us remain ignorant of some of the brilliant accomplishments of Japanese cinema.

Truthfully, this isn't really our fault. While Japan does enjoy a good film industry, comparably few of its films are exported over to these, our English-speaking shores, when compared to the wealth of animation that we receive. Thankfully, we do get some of the great, from the insanely classic works of Akira Kurosawa, to the Japanese darling of underground cult cinema, Takeshi Miike. Yet many films are left in the lurch, only seen in minor showings at art house theatres, if at all, and the film community at large remains sadly in the mist over some of the gems that Japanese cinema can offer us.

Let's try and remedy that, even if just a little bit.

Shunji Iwai has been making films for about ten years now, having gained critical acclaim early in his career. Iwai has cultivated on utilizing the visual composition important in music videos with the importance of character and dialogue in Japanese drama series.

Iwai's first foray onto the big screen came with his amazingly touching film, Love Letter, released to some international acclaim in 1995. Winning an award at the Toronto Film Festival when it was released, it also enjoyed being a high grossing film, pretty amazing for the first film of a new director. Due to its international screenings and relative success in Japan, the Japanese DVD release was both moderately priced (for Japan) and also included an English subtitle track, and was Region 1 and 2 to boot. Having heard of this film from a friend who would commonly rely on Donald Richie's collection of film reviews from the Japan Times, I picked up the DVD, not quite sure what to expect.

"Dear Fujii Itsuki. How are you? I am fine - Hiroko Watanabe"

The name, Fujii Itsuki, serves as a connection, a bridge between two women each struggling with issues on almost opposite parts of Honshu. The name brings together one woman's uncertain future and another woman's confusing past, and after the two meet through a series of letters, brings somewhat of a new future for each of them.

It's been a year after Fujii Itsuki died, and Hiroko, his fiancée, still can't quite manage with her overwhelming feeling of loss. For all other intents and purposes, Hiroko seems to have moved on, in the interim becoming engaged with Itsuki's friend Akiba, yet always keeping good ties to Itsuki's family. On the eve of the first year anniversary of his death, Hiroko finds herself looking through Itsuki's old junior high yearbook. She scans for pictures and mementos as Itsuki's mother speaks of the family's old home in Otaru, of the shy teenage Itsuki, and the lost family estate given way to urban and road development.

Part whim, part wish, and part wistful meanderings at bizarre motivation, Hiroko takes Itsuki's old Otaru address, sending out a one-way message through the mail system.

"Dear Fujii Itsuki. How are you? I am fine - Hiroko Watanabe"

One expects the letter to be returned. One expects silence. One expects nothing more than the loss of a stamp. And she got a response: something equally short, mysterious, and confusing. From this moment on a correspondence ensues, deeply affecting Hiroko, as she can't help but feel both relief and hope, for the true first time since he passed on.

Of course, being a film not dealing with either ghosts or magic, there is a logical explanation for this new correspondence. Iwai avoids coming across as a hack, in what, to the casual viewer, would seem to be a horrible, hackneyed device to promote this odd plot.

Simply enough, there is another Fujii Itsuki in Otaru. This Fujii Itsuki is a woman, same age as Hiroko. Intriguingly enough, the same actress, Miho Nakayama, plays both characters.

Yes, I know. Already, I can hear the groans echo throughout this information superhighway. Admittedly, I myself, when hearing about the hook of this film, was put off by what seemed to be such a trite, ridiculous act of both casting and storytelling, an idiotic ploy to somehow establish his first film as somehow different and new in the landscape of cinema.

So, I hope that some of you can take my word for it, because Shunji Iwai makes this odd concept work, with surprising results.

Who is the other Fujii Itsuki? In the present day, she's a slightly rebellious, brash librarian, nursing a cold while living in her drafty, old family house with her mother and grandfather. Receiving the letter, she interprets it as a form of bizarre penpal-ism, and very whimsically replies, starting the correspondence between them.

Eventually, after certain revelations come to the female Itsuki, the letters to each other become more honest, Hiroko imploring Itsuki to talk about the other Fujii Itsuki, the boy who shared her name ten years past, during her own age of adolescence.

Halfway through the film, we see a shift in time and perspective, as Itsuki, in a series of letters, relives her junior high school days. She writes of certain memories of the other Itsuki, a mixed story of embarrassment, childhood scars, and those awkward moments that happen when you share a name with someone.

Hiroko initially inquired, perhaps imagining some fantastic shoujo manga plotline, as to whether this name-sharing had any sort of romantic flavoring under it, but Itsuki quickly struck that from the record. The two didn't quite despise each other, but deeply disliked all the junior high school drama it would cause. You know, all the All the K-I-S-S-I-N-G equivalents, the classroom teasings, the mishandling of test grades and whatnot. Coupled with this was the fact that the male Itsuki was a sort of weird teenager, playing an odd library game of taking out all the books that no one had touched before, determined to create a growing collection of books that only had his name in them.

While the correspondence is the focus, it is not the only series of events that occur in the film. Iwai uses the space to deal with Itsuki's coming moving-out, the indignation of her grandfather, Itsuki's growing illness, and her visit back to the junior high where it all began, discovering the secrets the male Itsuki hid in the library, discovered all these years later. And finally, Hiroko finally letting go of the spectre of Itsuki, in the film's most moving climax, Hiroko collapsing in the snow of the mountain that took him away.

Factor into this the questions that linger in the mind throughout the film, beautifully summed up by Hiroko, discussing with Ms. Fujii about Itsuki's junior high school life, and the stark resemblance between the two girls: What if Hiroko was just a substitute for Itsuki? What if, even unconsciously, the teenaged male Itsuki did love his female counterpart, thus creating the spark that led to his relationship with Hiroko. Should it matter? Could it be anything more than a grudging acquaintance?

Outside of this intriguing plot, Iwai's film is also especially pertinent as a valuable film of Japan's cinema industry due to many technical achievements. Iwai's cinematography is simply breathtaking. While he doesn't necessarily incorporate any truly intensive or original shots, his composition brilliantly places the actors within their scenes, using the images to convey the many moods the film goes through. At times using wide, stable shots to convey the serenity of one scene, only to convert to a hand-held, shaky shot to put across certain tense moments, the film asserts Iwai's vision with greater accuracy due to his attention to the mise en scene of each shot. The cinematography is further complemented by a truly dynamic editing style, splicing effectively the two separate experiences the female Itsuki and Hiroko experience as they both revel in the memories of the male Itsuki. Iwai also draws on his past experience as a director of music videos, pairing affecting music with each scene.

It's also important to spend time discussing Iwai's choice of utilizing Miho Nakayama to play two different characters. The assumed absurdity of casting the same actress as two separate characters within the film gives way to becoming a stroke of creative brilliance, this collaboration between a director's wacky idea and and Miho Nakayama's masterful acting providing a new, metaphysical manner that links the characters of Hiroko and Itsuki. It conveys an almost psychic connection between each of them, an act aptly demonstrated when Hiroko calls out to the dead Itsuki on the mountain top, only for Iwai to show the female Itsuki, back in Otaru, somehow answering back through the distance.

Disappointingly enough, even with the film winning awards at the Toronto Film Festival, the film has not seen much of a release outside of Asia, which is indicative of a true gap in America's reception of Japanese contemporary film makers. Yet with his films still making art house rounds in the US, such as his recent film All About Lily Chou-Chou, we might soon see some of his films available on the home video market. We can hope, at least.

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