[A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors]: Iwai Shunji

Stylish to fault, Iwai’s films glance obliquely at the realities but concentrate on the fantasies of modern Japanese youth. His first film to be screened in cinemas, Undo (1994), focused on the mental crisis of a woman in a troubled relationship. It received only a token release, but Iwai achieved a huge commercial success with Love Letter (1995), about a grieving woman who writes to her dead fiance only to receive a reply from the woman who shares his name asnd was his high school classmate. The plot strained credulity, but Iwai directed fluently and with a beguiling fresshness of touch. The film’s popularity led to DVD and cinema releases of several of his televison works, including Ghost Soup (1992), a silly and sentimental Christmas fable, and Fireworks (Uchiagehanabi, shita kara miru ka? Yoko kara miru ka?, 1993, cinema release in 1995), which anticipated his later focus on the contrary emotions of children around puberty. Also shown at this time was the previously shelved Picnic (1996), which, like Undo, focused on mental illness: its characters were three patients in an institution who escape but dare not cross the perimater wall.

The success of these films earned Iwai the freedom he needed to mount Swallowtail Butterfly (Suwaroteiru, 1996), a dark portrait of life among immigrants inhabitating a shanty town on the outskirts of a vaguely futuristic Tokyo and detailing their attempts, legitimate and criminal, to better their lot. The film’s jittery camera style left little space for reflection, and it seemd finally to endorse widespread prejudices linking foreigners with crime.

Iwai has since worked relatively sparingly. April Story (Shigatsu monogatari, 1998) was a brief, simple, lyrical account of college student, newly arrived in Tokyo and her love for a young man she is too shy to speak to. Iwai’s most recent fiction films have focused on children slightly estranged from reality. All About Lily Chou-Chou (Riri Shushu no subete, 2001) was a suggestive, if overlong, film about emotional alienation: its kids are unable to express their feelings except via a computer and in the context of their admiration for a pop star. Iwai touched on the comsuming loneliness of modern Japanese life: for instance, the preponderance of families with only children. Hana and Alice (Hana to Arisu, 2004) was a lighter account of childhood, though not without its subtle cruelties in its depiction of the emotional confusion of the young at an age when new feelings transform old friendships. In contrast to these elaborate fictions, Iwai has also realized a documentary about veteran director Kon Ichikawa.

Iwai’s recurrent theme is wish fulfilment: the heroine getting a reply to a letter she posts to a dead man in Love Letter; the poor immigrants chancing on a code which allows them to pass off 1,000-yen banknotes as 10,000 yen in Swallowtail Butterfly; the girl convincing the boy she fancies that they are a couple after an accident leaves him amnesiac in Hana and Alice. His style, with its restless, often handheld camera, stylized compositions, and rapid-fire cutting, is indebted to the techniques of advertising and pop video – those vehicles for the kind of shallow glamor of which Iwai’s films are both critiques and expressions. The relative superficiality of his work is partly a by – product of that style, but also derives from the fact that his subject is the dreams that many prefer to reality.

[The Midnight Eye Guide to Japanese Film]: Love Letter, a.k.a When I Close My Eyes

Iwai’s romantic debut is a slick treties on time and memory, centered around a case of mistake identity and the impossibility of really knowing someone.

After the anniversary of the death of her fiance, Itsuki Fuji, in a mountaineering accident, Hiroko Watanabe chances upon an old junior high school yearbook at his mother’s house in Kobe. It lists their old family address in the town of Otaru, Hokkaido. Though Itsuki’s mother assures her that the old house has long since been demolished, Hiroko is seized by the romantic notion of writing a brief letter to her dead lover at his childhood home inquiring after his well being. After dispatching it in a gesture intended to lay his memory to rest, she embarks on a romatisc affair with Itsuki’s former bet friend, a local glassblower named Shigeru.

She is astonished when few days later a reply comes back, from someone signed Itsuki, stating briefly and succinctly that aside from a bad cold that won’t shift, its sender is alive and well. Initially she dismisses it as a cruel joke, until Shigeru points out that if the house was indeed lying beneath a recently constructed highway, as Itsuki’s mother told her, then the letter would never have been delivered. Intrigued, Hiroko finds herself unable to resist writing back.

Meanwile in Otaru, there’s clearly been a case of mistaken identity, as a young single women named Itsuki Fuji finds herself receiving a string of strange letters from the lady in Kobe. Humoring Hiroko, she replies to them, before coming clean and revealing that the bane of her junioe high school years was a young boy in the same class who coincidentally shared exactly the same name as her. For several long and hard years, the two endured the taunts and teasings of their classmates, finding themselves unable to break from each other’s company due to their neighboring position on the school register, as they shared such duties as working after class in the school library together.

Shigeru suggests that both Hiroko and he make a pilgrimage to Otaru to meet this common link with her past face to face, though by a twist of fate they never actually cross paths to her new correspondent. By this time, however, it seem that Itsuki shares even more in common with Hiroko than the name of her dead classmate.

Shunji Iwai sits rather distinctly from the other directors who made their names in the ’90s, in that rather than working his way up the hierarchy within the major studios or working on the production of pink films, he cut his teeth on music video production and work for cable TV. Prior to Love Letter, he directed a number of TV dramas running just short of an hour, including Ghost Soup (1992), a twee comedy in which a man finds that the apartment he has moved into is haunted by some exceedingly irritating ghosts, and Fried Dragon Fish: Thomas Earwing’s Arowana (1993), featuring an early role of Tadanobu Asano as a fanatical fish colector embroiled in smuggling the valuable Arowana dragon fish.

Both of these TV works laid out the stylistic agenda for the director’s later film work: the gliding cameras and the super-saturated colors of Fried Dragon Fish, the lengthy sequence as the cast of Ghost Soup perform a dance number clearly modeled on Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Iwai effectively brought in a new visual aesthetic sense adopted from the pop promo world, filling his work with musical interludes set to contemprary music and a host of visual tricks culled from the video mixing desk.

But these two works really only laid the groundwork for Iwai’s later experimentations. Though both were made more widely available on video and DVD following the susscess of Love Leter and his next feature, Swaillowtail Butterfly (Suwaroteiru, 1996), perhaps they are better suited for TV, diverting enough but ultimately fairly vacuous. Nevertheless, even in his TV work Iwai soon managed to strike a more satisfying balance between the cosmetic and the dramatic. His 52-minute drama Fireworks, Should We See It From the Side or the Bottom? (Uchiage Hana Bi. Shita Kara Miruka? Yoko Kara Miruka?, 1993) earned him the Best Newcomer award from the Japanese Directors’s Association in 1993. An innocent tale of young love as two elemetary shcool boys, Norimichi and Yusuke, vie for the attention of classmate Nazuna. What they don’t realize is that Nazuna’s parents are on the verge of divorcing, with Nazuna following her mother. One day Nazuna packs her bags to run away from home, but she is not going alone.

Undo (1994) was a slightly more adult-oriented tale, about a young cohabiting couple whose relationship difficulties have driven the woman to the brink of mental collapse. Madness was again the theme of Picnic (1994), featuring three mental patients who escape from their alysum, and then rather perversely decide that rather than jump over the wall, they should walk along it.

With the succsess of Love Letter and the popularity of his TV work, unusual for a Japanses director, Iwai achieved a legendary status akin to a rock star. With his shoulder-length hair he even looked like one. By waving aside any distinction between cinema, music video, and TV drama, he appealed to an audience that had previously been uncatered to, keeping his finger firmly on the pulse of contempotary youth culture by cannily associating himself woth some of the most popular musical talents of the day. Love Letter’s central star, Miho Nakayama, had conducted a successful singing career ever since 1986, and another popular songstress in the form of Chara starred in Picnic (alongside Asano, whom she later married).

But it was his second feature, Swaillowtail Butterfly, again starring Chara, that came to define an entire generation. Set amongst the denizens of Yen Town, a community of Asian immigrants who speak in a mixture of broken English, Mandarin, and Japanese, drawn to Japan believing in the power of “Yen.” This they find in the form of a cassette of Frank Sinatra’s My Way, discovered in the stomach of a dead gangster, which strangely holds the key, in the form of a cryptic magnetic code, to a money printing scam that seems the answer to all their dreams.

Both critics and audiences were firmly divided, mainly down age lines, as to the merits of Swallowtail. Clocking in at 147 minutes it is undoubtedlly overlong, but more than that, its story, couched within the template of a simple morality tale, seems merely an excuse to showcase Iwai’s aesthetic sensibilities. Undeniably well-crafted, still there’s something vaguely patronizing about its portrayal of Asians in Japan, living on the perimeters of Tokyo eking out their survival by drug dealing, prostitution, and scavenging aroung in scrap metal tips, woth the modern-day Tokyo of the real world barely alluded to. Rather than any convincing portrayal, the ersatz shanty town of Swallowtail seems little more than a soundstage (the soundtrack, sung by the band in the film led by Chara, become a top-seller), his images burried in a technical virtuosity verging on glibness, and the outlaw glamor of its inhabitants catering squarely to the youth market. A few years later, it already looked passé.

Iwai’s films don’t lend themselves particularly well to analysis. From the self-concious mugging of Ghost Soup and Fried Dragon Fish to the overblown strees-sayvy hipness of Swallowtail, they are all firmly rooted in the era in which they are made. But in the case of Love Letter, produced by Fuji Television as with all of his previous works, he seems to have pitched the level just right. Rather than dating his work by orchestranting it to a soundtrack of contemporary music, the score, by Remedios, here consists of a number of sweeping classically influented motifs. Quirkly characters whose presence granted in his earlier dramas seem lass crudely drawn here, such as the twitching schoolgirl who elicits the female Itsuki’s help in approaching her namesake, and the cast (including Toyokawa, fresh from Iwai’s previous Undo, and his role as one of the brooding psychokinetic brothers from Joji Iida’s popular TV series and theatrical spin-off Night Head in 1994) all do their job admirably.

Whilst the plot, which is no lass contrived than his other works, feels hot from the squeaky-clean pages of a shijo manga (girls comic), its simplicity works in its favor. It also touches on deeper themes than Iwai’s other films, even going as far as to checklist A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust (1871-1922) in its meditation on time, identity, and reconstructed memory, as Itsuki recounts how her namesake used to sign his names in slips inside all the books on the library shelves to make it look like he had read them all.

By the time their correspondence reveals a hitherto hidden side to Itsuki’s former fiance’s personality, it becomes clear that Iwai’s film is more about surface apperances than straight forward nostalgia, fitting for a director whose work has often been criticized as mere window-dressing. In this instance, the polished veneer of the image complements rahter than detracts from the central premise. From the opening snowbound moments, Love Letter is a very polished work indeed, a faultlessly paced flow of beautifully controlled widescreen images. Taking his lead from his work in music video, Iwai carefully storyboarded the entire film before shooting, and these animated storyboards are included on the DVD releases to be played along side the original soundtrack.

Iwai only really recaptured the buoyant simplicity of his polished debut April Story (Shingatsu Monogatari, 1998), a slight story about the experiences of girl from Hokkaido embarking on a co-ed college career in Tokyo. During a lull in his filmmaking output of several years, he continued to explore new technology and the neams of visual expression it provided by developing his story for All About Lily Chou-Chou (Ririi Shushu no Subete) as an “interactive novel” made available over the Internet. The resulting film version, released theatrically in 2001, saw the director moving into darker territory. It tells the story of an ostracized 14-years-old’s obsession with the fictional pop idol of the film’s title, escaping into a virtual community of the singer’s fans by means if a chat room that he has set up. This was follow by Arita. one of the seven shorts included in the compendium Jam Films (2002), alongside work by Joji Iida (Another Heaven), Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus), Rokuro Mochizuki (Onibi), and Iwai’s assistant director of Leve Letter, Isao Yukisada (GO).