Renowned Japanese Director Shunji Iwai
Iwai’s three- decade- long film career has spanned television and film and has even included helming an animated feature. His idiosyncratic style has touched many viewers and been well received.
The recently released Last Letter has brought to mind memories of youth from when many filmgoers watched Love Letter, its successor. Love Letter premiered in Japan in 1995. It caused an unprecedented sensation in the country and quickly swept across Asia. Its director Shunji Iwai became the chief representative of the Japanese film industry, and he became one of the most well-known Japanese directors in China. His movies are highly recognisable with their slow, literary and artistic narrative style. They often feature a stream- of- consciousness arrangement that is distinctively different from popcorn blockbusters. Swallowtail Butterfly, All About Lily Chou- Chou, Hana and Alice and other films that Iwai has directed have transformed Japanese-style films about youth into something more unique. His films have become classics that should not be missed.
One snowy winter, on the third anniversary of the death of Hiroko Watanabe's former fiancé Itsuki Fujii, she is struck by another wave of grief. She finds an address in Otaru City that may be his from an old high school yearbook. She then sends “a love letter to the heavens.” Hiroko soon unexpectedly receives a letter signed “Itsuki.“She later realises that this Itsuki Fujii is a woman roughly the same age as her, who was a classmate of her husband's. In order to learn more about her former love, Hiroko begins corresponding with this Itsuki. She gradually discovers that the boy named Itsuki Fujii once hid his tender feelings for her.
Love Letter stars Miho Nakayama, Etsushi Toyokawa, Miki Sakai and Takashi Kashiwabara. It is a story of unrequited love that has been deeply buried for many years. The movie is regarded as a representative work featuring the beauty of traditional Japanese art. The atmosphere, pace and story form a simple and fresh creation. It focuses on a psychological portrayal of the characters to reveal a long and slow love story and their feelings. Viewers often remember their youth when watching the film. The movie was a sensation in Japan, and its influence swept across Southeast Asia and even into Europe and the United States. It has been regarded by many film critics as one of the most important works in the Japanese New Film Movement. It was Iwai's first feature film to be be released in theatres after doing a lot of work in television. The film received many awards and was a good omen for this career move.
At the height of the Japanese economy, a large number of foreigners flock to the country. They regard Japan as a paradise and call the city that they go to “En To” (“Yen Town”). Japanese citizens hate the name, however, and refer to the immigrants as “en tou” (“yen thieves”). A nameless girl from Yen Town is sent to a prostitute named Glico, who takes her in and calls her Ageha (“Swallowtail Butterfly”) because of a tattoo on Glico's breast. Under the leadership of Glico, Ageha meets yen thieves from different countries, including Fei Hong, Ryo Ranki, Ran and others in a waste storage area and a car repair station known as Green Sky. She gradually makes friends with them. After a clash with a gangster named Sudo, they discover magnetic tape and special induction materials on his body that can be used for making counterfeit money. They use it to create large numbers of counterfeit banknotes and become extremely rich overnight. They do not know that the fate of everyone changes tremendously after that.
Starring Chara, Ayumi Ito, Hiroshi Mikami, Yosuke Eguchi and Atsuro Watabe, Swallowtail Butterfly tells the story of a young girl named Ageha and several yen thieves in the fictional, bustling city of Yen Town. Focusing on the two distinct fates of Glico and Swallowtail Butterfly as its main storylines, the film sketches out the lives of immigrants in Yen Town, depicts the confusion and depravity of some of them and examines the deep-rooted exclusivity of the broader society. Swallowtail Butterfly is often seen as a representative of Shunji Iwai's ability to harness “conflict aesthetics.” Although a lot of its scenes portray the lives of the underclass, the film has a warm tone like a sunset and fills the screen with beauty. Despite the fact that most of the main characters violate laws and regulations, their pure and powerful sense of love and lamentably tragic fates are sympathy-provoking.
Coco is sent to a mental hospital by her parents for strangling her twin sister. Here, dressed in a black angel dress, she meets Tsumuji and Satoru. They become good friends. One day, Coco and Tsumuji walk out of the hospital and into the outside world. They hear holy music emanating from a church and stop there. They are given a Bible by a good-hearted priest. After that, Tsumuji maintains that the end of the world is coming while Coco feels that the moment of her death marks the real end of the world. They climb up the hospital wall and wait together for the end of the world…
Picnic, starring Chara, Tadanobu Asano and Koichi Hashizume, expresses the loneliness of growing up, the fragility of freedom and the cruelty of reality through the portrayal of the three
patients and a lot of symbolic and poetic cinematic language. Picnic does not get too worked up about the condition of its characters. Instead, it focuses on their simplicity and charm. The film shows that some of the questions they ponder are related to most people. Slow-motion shots, a bird metaphor, the use of mirrors and interesting dialogue contribute to making an effective movie. Despite its duration of only 72 minutes, it leaves a deep impression. The skilful use of light and colour is part of the aesthetics of Shunji Iwai.
Every April, when cherry trees are in full bloom, marks the start of the school year at Japanese universities. A young girl who comes from Hokkaido named Uzuki Nireno moves to Tokyo by herself to attend Musashino University. She is a bit overwhelmed by the strange city, her new environment and her new classmates and neighbours that she meets. When the new freshmen introduce themselves and talk about why they chose the university, Uzuki suddenly feels nervous. She was secretly falling in love with Yamazaki in high school. He was an older classmate of hers, and she choses this university to be near him. She discovers that Yamasaki is working as a part-time salesperson in a bookstore, and she begins to frequent it.
April Story, starring Takako Matsu and Seiichi Tanabe, portrays the daily life and love story of Uzuki Nireno. It is said that at that time, Iwai wanted to produce a film that was enjoyable and relaxing. There was no script for this film, however, just a brief outline of the story before the film was made. Therefore, when the film was finally being shot, a lot of scenes and dialogue were improvised. As a result, April Story does not tell a story in the same way as a novel. Instead it portrays the university life of a young girl in a form that is more similar to an essay. Perhaps that's why April Story is only 67 minutes long. Its beautiful scenes, soothing rhythms, quality music and sentimental love stories are reminiscent of Love Letter from three years earlier. The film was considered the return of Shunji Iwai after Swallowtail Butterfly.
All About Lily Chou-chou
At first, Yûichi Hasumi is good friends with Shusuke Hoshino. Shusuke is a classmate of his who is an excellent person and student. They travel to Okinawa with a club they are in. After the journey, their friendship begins to change and Shusuke's temper gradually becomes rough. When they are in their second year of high school, Shusuke begins bullying Yûichi. Yûichi suffers in silence. He seeks comfort in the songs of Lily Chou- Chou. She is his favourite singer. He also communicates with other fans of hers in an online fan forum. His best friend in this virtual world is known as Ao Neko (“the Green Cat”). They make a plan to meet at a Lily Chou- Chou concert.
All About Lily Chou- Chou is a film adapted by Shunji Iwai. It is based on his full-length novel about the world of the Internet. The film stars Hayato Ichihara, Shûgo Oshinari, Yû Aoi, Ayumi Ito and others and portrays a group of students in their high school years. Although the main characters are teenagers and a lot of beautiful pastoral scenery, clear shots and smooth music are used, the coldness and cruelty of campus violence, and other issues are common in their lives. The conflicts reflect the confusion of the characters and the cruelty of their youths, which shock the audience.
Hana and Alice
Hana and Alice are a pair of close friends who grew up together. Alice is bold and extroverted while Hana is naturally shy. Alice secretly loves a boy who is in high school named Miyamoto. Every day, Hana accompanies Alice while they look for him. Hana secretly falls in love with Mashasi, who often walks with the boy. One day, Miyamoto has a brief episode of amnesia as a result of an accident. Hana quickly acts as if she is his girlfriend. A false love affair begins with this deception and unfolds dramatically. Alice is said to be Miyamoto's ex- girlfriend. As time passes, Alice is gradually attracted by Mashasi, and Mashasi also develops feelings for Alice, to the surprise of Hana.
Hana and Alice was originally a series of three separate yet interrelated short works broadcast on the Internet. Shunji Iwai connected the three shorts and merged them into a 135-minute film. The film stars Anne Suzuki, Yû Aoi, Tomohiro Kaku, Hirosue Ryoko and Hiroshi Abe and continues with the meticulous and beautiful style that Iwai is best at. Viewers can easily feel Shunji Iwai's style in the story's structure, the mise en scène, the characters and other aspects of the film. Hana and Alice covers adolescent feelings that everyone has experienced, which is one of the most popular themes for Iwai. The film focuses on friendship more than his previous works and attenuates the secluded resentment and melancholy in the youthful figures. Hana and Alice is regarded as one of Iwai's most positive movies and has become one of his representative works.
The Case of Hana and Alice
Known as “Alice,” Arisugawa Tetsuko, a student in her third year of high school, is transferred to Stone Forest High School. Although Alice is cute and clever, her new classmates have a
lot of fear regarding her arrival. She does not understand why until she learns from a classmate named Mutsu Mutsumi that there is a rumour that a murder occurred in the second group of students in her grade. Alice decides to find out the truth with Hana Arai, who is another student in her grade. The two teenage girls who are unfamiliar with each other start an unusual adventure together.
The Case of Hana and Alice is the only animated film directed by Shunji Iwai so far. It is a prequel to Hana and Alice. The film focuses on a series of funny, senseless events that are caused by Hana and Alice as they attempt to find out the truth. Although the film seems to be a thriller about murder and horror, it focuses on a series of events that two teenage girls are involved in that take them from strangers to acquaintances and to good friends.
It is said that Iwaiintended to turn Hana and Alice into an animated film when he wrote the script. He even contacted Studio Ghibli for the purpose of making the film, but the project did not ultimately materialise. Actresses Anne Suzuki and Yū Aoi, who played Hana Arai and Arisugawa Tetsuko in Hana and Alice, return to the roles and offer their voices for the animated film. Since it was released more than 10 years later, it often brings to mind memories in the minds of viewers who saw the original film and makes them think about what they were doing at the time.
A Bride for Rip Van Winkle
Nanami Minagawa decides to marry Tetsuya who she meets through a social networking website. Fearing that she has too few family members, Nanami invites Yukimasu Amuro from a yorozuya (“comprehensive service”) to be present at her wedding ceremony. Not long after the wedding, she finds out that her husband has had an affair. Yet she is accused of infidelity by her motherin-law and is evicted from her home. A desperate Nanami begins a series of wonderful jobs, which Yukimasu helps her find. She begins to be involved with strangers' wedding banquets as part of her work and also takes a job with a monthly salary of one million yen as well as food and board to serve as a domestic maidservant for Mashiro Satonaka, who is an adult video actress. Nanami gradually finds power and confidence for her life.
A Bride for Rip Van Winkle stars Hana Kuroki and co-stars Gô Ayano, Cocco and other actors. It was inspired by the 2011 earthquake in Japan. Shunji Iwai had a strong sense of the impermanence of life at that time. He began to pay more attention to Japanese society after the earthquake. A Bride for Rip Van Winkle can be said to be a film focused on female issues in society. It continues the fresh and delicate style of Love Letter and April Story. There are a lot of magnificent transitions in the film, presenting subtle and abrupt connections between the virtual and the real.
Taking the place of her deceased sister Zhinan, Zhihua attends a junior high school reunion where she meets Yin Chuan, who she admires and is a little older than her. Zhihua begins to write letters and pour out her secrets. Yin receives a letter and sends a reply back to Zhinan's hometown. It is received by Zhinan's daughter Mumu. Mumu hopes to explore her mother's youth and also acts as if she is Zhinan in her replies. A three- generationlong story slowly emerges during the various deceptive communications.
Last Letter stars Zhou Xun, Qin Hao, Zhang Zifeng, Du Jiang, Deng Enxi and Hu Ge. It is the first Chinese film directed by Shunji Iwai and the first collaboration between Zhou Xun and Peter Chan after Perhaps Love was made thirteen years ago. Last Letter continues with Shunji Iwai's unique style but is deeply localised. Chinese audiences can feel the delicate emotion and atmosphere that are typical of Iwai and also easily recall memories related to their own lives. Previous films by Iwai usually depict teenagers, but Last Letter depicts middle- aged men and women recalling their pasts. It is more like a prose poem composed by Iwai for older people. He seems to acknowledge that youth is full of regrets, but perhaps people should feel calm relief after years have passed by like running water.
A poster for Love Letter
A poster for Hana and Alice
A scene from Last Letter