Renowned Ja­panese Direc­tor Shunji Iwai

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Pan Yingzhao Edited by Justin Davis

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.

Love Let­ter

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.

Swal­low­tail But­ter­fly

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.

April Story

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.

Last Let­ter

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

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