Shunji Iwai first entered my consciousness (and confused it) with 2001’s “All About Lily Chou-Chou”. By no means an easy film to figure out. My subsequent dips into his work have left me struggling to figure out whether I like him or not. His feature debut, 1995’s “Love Letter”, is a film I first watched when unwell (“clinically fed-up”), and it didn’t help me in feeling any better. In many ways, it helped me feel more sick, but for some reason, I was compelled to watch more of it.
Hiroko (Miho Nakayama) attends the memorial of her deceased fiancé, Itsuki Fujii, in present day Kobe. Visiting his mother’s home, she looks through his old school yearbook from when he grew up in Otaru, Hokkaido. For no reason whatsoever, she notes down their address from his school days in secret. She then decides to write a letter to said Itsuki Fujii at said Otaru address.
She gets a reply.
Itsuki Fujii (Miho Nakayama) (hang on, we’ve heard that name – and the actress’ – before!) is a librarian working in Otaru who receives a mysterious letter from Kobe from someone called Hiroko. On a whim, she responds. She too gets a reply. And thus, back-and-forth correspondence between the two women begins.
As the letters develop, we learn that Ituski (female) was a class mate of Itsuki (male), with their shared name causing much amusement to their classmates, but causing both to be a little miffed by their peers. Despite now being engaged to one of Itsuki (male)’s friends, Hiroko still can’t let her first love go, and wants to learn as much as possible about her fiancé’s younger self. Itsuki (female) obliges; the bringing back of forgotten memories gives her a spring in her step.
The two leads, enjoying their banter, gradually have to face some home truths. Hiroko’s new fiancé, Akiba, need her to let Ituski (male) go if they are to marry. Perpetually ill Itsuki (female) has a cough throughout, paralleling her father who died from a cough left to simmer. Choosing to put their touching reminisce to bed, the pair begin to get on with their lives.
Now, for all that is good with this film, I feel that it is quickly countered by a great annoyance. In fact, watching a second time when not ill, I again was often annoyed by this film.
Annoyance Number 1: The premise is a little bit bollocks, isn’t it?! Hiroko states that her writing the initial letter was as a way of confirming that her love was gone – a “letter to Heaven.” This is fine, but the fact that, while the name is correct, the address supposedly no longer exists. The initial letter reaching the unintended recipient is a bit farfetched. I know you’re supposed to allow for artistic license, but this simply annoys me and leads me to question the credibility of everything in the film, particularly Akiba’s glass-blowing techniques.
Charm Number 1: The opening shot sees Hiroko lying in the snow (for some reason, no real reason probably; another annoyance). We then pan to her walking down towards the memorial. This is a very nice shot, complemented by the soundtrack by Remedios. Perhaps a nod to his pre-career in music video, Iwai certainly knows how to add music to visuals, and, as in his other films, the cinematography is fine, creating enough whimsy to leave you wanting more.
Annoyance Number 2: This music video expertise, however, creates a whole lot of style over substance; which is essentially the purpose of music video. While there are some great shots on display here, from Noboru Shinoda, they feel there simply because they look nice. As discovered in his other films, Iwai tries to pack his films with mystery and unusual artistry, but essentially it all feels a bit naff. His films, by-and-large, are art for the sake of it. There is a lack of real meaning behind it all. Watching his films, you will not learn much about the human condition, but a lot about what mainstream media wants you to enjoy.
Charm Number 2: on that mainstream point, this is certainly a well put together film, ticking the right boxes in pacing and ticking the right boxes in tugging on the ol’ heart strings of remembering days gone by. This is the exact sort of film which will lead people to say “I watch too many movies”, in that it is, for a novice, the sort of film that sits perfectly alongside anything Hollywood can throw its way. This is good movie making and Iwai certainly knows what he’s doing, with all the gloss and sheen the seemingly large budget offers. However, if you want some more depth, this is perhaps not the place.
Annoyance Number 3: This is sick. Just really sickly sweet. Iwai’s TV movie past gives an overly sentimental feel throughout. We’re taught when to emote with the soundtrack timed perfectly, and the Nakayama voiceovers of the letters are delivered in a voice that just demands you to get all gooey about things. As with much TV drama, you are not required to think too much, simply feel, and your feelings are conducted by Iwai. This approach simply annoys the likes of me, who feel they are superior to the likes of you.
I could probably endlessly list the elements of “Love Letter” which annoy me, but it has – I’m not sure what the French call it, but – a certain je ne sais quoi about it. It’s like a catchy pop song which you know you can’t stand, but still hum. It’s silly, but easily flows through you and touches you in a way you know is inappropriate.
“All About Lily Chou-Chou” is a film that leaves you asking a lot of questions. It contains a lot of elements which are unexplained, largely because it doesn’t do a huge amount to explain them. But it leaves its mark. Other works by Iwai, namely “Undo”, “Picnic” and “Swallowtail Butterfly”, however, are in parts daft, over-stylised and try too hard to be art; the results quite messy.
“Love Letter” is far from messy, but it’s too perfect at the same time. It’s good for being the ultimate popcorn-movie-fodder-switch-off. But, if you would prefer your brain didn’t turn to mush (probably a massive exaggeration), I probably wouldn’t recommend it. This letter has you turning the page, but mainly because you’re asking “Where is the love?”