I’ll never understand why Shunji Iwai’s films never caught on in the States. He’s been immensely popular in Japan since the 1990s, repeatedly scoring a string of dreamy, moody hits that includes Love Letter (1995), Picnic (1996), and All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001). Iwai’s movies are the cinematic equivalent of shoegaze and dream pop: quiet, sentimental puzzles that build their powerfully cathartic effects through the combination of atmospheric music, dramatic and unabashedly sentimental plots, and Norobu Shinoda’s peerless cinematography, an endless swirl of handheld camerawork, diffuse light, and backlighting. They give the impression of being emotion made manifest, the very essence of “haunting” and “bittersweet.” I have to believe that Sofia Coppola was thinking of them when she made Lost in Translation (2003); these films would also appeal, I think, to fans of Wong Kar-Wai, Krzysztof Kieslowski, or Andrei Tarkovsky. (Do you know any?)
I can never decide which of Iwai’s films is my favorite. All About Lily Chou-Chou is a long, complex tale—half soap opera, half manga—of a middle school class and their vacation and their relationship to an extremely ethereal pop star. (She comes across like a Japanese Björk.) It took me about three viewings to even begin to understand the plot, which is presented a-chronologically and with few clues as to which scenes are happening when. It also periodically interrupts itself to insert shots of the central characters standing in a field, listening to a discman:
I plan to steal that idea for one of my own films, someway.
Love Letter is much simpler in comparison, though still audaciously intricate. A woman who’s recently buried her fiance writes him a final love letter, then receives a reply. No, it’s not a ghost movie, although it teases us for a while that it might be. The woman continues the correspondence, leading to the telling of a fairly complex story within the main story. It’s kinda like … if Jacques Rivette adapted Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine Trilogy? (Also somewhat related: Lovers of the Arctic Circle, and Sans soleil.)
The full movie appears to be online (see below). If nothing else, I encourage you to watch the amazing opening scene. (And the trailer.)