Movie Review, Shunji Iwai

Love Letter (1995) by Shunji Iwai

Original Name: Love Letter

Director:  Shunji Iwai

Runtime: 117 minutes

Language: Japanese

IMDB Link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0113703/


With his first fortray to theatrical feature, Iwai strikes gold with Love Letter, a romance drama film that became an install hit in Asian countries. It starts with an anniversary memorial service. It ends with a beginning line of a letter. In Love Letter, memories play as an integral element, in which Iwai takes his inspiration from Remembrance Of Things Past by Marcel Proust. For Hiroko (singer Miho Nakayama plays double roles here), it’s two year since her ex-husband passed away from mountain climbing but she still can’t leave his memory behind. As she sends a letter to his childhood home – now become a highway, it’s her way of clinging on to the past. The letter is received by Itsuki (played again by her), whose has the exact same name with her ex-husband, and who studied in the same class with him in high school. If you think the plot takes some incredible twist of logic here, it pans out in a believable way. When Hiroko askes Itsuki about her memories regarding him, it opens a tsunami of past moments that thought to be forgotten.

It’s a nostalgic, melancholic tone that carries the emotional weight of this story. In Love Letter, one person who still clinging on the past, afraid to confront the future. Other person shares her memory, and learn many thing she had missed in a process. It helps that right at the very first moment, Iwai nails the film’s tone and aesthetic for what about to come. As Hiroko standing alone in a snowy landscape, she seems lost, she seems unpresented. In fact, the white snow falling becomes another character to the film. You think of Love Letter, you think of the snow white backdrop. These two characters don’t actually meet in person (there’s a part where they briefly have a glimpse of each other), but their chemistry grows the more they open up to each other, and the more they learn that even their own memories have some deeper meaning behind.

Now, thinking back about Love Letter’s structure, I’m even more amazed how the film naturally shifts between perspectives without ever feeling abrupted or calculated. The first half focuses more on Hiroko and her dealing with her current life: her new romance and her finally let out her feeling, and eventually let go of her ex-husband presence. Thus, the sequence where she’s shouting in the mountain feel wholly earned, without a dip into melodrama. Then Love Letter spends the second half on fragments of Itsuki’s high school memories, which easily is my favorite part. Here, we see the young male Itsuki for the first time, and many of his behavior justify his action in the future. The supporting cast, no matter how small roles they are, feel like a perfect fit for the story. It’s another quality of Iwai’s skill: the way he can create side characters that feel grounded yet distinctive. Like Itsuki’s grandpa, Hiroko’s new love interest or even Itsuki’s highschool friend Sanae, I can still remember vividly everyone of them because they feel like real people I used to grow up with. One of the most glaring example would be Sensei, whom Itsuki met when she takes a trip around her high school. As Sensei recognizes her, she takes a minute to list out all the class attendant students from that year until she correctly points out Itsuki’s attendant number. Just by that scene you’re pretty much know about her character more than any character profile page can inform.

And it’s a small surprises here and there in Itsuki’s trip back to the past that make it’s such charming, and warming (despite the cold) to watch. At one scene, she comes to a realization that she becomes some sort of “urban legend” status in her high school library because of all the books ‘the boy with the same name’ borrowed. And then it comes to the satisfying ending that won’t leave me anytime soon. Love Letter is as much about romance as it is rediscovering new perspective by  looking back to the past. As some might say, life is indeed full of pleasant surprises that one will see when they know where to look.

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