Directors' Corner, Shunji Iwai

Shunji Iwai’s Filmography Part 1: Fireworks, Love Letter & Picnic

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Even with the first three entries, they already established Shunji Iwai as a talent to look out for. He works on a shoestring budget so his films aren’t the most exquisite looking, but you start to see many of his trademarks. First is his insistence on portraying youthful sensibility through his teenage protagonists (Fireworks (1993), Picnic (1995) and their romances. It sounds like nothing special, I know, but he has a firm handle on both depicting his characters as complex and believable, and the romance that is always on the right note. His emphasis on atmosphere is there, too, as you can see in a snowy landscape in Love Letter (1995), accompany with the soothing piano. But his most recongizable trademark (which brings a fair share of distractors as well) comes from his music-video and TV-format root: his hypersatured images and his focus on music squences just like the MTV and his rapid-editing. Only in 3 films, we see him going from well-acclaimed Love Letter to cult-status Picnic, further signify the fact that he’s fearless. I personally love the way he writes his characters, especially with those opening sequences that already establish very well the characters and their own situations. Really looking forward for the next batch.

Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? (1993)

Despite the boxy aspect ratio, technical restriction and awkward acting from its young cast, Fireworks still maintain its beaten heart. Truth be told, I watched the anime-remake (or shall I say, a reimagination) so I already know what to expect, but I can now see the reason why such an lowkey indie project like this (it was made as a TV drama) still sustain its popularity in Japan even now. One aspect I need to say regarding Shunji Iwai’s quality: even with this first “film” (not officially as it isn’t either a full length film or his first TV project), he already had a firm grasp on his character writing. Their characters behave believably (they act like kids their age) with hidden emotions core and the way they act is full of contradictory, just like how us adult behave.

Take Fireworks, for example, a story spanning out in a single day about a group of sixth-grade kids who argue whether the firework is flat or round when observed on the side, and the female character, Nazuna, who attempts to runaway from home. These kids act in totally believable way, especially when they’re facing big decisions, they back out because yeah, they’re still just kids. Nazuma is in the middle of her parent’s divorce and is about to leave town for good. So she decides to run away from home, she makes that as an “elope” though as she randomly picks a boy, Norimichi, to accompany her. With Norimichi, she’s a total mystery. Everything about her frustration, her concern, even of she has any feeling for the boy, are merely suggested, which make her conflicted actions all the more powerful. Likewise, Norimichi’s best mate Yusuke, who has a feeling for Nazuma but instead has a cold feet when she asks him to come is another nice touch of dealing with the mindset of 12-year-old character.

Fireworks also benefits from its slight magical-realism touch as the plot basically rewinds the halfway point to display another possibility. Its final moment, the sole firework that is displayed especially for them, is poetic and closes everything nicely. It’s a small little coming of age drama with amateur cast and barebone production value, but Iwai’s eyes for his characters give Fireworks a lasting impact.

ps: Watching this original I can say that Shaft’s anime remake justifies its existence. While I suspect that Shaft was inspired to adapt it by this particular scene (based on their shameless fan-service tendency), the anime is an extension of this story (not necessary for the better) with a significantly improvement on production values, at the same time has an unmistakably Shaft-ness quality in it. For that, I grade both this film and an anime adaptation the same score.

Love Letter (1995)

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.

Picnic (1996)

Only 68 minutes in length, Picnic remains as one of Shunji Iwai’s strangest title. It’s the more amazing when it was made the same time with universal appealed Love Letter (Picnic was shot in 1994 but it took 2 years to release). As Picnic is for me his rawest, most difficult and least accessible title to date (maybe even to his whole career). By that I don’t mean Picnic as his worst (if it is, then the man has had a solid career), it’s just that it has some off-putting moments with a nonsensical, whimsical plot and some outright bizarre sequences, but at heart it’s still every inch a Shunji Iwai’s output. Picnic takes place in an asylum where Coco (singer Chara) make friends with other boys Tsumiji (Tadanobu Asano, who played Ichi the Killer) and Satoru. The setting, the characters and the story might remind you of Park Chan Wook’s later work I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay; to the point I wouldn’t be surprised if the Korean master was inspired by this film.

Although Picnic is about three mentality disadvantaged teenagers who want to break free of the restriction of the institution, the film doesn’t seem to make any grand statement, or serve as a character study and such. Instead, Picnic’s quality lies in how the film tells its rather sad, depressing story with carefree and upbeat tone, to the point where at times, we as the audience don’t know what we suppose to react. This quality is further elevated by the uplifting score composed by Remedios and the constant shots of these three walking on top of the wall. These scenes play simultaneously with other outrageous and even uncomfortable sequences, like how Tsumiji’s teacher appeared as a distorted puppet figure, or how they were abused by the doctors for escaping. These sequences, again, play out in an absurd fashion that sometimes it’s hard to pin down what we suppose to feel.

As with his other features, one aspect remains the same: the characters, though insane, are still grounded as they’re tormenting from what they did in the past, yet at the same time never care if they have to die. You could apply the symbol image of them walking on the top the wall (refusing to walk on the main way) as how they’re literally walking the line between sane and madness, that it’s also the line that split between their protected world with the dangerous outside world. In one sequence, one of the cast falls off the wall and he’s struggling and literally dies. It can also be interpreted as the line between hell and heaven. It’s not far-fetched at all since Picnic touches on church, religion, bible and such. It might not be anything in significant. It might just be a simple story of three insane kids escaping the institution to see the end of the world (hence “Picnic”). Whatever the case, it remains Shunji Iwai’s boldest film. It might divide the audience with its bizarre elements but it might be the film that Iwai himself has the most to say.

Next comes three of his most well-received movies, and some could argue, his career-best features with Swallowtail Butterfly (1996), April Story (1998) and All About LiLy Chou-chou (2001). While Love Letter captured the hearts of general audiences (which became the first Japanese movie showed in South Korea after World War II), Shunji Iwai’s enthusiasts often point out either Swallowtail Butterfly or All About LiLy Chou-chou as his definitive titles, along with April Story that still resonates to today’s fans. See you guys in the next few days.

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