Love Letter (ラブレター, Shunji Iwai, 1995)

“People are forgotten so easily” a widow laments after an insensitive comment from a family friend, yet there is perhaps a difference between forgetting and letting go as exemplified in the distance between two accidental pen pals in Shunji Iwai’s profoundly moving romantic melodrama, Love Letter (ラブレター). A huge hit and pop culture phenomenon throughout Asia on its 1995 release, Iwai’s first theatrical feature bears many of the hallmarks of his enduring style in its soft focus, ethereal lighting and emphasis on nostalgia as the two women at the film’s centre each restore something to the other through their serendipitous correspondence. 

Iwai opens with a memorial service for Itsuki the late fiancé of the heroine, Hiroko (Miho Nakayama), who passed away two years previously in a mountain climbing accident. Hiroko has since started a relationship with his friend Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa) who avoided attending the memorial out of misplaced guilt and gave up mountaineering soon after Itsuki’s death. Akiba is keen to move their relationship forward, but fears that Hiroko is still stuck in the past unable to let go of her love for Itsuki. On a visit to Itsuki’s mother (Mariko Kaga), she finds an old address in his middle school year book for a home that apparently no longer exists and decides to mail him a letter saying nothing more than “How are you? I’m fine” of course expecting no reply. What she didn’t know, however, is that there were two Itsuki Fujiis in her Itsuki’s class, the other being a woman still living at the same address to whom Hiroko has accidentally mailed her correspondence. Confused, the other Itsuki (also played by Miho Nakayama) mails back and eventually finds herself recalling memories of the male Itsuki as an awkward, diffident teen she may have entirely misunderstood. 

Played by the same actress the two women are each in a sense trapped in an eternal present, unable to move forward with their lives. While Hiroko is consumed by grief and fearful of committing to her new relationship with Akiba lest she betray the memory of Itsuki, Itsuki is still struggling to come to terms with the traumatic death of her father 10 years previously who passed away from pneumonia after contracting the common cold leaving her with persistent health anxiety. Meanwhile, she is also struggling to move on from her family home which is in an increasingly perilous state of disrepair. She and her mother (Bunjaku Han) want to move into a modern apartment, while her grandfather (Katsuyuki Shinohara) prefers to stay even though it seems that the house will soon have to be demolished. 

Through their accidental correspondence, both women are forced to deal with recent and not so recent loss, Itsuki in some senses having forgotten the boy who shared her name while Hiroko remains unable to forget. Through his trademark ethereal lighting and frequent use of dissolves, Iwai hints at a sense of perpetual longing for the nostalgic past. The letters may not have been from the late Itsuki in a literal sense but were perhaps a message from him, connecting the two women and eventually freeing each of them as the love letter of the title is finally delivered ironically enough hidden inside a copy of Remembrance of Things Past. 

This sense of grief-stricken inertia is perfectly reflected in the snowy vistas of the lonely northern town of Otaru, thrown into stark contrast with the intense heat of the furnace in Akiba’s glassblowing workshop, or the gentle warmth of the old-fashioned stove in Itsuki’s room as she types replies to Hiroko’s handwritten letters. As Hiroko eventually reflects, they each knew a different Itsuki and have each in a sense both lost him if restoring something one to the other through the exchange of memories that grants Hiroko the understanding she needs to let go and Itsuki the poignant realisation of a youthful missed connection. A bittersweet meditation on love, loss, grief, and memory, Iwai’s epistolary drama has its own sense of magic and mystery in the strange power of this serendipitous connection leading to a tremendous sense of catharsis as a long delayed message finally makes its way home bringing with it a shade of melancholy regret but also possibility in the new hope of forward motion.


Love Letter screens at the BFI on 22/28 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Enchantment (誘惑者, Shunichi Nagasaki, 1989)

“A broken romance affects everybody” a sympathetic psychiatrist tries to reassure a patient suffering a dangerous romantic obsession with a possibly imaginary woman. Like so much of his work, they’re soft words offered casually as a path towards something deeper but in this case it’s not the patient we need to worry about but the doctor. The aptly named The Enchantment (誘惑者, Yuwakusha), somewhat less subtly titled “Temptress” in Japanese, takes its “hero” on a dark journey into fascination, the male need for domination, and the self delusions of irresolvable disappointment.   

The film opens with genial psychiatrist talking to a patient, Hirayama (Tsutomu Isobe), who proclaims himself more or less cured from a nervous breakdown born of a broken heart. Hirayama’s love affair may be largely imaginary, and he seems far from “cured”, but Doctor Sotomura’s (Masao Kusakari) failure to challenge him on his new affirmation that he’s over her because he’s realised she was “just a bitch” who treated him “like trash” might be a worrying oversight. Hirayama was supposed to be his last patient of the day, but a last minute walk-in, Miyako (Kumiko Akiyoshi), piques his interest enough to keep him in the office rather than on a planned date with his receptionist fiancée and surgeon best friend.

Miyako, nervous and reticent, tells him the appointment is “about a friend” and takes some coaxing before beginning to explain that she has been physically assaulted by her female roommate apparently jealous over the unwanted attentions of a man who developed an attraction for her at her job as a tour guide. Miyako does not spell it out, but somewhat implies that her relationship with her roommate Kimie is romantic while Sotomura has the good sense not to push the issue, only to urge her that perhaps she should think about staying with a friend a while if she doesn’t feel safe at home. Miyako, however, doesn’t want to do that and is only worried about what might have provoked this sudden and unexpected change, fearing most of all that she herself will fall out of love with Kimie if her moodiness continues to intensify.

Overstepping the mark, Sotomura is fascinated with his mysterious new patient, particularly after he becomes a kind of white night rescuing Miyako from a dangerous encounter with Hirayama who is under the delusion that she is the embodiment of his romantic obsession “Junko”. The fascination only intensifies after he makes a surprising discovery – Kimie is not “real” but a secondary personality inside Miyako. Infuriated by Sotomura’s romantic overtures, Kimie takes control and stabs him in the leg while Miyako continues to visit him in the hospital, unable to remember what exactly happened between them.

Sotomura’s obsession is both sexual and professional, after all how many sufferers of MPD is he going to meet in the course of his career? He is indeed ambitious, casually dating his receptionist Harumi (Kiwako Harada) mostly because she’s the daughter of his former professor. Though the couple live together, Harumi is constantly frustrated by his indifference to their relationship and foot dragging over making it official. Sotomura’s best friend, Shinbori (Takashi Naito), is facing much the same dilemma but has resigned himself to an arranged marriage to further his career and keep his family happy. Sotomura instinctively thinks he ought to do the same and tells Harumi that he’ll sort things out with her father, but remains fixated on the mysterious Miyako and her unconventional love life. 

A more cynical friend warns him that sex is the only thing that matters and it’s essential to avoid emotional entanglements. Nevertheless, Sotomura finds himself desperate to unlock the mystery of Miyako, but it remains open to debate which part of her he wants to “fix” – her MPD, or her sexual orientation. As we find out, Sotomura might assume that Miyako’s love for another woman has driven her “mad”, but in reality it’s more that a sense of impossibility led her to believe that there was no solution to her suffering other than death. Faced with unreconcilable loss, she internalised the figure of her fixation, literally becoming one with her lost lover in order to avoid facing that she was alone once again. Uninterested in Sotomura, Miyako/Kimie becomes fascinated with Harumi who eventually becomes so intensely obsessed with Miyako that she is willing to erase her own identity and become “Kimie” for her in order to support her sense of reality and protect the integrity of the Miyako personality.

Again, Sotomura has a few issues. The first is multi-layered sexual jealousy. Now that Harumi has moved on, found someone who “needs” her, and seems to be happier he is instantly irritated that she left him (for a woman) and desperate to win her back (along with the career boost he romanced her for in the first place). He resents Harumi’s differing vision of medical care, that she is willing to embrace Miyako’s delusion in order to keep her stable while wilfully abnegating her sense of self in a profound act of love. Sotomura the clinician wants to “cure” Miyako of her delusion, but his intervention is brutal, intruding on the mental space of her traumatic memory with physical violence designed to rip her from her safety of her artificial reality. He tries to insert himself between the two women, asserting his masculine “right” to dominate, but is eventually ejected by another knife blow to the thigh as the women assert their right to their own reality in the absence of men.

A strange psychosexual odyssey, The Enchantment spins a dark tale of obsession, delusion, and jealousy but ends on a broadly positive, if perhaps uncomfortable, note, in which the dominant psychiatrist is forced to recognise his irrelevance and the legitimacy of realities outside of his own. Broken romance affects everyone, as Sotomura said, but perhaps he doesn’t have the right to intrude on the broken hearts of others or judge the various ways in which they attempt to patch them back together again. A chronicle of bubble era Tokyo bathed in garish neon and a sense of infinite possibility, Shunichi Nagasaki’s heady feature is a surprisingly subversive affair in which trauma cannot be overcome but can perhaps become integrated in a mutually beneficial whole.