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)

Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Masayuki Suo, 2019)

Famously, silent cinema was never really “silent” in Japan. As the quote from director Hiroshi Inagaki which appears after the end credits of Masayuki Suo’s ode to the early days of the movies Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Katsuben!) reminds us, audiences always had the benshi to guide them. These narrators of film were often more of a draw than the pictures themselves, cinemagoers keener to see their favourite storyteller perform than the story up on screen. A relic of a bygone age, the benshi has often been blamed for holding Japanese cinema back as studios continued to craft their films around audience appetites for live performance, but as we’ll see even the benshi themselves could sense their obsolescence lingering on the horizon. 

Beginning in 1915, the film opens with a retro mockup of a Toei logo from the silent era though the studio was only founded in 1938 and therefore produced only sound movies. Shot as a silent picture the opening sequence follows a gang of kids as they make their way towards an active film set where a classic jidaigeki is in production, confused on passing what appears to be a woman peeing standing up against a tree, a reminder that early cinema was largely inspired by kabuki and therefore featured male actors playing female roles. This is a disappointment to young Umeko, the daughter of an itinerant sex worker, who dreams of becoming an actress. Shuntaro, a little boy obsessed with the movies and dreaming of becoming a benshi like his idol the marquee draw Shusei Yamaoka (Masatoshi Nagase), reassures her that plenty of films from other countries feature female actors as the pair bond sneaking into the local picture house together but as in any good melodrama they are separated by time and circumstance only to be reunited 10 years later when neither of them is quite living their best life. 

While Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) is a struggling actress trying to make it in motion pictures, Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) is living as a “fake benshi” impersonating Yamaoka and others for clueless provincial audiences while the gang he’s running with rob local houses using the movies as a cover. Escaping with some of the loot, he rebrands himself as “Kunisada” after a favourite character from the silver screen and fetches up in his old stomping ground, getting a backstage job at the troubled picture house which finds itself at the mercy of the new outfit in town, a purpose built modern cinema run by local yakuza Tachibana (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his movie-loving modern gal daughter Kotoe (Mao Inoue). Like the film itself, the town is at the nexus of changing times. The Aoki cinema is housed in a former kabuki theatre with the staff dressing in kimono even if Shuntaro and his divaish rival Mogi (Kengo Kora) don suits to talk the pictures. The palatial Tachibana meanwhile boasts modern seating and has the habit of poaching the Aoki’s staff partly because they pay more and partly because no one wants to work with Mogi who is, in his own way, an exemplification of the ways the benshi can interfere with cinematic development in that he forces the projectionist to undercrank the movies to ensure they follow the rhythm of his narration and not vice versa. 

The handsome Mogi is still pulling in the crowds, but the ageing Yamaoka has become a melancholy drunk now convinced that his own art is an act of destruction, actively unhelpful in becoming a barrier between the audience and the movies rather than a bridge. After all, cinema is a visual medium, it shouldn’t need “explaining” in words. He’s actively standing in the way, imposing his own narrative over someone else’s vision just as Shuntaro is a “fake” benshi in that he merely copies the routines of others, adopting a “fake” persona while hiding out in the movie house from the gang he ran away from and the movie-loving cop (Yutaka Takenouchi) who’s chasing them. Yamaoka may have a point, the days of the benshi are numbered though there were those who argued the advent of the talkies was also a regression, the advances of the silent era squandered on the spectacle of sound. Nevertheless, filled as it is with silent-era slapstick, silly farce, melodrama, and romance, Talking the Pictures is a warm and nostalgic tribute to a bygone age of cinema and the men and women who guided us through it. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)