Shunji Iwai

Mark Schilling schill
Tue Dec 30 22:16:27 EST 1997

> From: Mark Schilling (schill at
> To: kinejapan at
> Subject: Shunji Iwai
> Date: Tuesday, December 31, 1997

On December 31 Robert Stuhr wrote: 
I am looking for more information about Shunji Iwai and his films.

Here is an edited version of a story I wrote on Iwai for "Winds" magazine
shortly after the release of "Love Letter" in 1995. It is based on an
hour-long interview I conducted with Iwai at Nippon Herald. I have also
reviewed of all his films for the Japan Times and written about him in a
article about Gen X directors that will appear in the January issue of "The
Japan Quarterly." Fine Line is planning to release "Love Letter" in the
United States in 1998, though they haven't set a date.

Iwai has taken a critical bashing since "Love Letter" -- I have, I admit,
heaved a brickbat or two myself -- but he was on target in his prediction
that Japanese film "will catch up with the rest of Asia in three years." In
terms of major festival prizes and domestic box office take, 1997 was the
best year for Japanese films in recent memory, while ethnic Chinese
filmmakers have had to battle shrinking box office and, in the case of
mainland directors, official repression. Iwai, however, has a way to go
before he catches up with his Hong Kong counterpart, Wong Kar-Wai.  

   A 32 year-old director who has had extensive experience in music videos,
TV commercials and TV dramas, Iwai released his first feature-length film,
"Love Letter,"  this spring in five Tokyo area theaters. Usually, a first
film by a new Japanese director attracts only a coterie audience and enjoys
only a token theatrical run. But "Love Letter," a romantic drama about a
young woman named Hiroko who writes a letter to a dead lover in Hokkaido --
and receives a reply -- played 14 weeks to standing-room-only crowds at a
central Tokyo theater, drew rave reviews from Japanese critics and got wide
publicity in the Japanese media. 
    In its self-consciously stylish romanticism, "Love Letter" bears a
family resemblance to the "trendy dramas" about the love troubles of hip,
young urbanites that have flooded the TV airwaves in recent years. But Iwai
is not content to recycle genre cliches; like most successful commercial
directors, he gives the audience what it wants, while staying one step
ahead of it. There is much in his films that feels familiar, little that
looks borrowed.
        The Hokkaido letter writer is not a ghost, as it turns out, but a
young woman who has the same name and went to the same high school as the
dead boy -- and is a dead ringer for Hiroko (both roles are played
super-idol Miho Nakayama). This results in interesting complications,
especially when Hiroko and a mountain-climbing friend of the dead boy
(Etsushi Toyokawa)  travel to Hokkaido to solve the mystery of the letters.
But instead of simply running comic changes on the identity crisis when the
two women meet, Iwai focuses on their respective voyages of self-discovery,
love and loss. This may sound like old-fashioned Japanese cinematic
sentimentalism, but Iwai's approach is edgier, sexier and cooler.          
       In contrast to the less-is-more aesthetic of Yasujiro Ozu and other
Golden Age directors, in "Love Letter" Iwai believes that more can be more.
When the dead boy's friend tries to make love to the still-mourning Hiroko,
Iwai expresses her swirling emotions of denial and desire with short cuts,
unusual angles and quirky editing rhythms. His aim is to seduce us of out
of our "neutral observer" stance and make us directly experience Hiroko's
inner turbulence. Though older moviegoers used to the slower pace of
mainstream Japanese films may flinch at the onrush of images, younger
audiences raised on the fast pace of Japanese TV (including  MTV) sense
that Iwai is one of them and understands their way of looking at the world.
  In person, Iwai looks like a director as imagined by a shojo manga
(girls' comic): a slender, long-legged, stylishly dressed man, whose
youthful, delicately handsome face is partly masked by a shock of long
hair. Though he initially impresses as soft-spoken and shy, Iwai soon
begins to talk about his work and the state of the Japanese film industry
with intensity, fluency and confidence. 
   Unlike industry traditionalists, who place theatrical films at the top
of the visual  media pyramid and the director at the top of the filmmaking
pyramid, Iwai sees himself primarily as an eizo sakka ("visual media
artist") who draws inspiration from all media and looks down at none. "You
can get all kinds of practice working in video or TV drama," he says. "I
had seven years of it before I  made my first film and it was extremely
valuable to me." 
   He also actively embraces new technologies.  After writing the script
for "Love Letter," he storyboarded every shot on a computer, until he had
"filmed" the entire movie before touching a camera. His colleagues, he
feels, are reluctant to follow his lead. "The Japanese film industry
doesn't know anything about digital technology and doesn't want to know,"
said Iwai. "Film editors are among the worst; they are afraid that they'll
lose their jobs."
   Transferring Iwai's brand of expertise to films is not easy; the
Japanese film industry does not easily admit newcomers from TV and other
media more open to new ideas. But, as evidenced by Iwai's own success, that
situation is slowly changing. As the industry opens up, Iwai believes, more
new talent will pour in. "Every director on television wants to make
movies," he says wryly
    He also feels that, despite their lack of a filmmaking apprenticeship,
considered essential in the days of the studio system, these newcomers will
fit right in. "I never had that kind of apprenticeship myself; I've been a
director from the beginning," he says. "But I was raised watching
television; thinking in terms of images became second-nature to me. From an
early age I knew things that directors of an older generation had to learn
from hard experience.  With a little practice, I found that I was able to
transfer that knowledge to films." 
   In contrast to many older film industry professionals, who have seen
repeated attempts to penetrate foreign markets end in failure and are
pessimistic about the future, Iwai is convinced that if the industry gives
enough new people a chance to succeed, "We can catch up with the rest of
Asia in three years." 
    One obstacle to overseas recognition, however, is the tendency to hold
up the Golden Age films of Mizoguchi, Ozu and Kurosawa as the model of what
Japanese cinema should be -- a model that Iwai has little interest in
emulating. "I want to show [foreign audiences] that Japan isn't that way
any more," says Iwai. "Young Japanese don't know those films or the society
they depict. We have to make movies that appeal to them and reflect the
world they're living in."
    Iwai's next film, Swallowtail, which went before the cameras early this
year [1996], is about Asians in Japan. "I don't want to show Asians as
simply suffering, the way some recent Japanese films have. I think that a
lot of them see Japan as gold rush country. They've got yen fever. I hope
that some of their energy rubs off on the Japanese who see this film. Other
Asians have a vitality that we lack."  !  

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