Shunji Iwai’s White Films – Fantasia International Film Festival

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Shunji Iwai’s White Films – Love Letter, April Story and hana & alice.

criterion logoFew filmmakers capture the wonder and angst of young adulthood like Japanese writer-director Shunji Iwai. With the hazy, sentimental lens of his regular cinematographer Noboru Shinoda, Iwai’s early feature films explore pivotal moments in teenage life through the mundane challenges of the everyday. Audiences quickly embraced Iwai’s treatment of grief and love with his smash debut Love Letter, about a woman rediscovering her late fiancé through letters exchanged with his former classmate. Linked by their cold introductions, Iwai and Shinoda’s subsequent films – 1998’s April Story, about a shy girl’s move to university, and 2004’s romantic con-job hana & alice – trace the changing times as much as the changing hearts of their characters, and collapse style and substance into lyrical poetry. These “White Films” express Shunji Iwai’s unique view on young love and loneliness and exemplify the dreamy landscapes he nostalgically maps in his films.

SPECIAL EDITION COLLECTORS’ SET FEATURES:

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Love Letter.

criterion logoAfter cutting his teeth on TV dramas and music videos, writer-director Shunji Iwai achieved massive commercial success with Love Letter, an achingly sentimental and poetic film about love lost and found. Pop idol and TV drama star Miho Nakayama glows in a dual role playing Hiroko Watanabe, a young woman still mourning the death of her fiancé, and Itsuki Fujii, a former classmate of her fiancé. An unintended exchange of letters leads to ongoing correspondence and the slow process of Hiroko finding closure. Set against the snowy backdrop of rural Hokkaido and magically shot by cinematographer Noboru Shinoda, Love Letter exemplifies Iwai’s masterful ability to bring intimate human emotion and stunningly beautiful visuals to the screen.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents April Story.

criterion logoWith the coming of spring, Uzuki Nireno (Takako Matsu) leaves her home town in Hokkaido for Tokyo to begin a new life as a university student. Shy, awkward, and lonely, she slowly adjusts to her new home, finding solace in a local bookstore and joy in the sight of cherry blossoms fluttering in the wind. During an orientation session, Uzuki is unable to explain why she choose this particular university, overcome by an answer that is both simple and complex, encompassing a world of memories and emotions. Reminiscent of Love Letter, April Story is a visually enrapturing and emotionally rewarding experience centered on Takako Matsu’s brilliantly reserved performance of a young woman’s journey into life.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • 2K digital restoration, approved by filmmaker Shunji Iwai, with new 5.1 surround soundtrack mix presented in DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Music videos directed by Iwai and featuring April Story star and pop singer Takako Matsu
  • Theatrical trailer and TV spots
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: An essay by Japanese film critic Hayley Scanlon

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents hana & alice.

criterion logoUpon entering high school, two best friends named Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yū Aoi) each develop a crush on a boy that they notice while waiting for a train. While Hana secretly follows him home one day, she witnesses the boy knock himself unconscious by walking into an overhead door. When he wakes up, Hana lies to him, convincing him that he must have amnesia because he cannot remember that she is his girlfriend. Hana quickly enlists Alice into her plot in order to perpetuate her deceit, but complications soon arise amongst this careless romantic triangle. Based on a series of short films supporting the Japanese anniversary of a popular chocolate bar and standing as the writer-director’s last collaboration with Noboru Shinoda before the cinematographer’s untimely passing, hana & alice is an anxious comedy about frivolity, heartbreak, and loyal friendships.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • 2K digital restoration, approved by filmmaker Shunji Iwai, with new 5.1 surround soundtrack mix presented in DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Filming of H&A, an 80-minute behind-the-scenes feature on the making of hana & alice
  • Four short films featuring Hana and Alice
  • Theatrical trailers and TV spots
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Grady Hendrix

*               *               *

All About Lily Chou-ChouFor many, Shunji Iwai is best known for his 2001 feel-bad feature, All About Lily Chou-Chou. In some ways, the film does express many of Iwai’s recurring interests – the interior worlds of young people, the problems of connection and disconnection between individuals, feelings of loneliness, of anxiety, and of self-discovery, and the place of technology as both an engine and a medium for these concerns. Relatively speaking however, All About Lily Chou-Chou refracts Iwai’s preoccupations into particularly dark directions to fashion a story involving alienated teens becoming isolated in chatroom connections and descending into various forms of cruelty including bullying, rape, blackmail, and prostitution. The film is a difficult experience; one made even more challenging by the digital-video look of Iwai’s regular cinematographer through this period, Noboru Shinoda. Much of Lily Chou-Chou looks cheap and dingy, though it has its moments of the hazy gossamer beauty that defines many of Iwai and Shinoda’s other films of the time. Iwai may be at his darkest with All About Lily Chou-Chou and those tentative about approaching more of Iwai’s early movies might be surprised to discover that these same themes of teenage angst are explored in films that are bright, gentle, heartwarming, and sweetly melancholy. As always, the bad news always travels faster than the good.

Shunji Iwai got his start in television, making 12 made-for-TV movies during the first half of the 1990s. (For curious owners of region-free DVD players, many of these works were released in the Initial: The Shunji Iwai Early Works DVD set.) Iwai made the leap to feature films by writing, directing, and editing Love Letter (1995), a story about love lost and rediscovered in snowy Hokkaido. Pop singer Miho Nakayama stars as Hiroko Watanabe, a woman still struggling with the death of her fiancé, Itsuki Fujii, two years after he died in a mountain climbing accident. While attending a memorial service for him, she visits the home of his parents and browses through his high school yearbook where she discovers his old address. His mother explains that the old home no longer exists, having been replaced by a highway, but Hiroko writes to the address anyway and receives a reply back from “Itsuki Fujii.” Against the advice of Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa), a friend of her fiancé who now admits he has feelings for her, Hiroko continues to write to Itsuki and eventually discovers that she is actually writing to a female classmate of her fiancé who shares the same name. The confusion dispelled, Hiroko presses the female Itsuki (also played by Miho Watanabe) for impressions of her fiancé in high school. Love Letter depicts these memories in flashbacks, revealing the young male Itsuki (Takashi Kashiwabara) as being shy and temperamental with his female counterpart (Miki Sakai). The correspondence provides a kind of catharsis for both women, leaving each subtly transformed and both better able to face their futures.

Critics initially wrote off Love Letter as a fluffy vehicle for its pop-idol star but audiences embraced the film wholeheartedly. One of the only five theatres that opened Love Letter played sold-out, standing-room-only screenings for 14 straight weeks. The movie won three Japanese Academy Awards (Newcomer of the Year twice and Most Popular Performer), was nominated for three more (Best Film, Best Music, and Best Supporting Actor), was the Reader’s Choice for Kinema Junpo’s Best Film, and won the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Love Letter was also a hit in other Asian countries, most notably in South Korea where it was one of the first Japanese films to be shown in cinemas there since World War II. Like All About Lily Chou-Chou, Love Letter is preoccupied with the interior worlds of individuals and the mediated connections made between them, although Love Letter uses low-tech snail mail rather than the darkening echo chamber of early millennium chat rooms. Even more significantly, the interiority of Love Letter is predominantly feminine, distinguishing it greatly from Chou-Chou and aligning it with the lion’s share of Iwai’s narratives. To the extent that Love Letter establishes the warm and softly lit look and tone to which Iwai would repeatedly return, significant credit must be given to his cinematographer Noboru Shinoda. Love Letter explores parallel circumstances – between the dual performance of Miho Nakayama, between the double Itsuki Fujiis, between the female Itsuki’s persistent cold and the illness of her late father, and between the past and the present – and Shinoda’s diffused aesthetic, often enthralled with his subject’s faces, provides a hazy, dreamy quality which is tenderly apt to the remembered spaces it describes and the unseen gulf these realities span. For Iwai, the past casts a long shadow, but Love Letter reveals the growth it can inspire if reserved to a proper place.

Iwai followed Love Letter with two films released in 1996: Picnic and Swallowtail Butterfly. Shot in 1994, the twee-disturbing Picnic follows three psychologically disturbed teenagers who escape their mental hospital to find a spot for a picnic and to watch the end of the world, while the sci-fi Swallowtail Butterfly imagines the near-future hustles of a group of despised immigrants living in Yen Town, a Tokyo ghetto. Iwai also directed music videos during this period, including a collection for Takako Matsu’s debut album Mirror of the Sky (1997). The young singer had already found success acting on stage and television with both lead and supporting roles in various dramas before she starred in Iwai’s 67-minute feature, April Story (1998). Matsu plays Uzuki Nireno, a shy, young woman who bids farewell to her family in northern Hokkaido to attend university in Tokyo. (That’s Matsu’s own family seeing her off at the train station.) Yet while most American films would take this plot as a set-up for wacky new friends, romantic rivalry, and sexual escapades, Iwai uses it explore loneliness with gentle, measured grace.

April Story opens full of possibility. Uzuki arrives in Tokyo amid flurries of falling cherry blossom petals which recall her snowy home, and she moves into her too tiny apartment in a semi-comic sequence co-starred by a trio of remarkably generous movers. The film’s optimistic, effervescent view is promptly quieted as Uzuki falters in her efforts to connect with others, finding a polite cold shoulder from a neighbour, becoming overly shy when questioned at a student meet-and-greet, and being befriended by Saeko (Rumi), a sullen and suspicious young woman who pressures Uzuki into joining a male-dominated fly fishing club with her. Seemingly unable to find her niche, Uzuki falls into a lonely routine of mundane activities – bicycling, going to the movies, eating alone, and attending the same bookstore again and again. Endless time-filling dominates April Story yet Iwai crafts something eminently comforting out of this melancholy material. There are no villains and little conflict in April Story. The young men in the fly fishing club are oddly intense, but sincere and ultimately innocent, and even the would-be molester who causes Uzuki to flee a movie theatre is ultimately good-hearted, chasing down Uzuki as she tries to pedal away on a single-gear bike just to return to her the items she left behind during her cinema escape. Iwai has remarked that the everyday monotony of both All About Lily Chou-Chou and April Story was inspired by Jack Jones’ true crime novel Let Me Take You Down: Inside the Mind of Mark David Chapman, the Man Who Killed John Lennon. There, Jones reviews the minutiae of Chapman’s wanderings and interactions during the 48-hours prior to the shooting and April Story represents the filmmaker’s “personal spin” on such random events. In Iwai’s self-described “nice film” where good things follow, April Story eventually reveals that Uzuki has selected her university in order to follow Yamasaki (Seiichi Tanabe), a senior from her high school for whom she holds an unrequited crush, and the movie resolves itself with an uplifting conclusion formed in a kindly, tentative meet-cute involving a downpour of rain and number of umbrellas. Deep in its feminine interiority and minimally brief in its youthful portraiture, April Story is Iwai’s sentimental, bittersweet ode to the meaningless events that steer us into discovering ourselves (in this case, for the better).

As Grady Hendrix observes, Iwai’s films have a tendency to escape their finite runtimes. Iwai wrote novel and manga versions of Love Letter, Swallowtail Butterfly’s band went on tour after the film’s run, and the chat rooms of All About Lily Chou-Chou were still operating a decade and a half after the film’s release. Perhaps the most curious example of this trend in Iwai’s work is hana & alice (2004), a feature film adapted from the filmmaker’s short film series commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Kit Kat chocolate bar in Japan. The titular characters (played by Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi) were revived by Iwai eleven years later for the rotoscoped prequel, The Case of Hana & Alice (Shunji Iwai, 2015), and that animated feature was concurrently adapted into a manga by Dowman Sayman. hana & alice commences with the young friends, soon to enter high school, taking a series of train rides on a cold morning. Alice brings Hana to a train stop to show her a boy she has a crush on and to offer his mumbling, inattentive companion to Hana. Hana initially denies interest in the young man, Masashi (Tomohiro Kaki), but later finds herself stalking him. She joins the high school’s small storytelling club to which he is a member and when she observes Masashi slam his head into a garage door while walking and reading, she seizes the opportunity to convince him that he has suffered amnesia and cannot remember that she is his girlfriend. Hana enlists Alice to help her plot, casting Alice as Masashi’s ex-girlfriend and inadvertently creating an unexpected love triangle as Masashi develops feelings for Alice.

As in Love Letter and April Story, essential plot points and seemingly random events hold equal footing in hana & alice. Alongside Hana and Alice’s interactions with Masashi, we observe the odd homelives of the two girls, their ballet practices, Hana’s storytelling recital, and Alice’s audition for a modelling job. The parity of “important” and “unimportant” moments amplifies the dreamy randomness cultivated by Iwai and the loose and gauzy cinematography of Noboru Shinoda. A vague fairy tale quality is present in each of these films with their doubled lives, closely held secrets, and sleeping princes (the dead/misunderstood Istuki Fujii, the lost Yamasaki, the “amnesiac” Masashi). They are rooted in the territory between childhood and adulthood, between naivety and maturity. Iwai has noted, “My creativity has been greatly informed by my early childhood, as well as my adolescence. And although I’ve grown up and become an adult, there has always been a part of me that identifies with those vivid memories of my youth.” That reflection on youth is key to Iwai’s sensibility. Love Letter, April Story, and hana & alice each express a vision of youth with the wisdom of adult reflection, capturing all the passion and fear of new emotions while also appreciating that their reconciling is almost always a personal, private, and lonely process.

hana & alice was one of Noboru Shinoda’s last films before he sadly died in 2004 from liver failure. (Shinoda makes a brief appearance in that film playing a commercial director attending Alice’s audition.) Shunji Iwai’s collaboration with the cinematographer went back to his 1994 short film Undo and Shinoda’s passing was a blow to the filmmaker. Following Shinoda’s death, Iwai wrote and produced, made some short films, but took a substantial break from feature film directing in Japan, returning finally in 2011 with the poorly received English language horror movie, Vampire. Since then, he has returned to interior worlds of female protagonists with The Case of Hana & AliceA Bride for Rip Van Winkle (2016), the Chinese romance Last Letter (2018), and its Japanese re-make of the same title (2020). His interest in singer-actresses has also persisted – casting Zhu Xun to lead 2018’s Last Letter and reuniting with Takako Matsu to star in the 2020 version – and he has periodically served as his own composer since doing so for hana & alice – composing scores for both The Case of Hana & Alice and 2018’s Last Letter. By returning to hana & alice for his animated feature, refashioning Love Letter into Last Letter, and remaking that Chinese imagining into a further Japanese version, Iwai’s cinematic worlds continue to persist in unexpected ways. Making this point once again, Iwai’s most recent feature, The 12 Day Tale of the Monster That Died in 8 (2020), originated from a COVID relief project.

It is often remarked that these three films by Shunji Iwai are movies that “hug you.” They appear slight in content but run deep in the emotion they elicit. They capture the novelty and anxiety of youth from a perspective that treats them sincerely and seriously. First loves are a universal experience and there is comfort to be taken in seeing them genuinely experienced and survived. Iwai’s first decade in cinema established him as a major voice in Japanese film and his work of this period deserves greater prominence and accessibility. With All About Lily Chou Chou already released in a Blu-ray edition by Film Movement’s Classics line, it makes sense to turn next to these warmly shot, female-led tales of young love. Japanese title have been few and far between for the Criterion Collection of late and these relatively recent films are likely ready-made for release with a wacky “C.” For a cover treatment, MMC! would love to see Tokyo based illustrator, art director, and graphic designer Utomaru let her bold pop art style contrast with these delicate films. (Check out Utomaru’s “Panic! Cinéma” series for some film specific examples of her work!)

Credits: MMC! takes the “White Films” title of this imagined set from actual South Korean Blu-ray editions released by Plain Archive and Nova Media. All of the special features cited pre-exist this imagining, so this release would be extra easy for the Collection. David Desser was selected to provide an essay for Love Letter given his reference to the movie as an example of mid-90s, Japanese “trauma films” in his book Killers, Clients and Kindred Spirits: The Taboo Cinema of Shohei Imamura. Grady Hendrix was also tapped to provide an essay given his insightful survey of Shunji Iwai for Film Comment and his position as a friend and regular contributor to the Criterion Collection. Finally, Hayley Scanlon rounds out our trio of essay-providers, chosen for her excellent and Japanese-centric blog on Asian cinema, Windows on Worlds, and her essay contributions to various Arrow Films titles.

This post was also greatly informed by Aidan Djabarov’s “Teenage Fantasy: The Films of Shunji Iwai” at Filmed in Ether, John Wheeler’s interview of Shunji Iwai for Asia Pacific Arts, Tun Shwe’s article on Love Letter at Midnight Eye, Rob Boyan’s discussion of hana & alice for Orlando Weekly, and reviews of April Story by Panos Kotzathanasis for Asian Movie Pulse, Chris MaGee for Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, Thomas Wishloff for In The Seats, and Alain Elliott for Nerdly. Lastly, one last, big thank you to the Fantasia International Film Festival for another great year! Merci!

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