Shunji Iwai: the cinema of introspection

Shunji IwaiShunji Iwai (岩井俊二 ) from Sendai is not just a film director: he is also a video artist, scriptwriter and novelist, editor, actor, composer and, more frequently now, producer. There are signs that with success Shunji might be turning away from directing films, and following some of his other interests. As a director he has been consistently successful in striking a balance between trend setting and trendy visual styles and delicate observation of feminine predicaments. He has a mass audience of teenage girls in Japan and has something of the status of a pop star yet he is much more than just fashionable. All About Lily Chou Chou is his most substantial work and apparently the one he is proudest of, yet there is something quite delicate and accurate in each of his films that I’ve seen. He appears to like to release alternately a short one hour film then a full length one. His TV work is best avoided unless you’re Japanese. All his other work is interesting, and there are four masterpieces that are essential viewing.

Ghost Soup (1992) (TV)
Geshi monogatari (1992) (TV)
Uchiage hanabi, shita kara Miruka? Yoko kara Miruka? (1993) (TV)
Fried Dragon Fish (1993) (TV)

Undo (1994)****
In this 50 minute film by Iwai, Moemi slowly unravels as her husband Yukio withdraws into his writing. She attempts to hold everything together, with string, and eventually enmeshes Yukio in her web. A cinematic fable that succeeds by quite brilliant acting that keeps you constantly involved. Tomoko Yamaguchi playing Moemi is compelling: the film wouldn’t succeed without her talents. It reminds me in its structure of films by Cocteau or Tarkovsky but remains very Japanese, both in theme and set design.

Love Letter (1995)*****
Shunji Iwai made a breakthrough in 1995 with this story of two relationships with the same man that take place in the memories and through the contact of the two women who loved him. Elegant and visually beautiful, it preserves a perfect balance between the dual pitfalls of sentimentality and pretentiousness. Stars pop singer Miho Nakayama in a dual role. The man both women love is seen to be different again from their two different impressions of him. The film says more about love than a thousand films marketed as love stories/romances. Set design and cinematography are superb.

Pikunikku (1996) Picnic****
A 70 minute film from Shunji Iwai, in Picnic three mental patients go on one in order to watch the world end. Tadanobu Asano, Chara and Koichi Hashizume happen to be the patients, which is pretty insane. In anyone else’s hands this would be a stiff ‘art’ film; in Iwai’s it is simply beautiful. If only life could be like this on the day the world does end.

Swallowtail (1996)*****
Sometimes given the sci-fi tag, this sprawling two and a half hour episodic drama from Shunji Iwai stars the charismatic Chara (one of the world’s greatest pop singers). The plot has a cassette tape found in a grisly hiding place that gives the code for replicating high currency notes from street corner change machines, as well as Sinatra’s My Way (believe me, they sing it their way). About half way through it begins to dawn on you you’re watching a masterpiece. A touch of Bladerunner and a score that gave rise to a best selling album.

Shigatsu monogatari (1998) April Story*****
April Story runs for little more than 65 minutes. It is virtually a one woman show for actress Takako Matsu. The film shows the inarticulateness of a shy and inexperienced girl from Hokkaido set down amidst city slickers in a Tokyo university. Iwai creates just enough distance from Mireno, the character played by Takako Matsu, to observe her with affection, to smile at her awkwardness and absurdity and to note the tenacity with which she pursues her objective. He frames Matsu again and again in careful compositions whose arrangement of colours is both heady and formal. This mood is enhanced by a soundtrack which is largely romantic piano solo. Nothing happens in the film aside from what is required to sketch in the situation. There is little dialogue, not much of it significant, no resolution to the story. You really do have to remember your first love affair to know that this is right. Takako Matsu does a good job of not saying much, being awkward, yet gaining the audience’s sympathy. You should remember her with her red umbrella in the storm. I saw it as the flip side of Wong Kar Wei’s glittering panoramas of lost love, like Chungking Express or 2046. Iwai is much less baroque, an electric watercolourist to Wong’s neon performance artist.

Riri Shushu no subete (2001) All About Lily Chou-Chou*****
Shunji Iwai’s bleak account of internet chat as some kind of compensation for neglected, threatened schoolboy lives started as a graphic novel and was developed by contributors to an internet chat room. Lily is the singer they all adore. Uncomfortable, perceptive, startling, original: it pays re-viewing. Only then do you notice Iwai uses the structure of his film to counterpoint his message. Deliberately referential, it will remind you not only of chat rooms, but of electronic subcultures, pop video, teenage angst genre films, satires: overall, that the medium is the message.

Jam Films (2002) (segment “Arita”)

Hana to Arisu (2004) Hana and Alice****
The story of the bond between two schoolgirls as they develop relationships with boys, this Iwai film began as an ad, was tremendously popular and then developed into a film script (remember this is Japan). It’s perceptive, wry, and apparently schoolgirls love it.

Ichikawa Kon monogatari (2006) Kon Ichikawa Story
Documentary on the famous film director based on extensive interviews.

New York, I Love You (2008)
Like Jam Films a multi director, multi segment film.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


6 thoughts on “Shunji Iwai: the cinema of introspection

  1. There’s an Iwai Collection from Hong Kong that includes everything up to Hana and Alice, very good quality. I bought it. Hana had no English subtitles. Ebay vendors are too expensive for this collection but smaller distribution houses might be cheaper. Otherwise you could try your Chinatown video shop. Swallowtail can also be downloaded via torrent.

  2. Thankyou for the recommendations, I will look them up. I think that you will enjoy Vampire, because it is not your typical horror movie with a lot of blood and scares. It is actually has many serene and beautiful scenes. Understatement is an element in films I have grown to love as well, but to a certain limit. I think it is an art to balance simplicity with the exciting, to keep it from becoming boring. I will try to get my hands on Swallowtail.

  3. Hi Sophie, thanks for the recommendation. I don’t usually watch horror, but an Iwai film, who knows. It’s an English film I think? Get Swallowtail, a pretty wonderful film though you have to be patient with it. As for capturing the quiet and beautiful moments of life, what about Yasujiro Ozu? Akibiyori or Banshun do this perfectly. And some of Satyajit Ray’s films, like Three Daughters or Charulata. I’m watching the series films of Eric Rohmer now, a film maker who captures the gap between what we tell others we feel and what we feel (and what we don’t know we feel). Overall I’m a fan of understatement in film, as we have so much over the top material.

  4. Nice review of Iwai’s works. I have watched Hana & Alice, All About Lily Chou Chou, Love Letter, April Story and Vampire (and Halfway and Rainbow song, which was only screenplay and not as memorable I think). I still need to watch Pikunikku and Swallowtail. I love the sensitivity, authenticity and slow pace in Iwai’s films. He captures the quiet and beautiful moments of life with such skill. If you haven’t watched Vampire yet, I will warmly recommend it, as it is a masterpiece. I highly anticipate his next work, which seems to be a animated prequel to Hana & Alice due february 2015. I wonder if you know any other director, whose cinematic style is similar to Iwai? His style is quite unique of course.

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