Love Letter director Shunji Iwai on his long road back to feature-film making

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is the Japanese filmmaker’s first movie in 12 years to receive a wide cinematic release, but the 53-year-old says he ‘wasn’t conscious of how time flies’ in the intervening years

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 7:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 7:00am

The film director Shunji Iwai looked set to become one of Japanese cinema’s most singular voices when he concluded a distinguished decade of work with the offbeat teen romance Hana and Alice in 2004.

That followed a fairy-tale start to his career: Iwai’s first full-length feature Love Letter (1995), which initially opened in five cinemas in Tokyo, was a huge hit in Asia, enjoying a 204-day run at Cine-Art – at the time the main art-house cinema in Hong Kong. He quickly found a fervent following for his poetic yet uncompromising vision of contemporary Japanese values, one that was bolstered by follow-up films, such as Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) and All about Lily Chou-chou (2001).

It still puzzles many of his admirers outside Japan that since 2004 the filmmaker has shifted his focus to scriptwriting and film production, and has only occasionally directed a documentary, short film or animation.

Iwai at last has a new feature film in cinemas, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle – rather an uncanny title for a filmmaker who has fallen off the radar for more than a decade. Inevitably, the first question on the lips of many when he arrived in Hong Kong last week to promote it was: where have you been these past 12 years?

“I was working in the US, and I was also spending time learning English in the early days,” Iwai told the South China Morning Post.

The year 2004 was notable for the death of Noboru Shinoda, Iwai’s close friend and the cinematographer on all his feature films up to Hana and Alice. But that was not a factor in his long hiatus from making feature films for cinematic release, he says.

“I had three projects on my hands at the time – one of them being Vampire, which took five years to develop,” says Iwai of his 2011 English-language debut, an eccentric horror film that was barely seen outside the festival circuit. “I wasn’t conscious of how time flies, but after the 3-11 tsunami, I did actually stop working altogether for a while.”

Following the earthquake and tsunami off Japan’s northeastern coast on March 11, 2011, which killed nearly 19,000 people and triggered a nuclear disaster, all Iwai could think of was to tell a Japanese story in his next film.

For his 2011 documentary friends after 3.11, the director visited the devastated Tohoku region and considered the country’s changed status, its people’s mentality and their readiness to rethink politics, economics and the use of nuclear power.

Japan was still on Iwai’s mind in the three-plus years it took him to develop the screenplay of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle.

“I had a feeling that it’s becoming impossible to tell right from wrong when it comes to what’s happening in Japan,” he says. “What used to be a peaceful country has come to be plagued by problems after the earthquake.

“Naturally, I did wish my country would take a turn for the better. But at the same time, people were being fed lies by the politicians – and they had no choice but to accept what they were told.”

That sentiment is captured in the film’s sprawling and unpredictable narrative, which follows a part-time schoolteacher, Nanami (played by Haru Kuroki) as she finds a husband on an online dating service, is swiftly tricked out of the marriage by swindlers, takes up strange jobs to make a living, and finally encounters the Rip Van Winkle character of the film’s title.

The motif of deception runs through the three-hour story, even if Nanami gets most of her eomotional support from the very people who are scamming her.

Iwai is not a fan of preconception, and he cites an observation about the Japanese porn industry – briefly alluded to in a storyline late in the film – by way of illustration.

“Just as I saw that there are people who don’t care much about the world, I learned that many adult- film actresses care a lot about the country – they chat about politics and nuclear power on their phones. It might be inconceivable, but these actresses are closely connected to society,” he says.

The director, now 53, appears less concerned about his recent stylistic detours than his fans. Having already made one animated feature, The Murder Case of Hana & Alice (2015), a prequel to his 2004 film, he is thinking of making another. It is one of several ideas he says are in the works.

“It’s not my intention to make an animated film that’s exactly like those already on the market in Japan. I’m very interested in animation and would like to experiment further. I used rotoscoping [on my film],” says Iwai, referring to the animation technique in which live-action footage is traced to create far more realistic images.

“That was a very interesting experience for me. I followed that up by making a rotoscoped anime music video for Yen Town Band.” The group was formed for the film Swallowtail Butterfly, and had been inactive for 19 years before releasing a single in December.

Iwai believes the experience he has accumulated in the past decade has given him the skills to work with film crews anywhere. As examples, he cites the segment he filmed for the omnibus New York, I Love You (2008), the USA/Canada co-production Vampire, and two projects he produced, the Paris-set film I Have to Buy New Shoes (2012) and the TV drama series Mysterious Transfer Student (2014).

“I made Vampire in my usual style,” he says, “and after so many years I’m happy to say that I’ve established a shooting approach of my own. It’s not just about how to capture the beautiful scenes, but also about how to keep the set under control. I’m much more assured as a director now.

“While I produced Mysterious Transfer Student in Japan I never went on set. I just gave instructions beforehand, and already the crew achieved what I wanted. That made me realise that as long as I give clear instructions about my methods, I can express what I have in mind on any set.”

Iwai’s inventive mind has allowed him to tap some unusual sources of inspiration for his films – an internet fan fiction for All about Lily Chou-chou, a TV commercial for Hana and Alice. That’s just as well, for he confesses: “I don’t really have a reading habit. And I don’t watch movies – even though I’m a director. I don’t go to concerts, either – though I like to make music. The furthest I’d get [towards seeing other people’s work] is when I read comics.”

That lack of interest in reading leaves him with comically little to say about the work of Haruki Murakami, whose bestselling 1987 novel Norwegian Wood inspired Love Letter.

“That was many years ago,” he says. “I might have only skimmed through the first two pages of Murakami’s other novels since.”

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle opens on March 17