Love Letter

A Japanese film by acclaimed director Shunji Iwai, Love Letter was an impulse purchase I made after hearing only a few quite heartfelt reviews, drawn very much to the fact that the film was said to be incredibly emotional, something I know several Japanese filmmakers have a very good handle on. This was one impulse buy that paid off remarkably...

As soon as the film started, I knew I was going to like it; a beautiful snowy landscape, with a woman lying there in thought on the whitened field, and slow synthesizer music that just opened up the depth of the scene to a whole new level. She rises to her feet and looks up to the sky for a time, before running into the distance into the nearby snowy town.

The girl is Hiroko Watanabe, whom a good portion of this sentimental tale revolves around. We find out soon that Hiroko´s fiancee, Itsuki Fujii, died in a climbing accident two years before. After attending an annual memorial at the beginning of the movie, Hiroko is looking through an old high school yearbook of Itsuki´s when she discovers the address where he lived at the time. Her mourning still very much ongoing, and believing that the house no longer exists, Hiroko decides to send a letter which she is certain can never reach it´s destination... her way of sending her thoughts to her dead lover. She writes a letter to him saying only "O-genki desu ka? Watashi wa genki desu" (How are you? I am fine). But the letter does get delivered... it turns out that there were two Itsuki Fujii´s attending that high school, and it was the girl with this name whose address Hiroko had happened upon... but this Itsuki had known the late Itsuki very well... so begins a very moving tale of painful memories and unresolved pasts, as the two girls slowly start writing to each other and learn many new things about the man they knew and explore exactly what affect he had on their lives.

If this were an American film about chance meetings and coincidences, you´d know what to expect: lots of cheesy gags, desperate attempts at sentimentality, and possibly the casting of one of the stars from Friends. Love Letter is a million miles away. This is a very gentle, compelling, and sobering film that explores the effects of the death of someone close over time, and though the events outlined above kick start the film, it is far more than this. As the film moves on, the Itsuki who died very much fades into the background as the lives and memories of the two women unfold - though it all revolves around him in some way, viewers are never truly allowed to grasp the personality or the way of life of the enigmatic young man, which I found to be a very touching and masterful way of expressing the fact that he is indeed gone and now only a part of the past. One of the final scenes where Hiroko finally visits the mountain that claimed her fiancee´s life and stands before it, crying out to him, is truly quite moving indeed. The humour in the film is not slapstick or crude, but subtle and humane, and keeps the whole thing very grounded and real. The setting of various sleepy, wintry Japanese villages also adds a dimension of solitude and loneliness, giving the film its mesmerising pace, and the whole package is wrapped up by a soundtrack which goes from strength to strength and very much carries the tale at times.

This film comes highly recommended, but is currently unavailable outside of Japan - I got my copy from CD Japan - notably, the film was titled When I Close My Eyes in the west.

Reviewed by Marc Carlton

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