One of the well-known Japanese directors who continued to move forward in the third decade of his career is director Shunji Iwai (岩井俊二). He is a rare director who showcases fablelike tales with his distinctive visual style. His masterpiece, Love Letter, became a box office hit and still continues to inspire both Asian and international fans.
Iwai also has recently featured a lot of his works in the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival in which many of them served as the event’s highlight. With such great achievement, let us do the honor to look back into his journey to growth – from his prolific body of work to his much-deserved international reputation.
Iwai grew up in Sendai (仙台), the capital city of Miyagi (宮城) Prefecture in Japan. He received his education at Yokohama National University (横浜国立大学) and graduated in 1987. A year later, he started working in the entertainment industry by directing television dramas as well as music videos. Some of these included the likes of Maria (マリア), Lunatic Love (ルナティック・ラヴ), and the 1993 Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? (打ち上げ花火、下から見るか? 横から見るか?), which brought him critical praise and the Best Newcomer award from the Japan Directors Association.
A few years later, he started producing more of his own films.
Iwai started with Love Letter in 1995 which was starred by Miho Nakayama (中山美穂), a Japanese pop singer and actress. It was considered as the first Japanese film to be shown after the World War II. Miho played the dual role of Hiroko Watanabe (渡辺博子) who lives in Kobe (神戸) and Itsuki Fujii (藤井樹) who has the same name of Hiroko’s fiancé in the film. Several flashbacks can be seen in the movie such as switching from the present to the past and vice versa. The film received a critical praise due to its captivating, tranquil, and dreamy story. The scenery with its wonderful snowy landscape has been shot perfectly, thanks to cinematographer Noboru Shinoda (篠田昇) who collaborated in making the film. It became very successful that it even reached South Korea and also helped break down the post-World War II barriers.
Another successful film of Iwai followed and was entitled Swallowtail Butterfly. It is a crime film which was released in 1996 and was starred by Hiroshi Mikami (三上博史), Chara, and Ayumi Ito (伊藤歩). The story centers on a teenage girl named Ageha (アゲハ) whose mother died and was then passed on from person to person. She started her new life under the care of Glico (グリコ), a prostitute. Several visual techniques were used in order to cover a wide array of genres involving reality. It also showed how people commit petty crimes in order to live out their dreams.
Some of Iwai’s other popular films are ARITA in 2002 and Hana and Alice (花とアリス) in 2004, which was his first comedy. For these films, he was able to make his own film scores.
In 2006, Iwai produced Rainbow Song which is starred by actor Hayato Ichihara (市原隼人) who played the role of a staffer in a television studio named Tomoya Kishida (岸田智也). This is a romantic film in which two persons have a hard time confessing their feelings for each other. He also produced a documentary film about the life of director Kon Ichikawa (市川崑) in which he had done a lot of interviewing.
Before obtaining his education at Yokohama National University, Iwai was already fascinated about filming. It is said that he spent much of his youth at Sendai theaters. He always set the tone of his film such as April Story which is all about a girl who leaves the island of Hokkaido (北海道) and goes to Tokyo to attend university. Springtime was creatively shown in the movie wherein cherry blossoms can be seen slowly cascading like snowflakes in one scene and like rain showers in another. He also debuted as an actor in the film Ritual which was released in 2000.
Apart from that, Iwai also created an Internet chat site which he used to gather discussion about Lily Chou-Chou, a fictional Japanese band which was used in his 2001 film, All About Lily Chou-Chou (リリイ・シュシュのすべて). The appearance of the band resulted from his team up with Takeshi Kobayashi (小林武史), a Japanese keyboardist, lyricist, arranger, composer, and record producer, in order to create music for a particular film.
Before the theatrical release of All About Lily Chou-Chou, it was preceded by a CD-ROM novel followed by a printed novel. Even after releasing several of his films, Iwai still felt immature when compared to directors such as Welles and Coppola. However, he believes that some of the great novelists produce good work after the age of 40.
Iwai also produced horror films such as the 2011 Vampire (ヴァンパイア), which is a horror-thriller film directed in English. It was starred by Kevin Zegers, a Canadian actor and model, who played the role of Simon, a Biology teacher who believes himself to be a blood-drinking vampire. He spends most of his time looking for his next prey by searching for suicidal women online. However, things started changing when he met a girl named Laura who became obsessed with him to the point of breaking into his home. Though the film had a limited appeal, some people predominantly gave positive reviews regarding the portrait of the killer who is more empathetic rather than psychopathic. It received several awards such as Festival Prize in 2011 despite mixed critical receptions.
It is rumored that Iwai’s next work is actually a novel, not a film.
Shunji Iwai’s films mostly resonate his style with contemporary Japanese culture. He also gives importance to the Japanese youth and women. Most of his films have been well received and awarded in several festivals. He was even asked to direct and write segments of some international films. Though many of his films are notably recognized in Toronto and Berlin, he is not yet that known outside of Asia, which means he still needs to make more effort to achieve such level.
As his career continues to progress, Iwai also receives several awards. His journey towards growth has always been his strength as he strives to always do something better and more unique than before. In your spare time, try watching one of his films to see more of his creative style in the entertainment industry.