Love Letter (1995)

Meditating in the snow.

Meditating in the snow.

Readers may remember my review of Departures from last year. Departures, winner of the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, basically managed to become my all-time favorite Japanese film. That is an amazing feat because I have seen so many fine Japanese films. Despite being a somewhat understated drama about a guy who takes up a job as someone who prepares the recently deceased for their funerals, it very much was my ideal feel-good movie.

I was actually considering firing my Departures DVD up again until it was recommended I see Love Letter, which was easily one of the most successful Japanese movies of the 1990s. It was not only one of the first Japanese films to be shown in South Korean theaters (As the South Korean people still had hard feelings over World War II, Japanese products were banned for a long time), but it did extremely well there. Of course, I never heard of the movie because despite an American company owning the rights to distribute the movie here in the States, they never actually distributed it on DVD. Thus, I got my hands on a regionless South Korean copy (which thankfully had English subtitles on it) and checked it out.

Love Letter (released in America as When I Close My Eyes) follows Watanabe Hiroko (pop singer Nakayama Miho) while in the middle of observing the second anniversary of the death of her fiance Fujii Itsuki. Upon looking through Itsuki’s junior high school yearbook, she finds an address and decides to write a letter to it. Little does she realize that the address actually belongs to Fujii Itsuki (Nakayama in a dual-role), a female classmate of her late fiance’s who incidentally happened to have the same name. With that, Hiroko begins a correspondence where she learns, little by little, about the man she loved.

Love Letter is a drama about discovery. Hiroko’s letter prompted Itsuki to think back to her relationship with her male counterpart. Flashing back to her middle school years, we see how the two Fujii Itsukis (female played by Sakai Miki, male Kashiwabara Takashi) were mercilessly teased by their classmates for their identical names. We see female Itsuki, who is a librarian who suffers from a persistent cold in the present day, as a studious academic while male Itsuki just goofs off, preferring to run track and play pranks. There was no way the two of them could possibly get along. At least, those were the impressions female Itsuki carried with her until now.

As the movie unfolds, the deceased Itsuki grows into a complete character. At the same time, female Itsuki also learns about herself, and we learn about this self-discovery through the eyes of Hiroko as she reads Itsuki’s letters.

Unfortunately, as Hiroko ultimately functioned more or less just as a lens for the viewer, we never learn that much about her. She seems kind of, but not really, ready to move on with her life when she starts hanging out with Akiba (Toyokawa Etsushi), male Itsuki’s friend who also harbored a secret crush on Hiroko.

Nonetheless, Love Letter has very good lenses. The common feature in all of my favorite Japanese movies is absolutely gorgeous cinematography, and I am a little biased when it comes to films that make snow beautiful. Examples of that include David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) and David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Director Iwai Shunji and cinematographer Shinoda Noboru preferred a handheld camera for many scenes. Ordinarily, one wouldn’t expect a handheld camera to be used in a non-action film, and least of all in an understated drama. However, both Iwai and Shinoda made stylistic decisions that made Love Letter a treat for the eyes in all its minimalistic glory. Furthermore, much like Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), Nakayama Miho, beautiful in quieter way than the likes of Hirosue Ryoko, really looked like she truly belonged in the mise-en-scene compositions Iwai assembled. Combine that with Remedios’ score of soft piano pieces, and you have a real audio-visual treat.

On the subject of Nakayama, I have to say she also did a terrific job in her acting. Hiroko and Itsuki were completely different characters, yet Nakayama was capable of playing both convincingly without needing another character to identify her by name so I know who she was supposed to be. Ordinarily, when a non-acting celebrity, such as a singer, is called in to act in a movie, I set my expectations very low as to what to expect from their performance. You can thank Jennifer Lopez for that. However, Nakayama more than admirably held her own with the likes of Toyokawa and the alas late Han Bunjaku, who played Itsuki’s mother.

From a strictly objective standpoint, Love Letter was by no measure the best Japanese film I have ever seen. However, it was a minimalist feel-good drama that, in my mind, succeeded in the areas that mattered. While it hasn’t replaced Departures as my favorite Japanese film, I will say it is the best one I have seen in a long time. For that reason, I am excited to see Iwai Shunji’s more recent Hana and Alice (2004).

Score: 3.5/4

NOTE: As you may remember from other reviews on this blog, a pet peeve of mine is when great movies wind up in less-than-great DVD transfers. Unfortunately, that’s what happened when Love Letter was published for DVD distribution in South Korea. There was a slight blur in many scenes. It was odd seeing there were still black bars at the top and bottom of the screen despite the fact that I was watching this widescreen DVD on a widescreen television. For that reason, I would suggest looking for a Japanese Blu-Ray (Japan and North America are in the same region in Blu-Ray) as the South Korean DVD release is a little disappointing.

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