Love Letter

Japan (1995) Dir. Shunji Iwai

Unisex names are rare but not unusual – men and women can be named Tony/Toni, Leslie/Lesley, or more annoying, Jamie/Jamie. Less likely is both names shared by both genders – for example, a male and female Leslie Howard or Tony Hart. How confusing would that be?

Hiroko Watanabe (Miho Nakayama) attends the memorial to mark the anniversary of the death of her fiancée Itsuki Fujii in her home town of Kobe during the winter. After the ceremony, Itsuki’s mother (Mariko Kaga) shows Hiroko an high school yearbook which had Itsuki’s home address in Otaru which is now a highway. Regardless, Hiroko decides to write a letter to Itsuki at that address.

To her surprise, Hiroko receives a reply from but not her late fiancée Itsuki Fujii, instead a young woman with the same name (Nakayama again), responding out of curiosity. This correspondence continues until Itsuki feels slighted by a request for proof of her identity and cuts Hiroko off. With old friend Akiba Shigeru (Etsushi Toyokawa) in tow, Hiroko heads to Kobe to meet the other Itsuki.

Love Letter is a deceptive title, one that implies a slushy romance but delivers something different and unexpected instead. The romance is almost negligible yet this is very much a romantic film. It’s a story of rediscovering lost memories and learning to from the past as well as handling grief and moving forward, told in an unconventional manner that is more quirky than alienating for the audience.  

Director Shunji Iwai made his entry into feature films with Love Letter, which was not just a domestic box office hit but also in South Korea where it helped relax the embargo on Japanese films in their cinemas post World War II. It also lays the foundation for the observational but offbeat approach Iwai applies to real life subjects, as we have seen in such works as Hana & Alice and All About Lily Chou-Chou.

As you may have already suspected, the story isn’t as straightforward as two people sharing the same name regardless of gender and is all the better for it. Iwai has quite the imagination to take such a simple concept and construct something oddly endearing from it. This is manifest in the way the central relationship between Hiroko and Itsuki remains distant at all times yet becomes cathartic for both of them.

Male Itsuki died in a climbing accident two years prior to this timeline, and Hiroko’s letter was a way for her to ensure Itsuki remains a part of her, like sending it to heaven. But instead of heaven, it went to the other Itsuki, since the local postman knows her. Further down the line, when Hiroko visits Itsuki’s address in Otaru she can’t face going in so she writes another letter finally explaining who she is. This changes everything for Itsuki with good reason as we learn when going back in time to her high school days.

By the most incredible coincidence, Itsuki was in the same class as Hiroko’s Itsuki! This meant teasing from the other kids but it didn’t automatically lead to a bond between them. The two were both different – girl Itsuki (Miki Sakai) was quiet, and studious, male Itsuki (Takashi Kashiwabara) was insular, and played by his own rules. They were paired off to be library assistants but male Itsuki would check out obscure books so only his name would be on the card.

Romance was unlikely yet should have been inevitable since Hiroko and Itsuki look alike; Itsuki told Hiroko it was love at first sight for him, strongly implying he must have felt the same way about Itsuki, a concern Hiroko raises to Itsuki’s mother. This essentially becomes the story’s main conceit and central mystery – was it having the same name that put male Itsuki off female Itsuki?

Just so it isn’t all plain sailing for female Itsuki, she has a challenge in the stinking cold she can’t shift. Itsuki’s father died from pneumonia when he ignored a cold, so her mother (Bunjaku Han) and grandfather (Katsuyuki Shinohara) try their best to get her to hospital. Naturally, fate has other ideas and the past comes back to haunt the family once more.

So many disparate threads float about in this story; some appear from nowhere, others being a natural progression of the central plot. Defying expectation, Iwai somehow keeps a tight rein on all of them so even the smallest detail or seemingly irrelevant supporting character is relevant after all. The jaunty editing adds to the confusion in the opening act as we flit between Hiroko and Itsuki and wonder why we can’t tell them apart; however, when the situation calls for it, this quirk also creates a sense of magic and wonder.

Wintry landscapes dominate the modern day timeline, serving the dual purpose of being austere and restrictive one moment, then enigmatically picturesque the next. The film opens with female Itsuki lying in the snow then trudging across a snowy field as seen from above in a stunning and whimsical tableau; later, a snowstorm threatens to endanger two lives with time a premium commodity, the snow losing its wonder in becoming the antagonist.

Previously a pop star, Miho Nakayama only had a few acting credits to her name, but pulls off this double duty endeavour with relative ease. Aesthetic differences between Hiroko and Itsuki are subtle, mostly the individual fashion choices, it is the personalities where Nakayama separates the characters, almost making their resemblance redundant. Also impressing is Miki Sakai in her debut as teen Itsuki.

It could be argued that 116 minutes is a bit long and a bit of fat could have trimmed from this, but with a story so engrossing enough and presentation this inviting, it might not seem that long. Love Letter is a loaded title for such a sensitive, thoughtful, heart-warming film, capable of eliciting strong emotions from its audience and quirky enough to enchant even the most hardened of cynics.