Shunji Iwai Movies
The standard bearer of the 1990s new wave of Japanese film, Shunji Iwai
cranked out some of that country's hippest, hottest, and most popular movies. A self-styled eizo sakka
, or visual artist, Iwai is a filmmaker equally at home directing commercials, TV dramas, rock videos, and feature length pictures. Though older critics have blasted his films for lacking depth and for borrowing from 1970s experimental auteur Shuji Terayama
, Iwai understands that for an audience weaned on MTV, the image is
the movie. Slick and oozing with style, his films consistently have an uncanny resonance with 1990s Japanese pop culture, making him one of the most important directors of his generation.
Born on January 24th, 1963, in the northern city of Sendai, Iwai started his filmmaking career in 1988 directing music videos and television dramas. Though he was already garnering considerable buzz by 1993 for his acclaimed one-hour late-night TV dramas Fried Dragon Fish
and Uchiage Hanabi: Shita kara Miru ka? Yoko kara Miru ka?
, Iwai's true mainstream breakthrough came in 1995 with his gorgeously-rendered romance Love Letter
. About a young woman who writes a letter to her dead lover -- and mysteriously gets a reply -- the film proved to be an amazing success for the fledgling Japanese director. Love Letter
played to sold out theaters for 14 straight weeks in central Tokyo, a run usually only reserved for Hollywood heavy-hitters. Hailed for its clever narrative, touching plot, and Miho Nakayama
's remarkable dual performance, the film lent new energy to Japan's moribund national cinema.
The film's popularity prompted Iwai to release two film shorts, Undo
, along with re-releasing his popular television dramas. Filmed in 1994, Undo
concerns a pair of bohemian Tokyoites: he's a struggling writer, she is slowly going insane, aided in part by the negligence of her boyfriend. She becomes possessed with the idea of tying things with twine and rope, leading eventually to tragedy. Picnic
also concerns a group of hipsters on the edge -- a trio of mental patients escape in order to enjoy a little freedom before the end of the world. Feeling that the film echoed headlines a little too closely, distributors hastily pulled it after members of the Aum Shinrikyo
cult gassed the Tokyo subway with poison gas in 1995.
Iwai next film, Swallowtail
, is perhaps his most emblematic, both in terms of visual style and in narrative themes. Exuding a similar futuristic grime and decadence as Blade Runner
, the film is about foreign fortune-seekers living in slums on the edge of a 21st-century megalopolis called Yen Town. At a time when his country grows increasingly aware of its Asian neighbors, Iwai intentionally, gleefully, blurred Japan's deep-rooted insularity by having his Japanese actors speak Mandarin and English and his foreign actors speak in flawless Japanese. This aside, the film proved to be an even bigger success in Japan than his previous works. Part of its popularity is, no doubt, the presence of ultra-hip pop-sensation Chara
, who plays the film's Chinese singer-turned-prostitute, Glico. At several points in the film, the plot simply stops in favor of funky music numbers by Glico and the Yen Town Band. The sequences were used in their entirety for MTV videos for the band, which had a number of hits spun off from the movie.
As opposed to the aggressively stylish Swallowtail
, Iwai opted for a clean, simple look for his follow-up, Shigatsu Monogatari
. Seemingly taken from the pages of a shojo manga
, the film is about a young college freshman (played by teen idol Takako Matsu
) making her first steps in life and love. ~ Jonathan Crow, Rovi
A man who is not an ordinary creature of the night is on the prowl in this offbeat blend of horror and comedy from Japanese director Shunji Iwai. Simon (Kevin Zegers) and Jellyfish (Keisha Castle-Hughes) are a young couple who have recently met on-line; both are deeply depressed, and have decided to take their lives in a suicide pact. However, while Jellyfish kills herself according to plan, Simon does not; instead, after her death he drains her blood and begins drinking it. Simon doesn't have fangs or an aversion to garlic and sunlight, but he imagines himself a vampire and uses internet chat rooms as a place to search for new victims. When he isn't on the prowl for blood, Simon works as a schoolteacher and looks after his mother (Amanda Plummer), who is slipping into dementia. As Simon begins courting a potential new victim, a beautiful young woman named Ladybird (Adelaide Clemens), he has to deal with a stalker named Laura (Rachael Leigh Cook) and his fellow vampire sidekick Renfield (Trevor Morgan), whose methods lack Simon's level of restraint. Vampires was an official selection at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi
- Add New York, I Love You to Queue
Add New York, I Love You to top of Queue
Some of the world's most-respected directors align forces to pay tribute to the city of the New York in this unconventional omnibus sister film to 2006's Paris, Je T'Aime. Broken into short segments, New York, I Love You is comprised of ten films, most choosing to take a down-to-earth approach to the stories of the countless lives lived in the city on a given day. The segments are as follows, chronologically:
Segment 1 -- Directed by Jiang Wen; written by Hu Hong and Meng Yao; starring Hayden Christensen, Andy Garcia, and Rachel Bilson.
Segment 2 -- Directed by Mira Nair; written by Suketu Mehta; starring Natalie Portman and Irfan Khan.
Segment 3 -- Written and directed by Shunji Iwai; adaptation by Israel Horovitz. Starring Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci.
Segment 4 -- Directed by Yvan Attal; written by Olivier Lécot and Yvan Attal; starring Robin Wright Penn, Ethan Hawke, Maggie Q, and Chris Cooper.
Segment 5 -- Directed by Brett Ratner; written by Jeff Nathanson; starring Anton Yelchin, James Caan, Olivia Thirlby, and Blake Lively
Segment 6 -- Directed by Allen Hughes; written by Xan Cassavetes and Stephen Winter; starring Drea de Matteo and Bradley Cooper.
Segment 7 -- Directed by Shekhar Kapur; written by Anthony Minghella; starring Julie Christie, John Hurt, and Shia LaBeouf.
Segment 8 -- Written and directed by Natalie Portman; starring Taylor Geare, Carlos Acosta, and Jacinda Barrett.
Segment 9 -- Written and directed by Fatih Akin; starring Burt Young, Ugur Yucel, and Shu Qi.
Segment 10 -- Written and directed by Joshua Marston; starring Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman.
Transitions in between segments -- Directed by Randall Balsmeyer; written by Israel Horovitz, James Strouse, and Hall Powell; starring Emilie Ohana, Eva Amurri, and Justin Bartha. ~ Michael Hastings, Rovi
- Hayden Christensen, Andy Garcia, (more)
A young man wishes against all hopes for a second chance at love in this romantic drama from Japan. Tomoya Kishida (Hayato Ichihara) is a film student with dreams of one day becoming an important director. While at school, he meets pretty Aoi Sato (Juri Ueno), and the two become fast friends. However, while he lacks the nerve to tell her, before long Tomoya has fallen in love with Aoi. While they remain best friends, after graduating, Tomoya gets a job as an assistant on a film set, while Aoi heads off to visit California. Shortly after sending a picture of a rainbow to Aoi's cell phone, Tomoya receives the shocking news that her flight has crashed and she has died. As he arranges to fly to California and arrange for Aoi's funeral, Tomoya begins having persistent daydreams about the love affair he wanted but never had with her. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi
- Hayato Ichihara, Juri Ueno, (more)
Produced to commemorate the release of acclaimed Japanese director Kon Ichikawa's 2006 mystery Inukamike no Ichizoku, All About Lily Chou-Chou director Shunji Iwai's lovingly detailed documentary traces his subject's eventful life all the way from early childhood through the production of his latest film, a remake of his own detective film from thirty years ago. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi
- Add Hana to Arisu to Queue
Add Hana to Arisu to top of Queue
Two teenagers fall for the same boy with unexpected consequences in this popular comedy drama from Japan. Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Arisu (Yu Aoi) are a pair of 15-year-old girls who have been best friends for years. Arisu, the more outgoing of the two, has developed a crush on a boy and they begin dating. So that Hana won't feel left out, Arisu fixes her up with Masa (Tomohiro Kaku), one of her boyfriend's pals. However, after a few months, the bloom is off the rose for Arisu and her beau, while things are going swimmingly for Hana and Masa. Making matters worse for Arisu is the fact she's become quite infatuated with Masa, and one day while she's following him home from school, she sees him accidentally walk into a wall. Masa is knocked cold for a moment, and when he awakes, he sees Arisu, who attempts to convince him that she's actually his girlfriend...something he doesn't recall thanks to a mild dose of amnesia brought on by the accident, according to Arisu. Written and directed by Shunji Iwai, who created the international success All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hana to Arisu began as a series of candy commercials and became so popular as an expanded series of short subjects available online that Iwai adapted them into a feature. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi
Hideaki Anno, who previously made his name creating cutting-edge animated films, moves further into the real world in this, his second live-action feature. A filmmaker (Shunji Iwai) recording the world around him with his video camera and an eccentric young woman (Ayako Fujitani) with a remarkable collection of umbrellas are trying to work their way out of a collective emotional funk. The girl has a habit of saying "Tomorrow is my birthday" every morning, and has developed an odd premonition -- she's convinced that as soon as one of her dreams becomes a reality, she will cease to exist. Shunji Iwai, who plays the filmmaker in Shiki-jitsu, came by the role naturally -- he's directed several features and is considered one of Japan's finest independent filmmakers. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi
- Shunji Iwai, Ayako Fujitani, (more)
- Add All About Lily Chou-Chou to Queue
Add All About Lily Chou-Chou to top of Queue
Wildly popular filmmaker Shunji Iwai breaks a three-year hiatus following his less than successful April Story with this elliptical drama about teenaged alienation, violence, and celebrity. The film centers on Yuichi Hasumi (Hayato Ichihara), an eighth grader who lives in a sleepy town in rural Japan with his mother, her boyfriend, and the boyfriend's son. At school he is beaten up and harassed by his former friend Hoshino. In order to scrape up the cash to meet Hoshino's daily extortion demand, Yuichi resorts to petty theft and shoplifting. At home he finds sanctuary with his favorite singer Lily Chou-Chou, for whom he has devoted a website called "Liliphilia." One day, he encounters on the net a fellow Lily-phile who goes by the handle "blue cat." As Hoshino's power grows, he demands that Yuichi tail fellow classmate Shiori Tsuda (Yu Aoi), who he is pimping out to older men. Yuichi's suffocating situation at school leads him to consider suicide, something he confesses to "blue cat" -- his only confidant. Things come to a head tragically at a long awaited Lily Chou-Chou concert. This film was screened at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival. ~ Jonathan Crow, Rovi
- Hayato Ichihara, Shugo Oshinari, (more)
Following up on the phenomenal success of his Love Letter and Swallowtail Butterfly, Shunji Iwai spins this sweet tale about a young lass' first steps in the bustle of the big city. Uzuki Nireno (Takako Matsu) is leaving her rural home in the snowy north of Hokkaido for college in Western Tokyo. Her transition to big city life isn't easy; she muffed her self-introduction in class and she had an unfortunate incident in a movie theater with an overly solicitous pervert. In spite of this, she starts to feel settled after she unpacks and after she explores her neighborhood. She also befriends tough-talking Saeko (Rumi) who invites her to join the school's fishing club. Though she initially has no interest in the pursuit, she soon is practicing her cast in a parking lot as upper classmen lavish her with attention. Uzuki, however, is not interested. When she was in high school, she fell for a hunky classmate (Seiichi Tanabe) who just so happens to be working in a local bookshop. Will she summon the courage to say "hi?" ~ Jonathan Crow, Rovi
- Takako Matsu, Seiichi Tanabe, (more)
Following up on the fantastic success of Love Letter, pop phenom Shunji Iwai directs this phantasmagoric sprawling sci-fi drama set in a polyglotic encampment known as Aozora (blue skies) on the fringe of a megalopolis called Yen Town. Its ragtag -- and remarkably fashionable -- inhabitants are into every kind of nefarious activity imaginable. The film centers on Glico (played by pop star Chara), a Chinese hooker who tattooed a swallowtail butterfly to her chest so that she might be identified after death. Other inhabitants include a doe-eyed orphaned teen (Ayumi Ito) whom Glico takes under her wing and dubs Ageha ("caterpillar"), and Feihong (Hiroshi Mikami), a master grifter who is in love with Glico. One day, a couple of other Aozora-dwellers -- a slick Chinese hustler named Ran (Atsuro Watabe) and jumpy Iranian con-artist Nihat (Abraham Levin) -- discover a cassette tape in the stomach of a dead gangster. The tape not only contains the tune "My Way" but also a computer code to counterfeit 10,000-yen notes. Soon every shantytown resident is cheating change machines everywhere and making a killing in the process. With his newfound wealth, Feihong opens a nightclub with Glico as the lead act. Soon the actual owners of the tape -- a ruthless band of Chinese gangsters -- cotton on to the Aozorian's scheme and demand their money back. ~ Jonathan Crow, Rovi
- Hiroshi Mikami, Chara, (more)
Director Shunji Iwai, who has gained wild popularity in his native Japan, creates this gorgeously rendered tale of love, remembrance, and loss. Though her fiancé Itsuki Fujii died in a mountain climbing accident over two years ago, Hiroko Watanabe (Miho Nakayama) is unable to move on. After a ceremony marking Itsuki's death, Hiroko pays an emotional visit to his mother. There she discovers his boyhood address in an old high school yearbook, and, on a whim, she writes a letter addressed to her old lover. Needless to say, she is more than a little surprised when she actually gets a response from Itsuki Fujii. This Itsuki Fujii, however, is a young woman (also played by Nakayama) working at a library and suffering through a particularly tenacious cold in the snowy expanses of Hokkaido. She also endured three years of classroom taunts at having the same name as her male classmate as junior high student-the same male Itsuki Fujii that Hiroko eventually fell for. Though the female Fujii initially worries that she has somehow been targeted by a lunatic, she and Hiroko begins to develop an odd sort of correspondence. The two begin to piece together their respective memories about the male Itsuki, revealing a love lost and a love rediscovered. Though Miho Nakayama gives a nuanced performance as the film's two lead characters, pop star Ranran Suzuki almost walks away with the film in her hilarious cameo as Sanae Oikawa, the deeply weird teenaged rival suitor to the male Fujii's attention. Iwai's deft touch fashions a narrative that could have been jumbled and maudlin into an elegant work, that, like Wong Kar-wai's brilliant Chungking Express (1994), artfully fuses humor with melancholy. ~ Jonathan Crow, Rovi
- Miho Nakayama, Etsushi Toyokawa, (more)
Director Shunji Iwai follows up on the wild success of his star-crossed romantic drama Love Letter with this slick, brooding tale about a trio of mental asylum inmates and one really long wall. Koko (played by pop icon Chara) is placed into an institution after she embarrasses her rich family by killing crows. Sporting a skimpy black dress and a crow's feather boa, she believes that the world was created when she was born and will end when she dies. At the institution, she befriends Tsumuji (Tadanobu Asano), a lad who killed his bullying teacher in a fit of rage and is now haunted by his ghost. After reading a Bible that a priest had given him, Tsumuji becomes convinced that the world is coming to an end. His friend Satoru (Koichi Hashizume) is a quiet retiring sort who is obsessed with rules and who compulsively masturbates. One day, this strange threesome decides to leave the asylum and have a picnic before the world's eminent end. Sensitive to Satoru's neuroses, the trio doesn't hop the hospital walls, but instead walks on top of them. Fortunately, this wall happens to be the longest such edifice this side of China, as it extends to the sea. There, their own personal apocalypse unfolds. ~ Jonathan Crow, Rovi