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Original Title:
Love Letter

Japan 1995

Drama, Romance

Shunji Iwai

Miho Nakayama
Etsushi Toyokawa
Miki Sakai
Takashi Kashiwabara
Bunjaku Han
Katsuyuki Shinohara
Ken Mitsuishi
Emiko Nagata
Kaori Oguri
Naoki Goto

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Love Letter

Story: Although already two years have past since Hiroko Watanabe's (Miho Nakayama) fiance Itsuki Fujii died on a mountain climbing tour, Hiroko is still grieving. When she attends a commemoration ceremony she finds an old yearbook of Fujii in his mother's house. Looking through the book Hiroko discovers Fujii's old address. She gets to know that Fujii's old house had to make way for a road, yet she writes a letter and sends it to the address. Her hopes to get a response from her deceased fiance are answered and she gets a letter in return.
After some letters between Hiroko and Itsuki a friend of Hiroko, Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa), who wants to help her to get over her loss and also wants to build up a romantic relationship with her himself, takes a look at the matter. He wants a proof of Itsuki that he is really who he claims to be. It turns out that Hiroko's pen pal is in fact a woman (also played by Miho Nakayama) who accidentally has the same name.
At first, Hiroko is angry that Akiba took away the illusion she could be communicating with her fiance, but then she learns that her new pen pal did go to the same school as Itsuki for three years, even attending the same class. Itsuki in her long letters gives Hiroko an insight in her own memories with Itsuki Fujii and doing so becomes aware that she herself had hidden feelings for Fujii...

Review: "Love Letter" is one of those few movies that will let you know after the first few minutes that you are about to see a captivating, tranquil and dreamy movie. The scenery of the little town Otaru, the wonderful snowy winter landscapes and the impressively shot pictures, which were composed by director Shunji Iwai with perfection, will take you on a trip into a modern fairy tale world.
While the movie "Failan" later on should take on a similar story about the love of the individuals that is only conveyed through the medium of letters, Iwai goes a slightly different way. The first letter of Hiroko is merely a farewell of Hiroko towards her dead fiance, some kind of drawing the line under the whole tragedy, so that she can finally go on with life. However, she unexpectedly gets a reply and now the letters between her and her new pen pal serve the purpose of awakening old memories. The trip into the memories that connect the girl Itsuki with her fiance let Hiroko get to know her deceased friend a litte better and at the same time help her to heal herself from the pain of her loss.

It's very interesting that Miho Nakayama plays Hiroko Watanabe as well as the girl Itsuki. This might get you confused a bit after the first minutes when the narration shifts between them every now and then, but as soon as we get to know more about their living conditions and the persons that are in relationship with the two main protagonists, it's rather easy to keep track of the events.
"Love Letter" takes its time to tell its story. Only slowly we get to know more about Hiroko and Itsuki. Furthermore, there are more and more characters finding their way into the movie and they in fact all have a certain place in the overall picture, which is also because luckily the script provides them with an individual personality.
Shunji Iwai jumps between the two main characters with care. At the beginning the focus lies on Hiroko and her mourning about the loss of her fiance. Through the letters she awakens her love again and at the same time uses them to say goodbye. Her friend Akiba helps her doing so. He is a fascinating character, because he doesn't help Hiroko altruistically, but even tells her that she has to learn to let it go so that he can finally approach her romantically.
Nearly unnoticeable the story's focus shifts to Itsuki, who when writing the letters to Hiroko becomes aware that she herself might have had feelings for her name-twin Itsuki. The ending itself is also very good, since there is a revelation left for Itsuki to discover, which is one the viewer had known of all the time. Yet, the last scene is very emotional and moving, indeed.

"Love Letter"s strengths lie in the wonderful pictures, the perfectly told story, the characters which are elaborated with a fine eye for details and some great actors. Shunji Iwai even takes his time to craft a sidestory that deals with the girl Itsuki, a lifethreatening cold and her grandfather, who has to struggle with the fact that Itsukis father, his son, died because of a similar cold. Apart from the grandfather who is played excellently heartedly-senile by Katsuyuki Shinohara, there are way more characters and little precious things to discover.
Even though other films would have ended after the first half, Iwai just now starts to dive deep into the past of the two Itsukis. Using flashbacks the director shows us what mockery the two had to endure, because of having the same name. As fate played its little tricks the two were also in the same class, of course. In these flashbacks there are also some very funny moments, moreover, even the rest of the movie lets shine through some subtle jokes every now and then.

By using panorama shots Shunji Iwai captures the fabulously dreamy scenery of nature. Most of the time this mainly includes snowy landscapes, mountains, sunrises, snowbound villages, but even sunny autumn days are shown in all of its beauty, making the movie look like a dream with its lovely pictures. Only the shots by a hand camera, which seamlessly fit into the rest of the movie, bring us down to earth again. The music is contributed by Remedios, who composed a great score, which sometimes imperceptibly accompanies the events and in the more emotional scenes gets more to the foreground, adding to the great atmosphere of the movie.

"Love Letter" is a drama that Shunji Iwai apparently composed with all of his heart, and which despite of its strong melancholy always manages to create a warm feeling in the viewer. The emotional scenes can make you shed a tear or two, but fortunately one did abstain from overdone melodramatics. In the end the movie is a visually impressive experience, that can always put a smile on your face.
An interesting way of narration, lots of small details, that will stay in your head and great actors, first of all Miho Nakayama, naturally, who does a great job in her double role, make this film a little masterpiece. With his outstanding directing Iwai creates a movie that can instantly enchant the audience and whose tense atmosphere sticks with us until the end.
Bottom line: Everyone who hasn't a deep-sitting aversion towards tranquil dramas has to watch "Love Letter"!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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