Iwai's idiosyncratic style is very much on show in A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. Photo: © 2016 A Bride for Rip Van Winkle Film Partners

The notion was simple. The Tokyo International Film Festival in 2015 decided to introduce a “Japan Now” section to give both local film lovers and international visitors an insight into the domestic scene.

As programmer Kohei Ando last month told a pre-festival gathering at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, TIFF wanted to share with its audience “the present state of Japan, Japanese culture, Japanese aesthetics, and also the creators who have reflected them in their works.”

But already the program has developed into so much more.
In choosing Shunji Iwai as this year’s Director in Focus, for example, Japan Now also shed light on the path Japanese cinema has taken over the past few decades – and where it might be headed.
This was reflected through the screening of five of Iwai’s films – from the internationally acclaimed Love Letter (1995) to his most recent release A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (2016) – over the course of this year’s October 25 to November 3 edition of TIFF.

The 53-year-old Iwai has carved a niche for himself not only as one of Japan’s most creative directors but also as one of its most commercially savvy, and his films have become wildly popular both at home and abroad.

Take Love Letter as an example. The film might have been released more than 20 years ago but it still resonates today, with its tale of two young women who loved the same man but through the course of a correspondence find they may not have really known him at all. This much was reflected at TIFF when an appearance by the film’s star Miho Nakayama was greeted by an enthused attendee shouting out one of the film’s most famous lines – much to the delight of both the actress and of the audience.

“Iwai is a rare filmmaker who has a very particular aesthetic and knows a way of bringing to the screen the sentiment and thoughts of young Japanese people in his own allegorical kind of storytelling,” said Ando.

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This idiosyncratic style, sometimes referred to as the “Iwai aesthetic”, was developed through Iwai’s history as a video artist who worked his way through commercials and music videos before moving on to television dramas and then feature films. Willing to explore what the latest in technology can deliver, Iwai experiments with handheld cinematography, fast camera movement, edgy editing and grandiose use of classic music.

But there is a distinct and growing sense of reality at the heart of Iwai’s work, and he often peels back the artificial layers of his characters to reveal real issues concerning such matters as loneliness.

I think perhaps it has become my role to act as a bridge between different cultures. It dawns on me this is a huge responsibility, but perhaps it is my destiny

This “aesthetic” is again on show in A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, which follows the progress of a young woman (Haru Kuroki) emerging from a failed marriage and looking (desperately) for friendship. Be careful what you wish for, the director seems to be saying.

“You see, our female characters have been deceptively happy for an instant, but of course it’s not going to last for a long time,” Iwai told the crowd at the FFCJ. “It’s actually a harsh and cruel story, because happiness is tangled up with a moment of separation.”

In Love Letter there was also this sense that memories of an event are not always to be trusted.

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle has already screened outside Japan – in Hong Kong and Taiwan – and the director said he is readily aware of the fact his films offer international audiences a window into contemporary Japanese society.

“I think perhaps it has become my role to act as a bridge between different cultures. It dawns on me this is a huge responsibility, but perhaps it is my destiny,” he said. “All I can really do is continue to make films, but I do hope to serve that role as best as I can.”