Memories of youth are poignant in the films by Japanese director Shunji Iwai. Now, a Chinese team is trying to adapt one of his evocative works to the stage.
If Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s love letter to the heart of France, for Chinese audiences, especially young adults, Shunji Iwai’s films are love letters to youth.
Iwai burst onto the international scene in 1995, at the age of 32, with the release of his heartwarming small-budget production Love Letter.
One of his later works, Undo, will soon be adapted to the stage by Chinese drama director Su Dan. It is scheduled to open next year nationwide.
The story is about a girl diagnosed “Obsessive Knot-Binding Syndrome,” and will be set in ancient China.
Moemi, one of the characters, is not pleased when her husband Yukio brings home a couple of turtles meant to keep her company. Moemi feels neglected by her writer husband and desperately wants a dog or cat, neither of which is allowed in their apartment.
Moemi soon develops an obsession, tying up everything with knotted twine – beginning with the turtles. A psychiatrist diagnoses her with Obsessive Knot-Binding Syndrome, but doesn’t offer help. She eventually ties herself into knots with cords stretching across the apartment.
“The story is very short, but I’m still thinking about a longer version,” Iwai said. “I’d like to describe the youth’s consciousness and point out problems in young people’s relationships.”
Always the scriptwriter, photographer, composer and director, Iwai is used to doing multiple things at once. He has participated in cultural activities in China before, from documentary to concerts.
His partnership with the more narrative-driven Su came out of an unexpected encounter.
In 2001, Iwai visited China and noticed a small theater work called Obsession for Dolls, directed by Su. Iwai was instantly hooked by the unconstrained style.
“Su’s female sensitivity will better help her present the subtle nuance of characters in Undo,” Iwai said.
Su, who was born in the 1980s, worships Iwai’s films, such as April Story and All About Lily Chou-Chou.
Although the two directors are friends, they didn’t think about collaborating until recently. When Su first proposed the idea of adapting Love Letter, Iwai was taken aback, as he’s never supervised a drama production before.
“But the stage is such an open space; watching Undo on a stage is like seeing my lost baby again,” he said. “Maybe youth has nothing to do with age.”
He added that the stage version was very different from the original. “I think many directors tend to be more vague and imaginative, but Su is more clear,” he said.
Iwai and his stage colleagues couldn’t be more different. Iwai is soft-spoken and possesses a subtle wit, and his films are often examinations of humanity or alienation in modern Japan. Su is a boisterous and vivid director whose works are highly stylized and draw on multicultural traditions.
But their works have at least one thing in common: they focus on the relationships between people. Together, they establish an unaffected style without many theatrical gimmicks.
Iwai, known as a standard-bearer of the new Japanese film movement, is perhaps Japan’s most promising young screenwriter, sometimes known in China as “Japan’s Wong Kar-wai.”
While most other directors are devoted to making blockbusters, hoping to copy Hollywood’s commercial successes, Iwai strives to find answers to questions about youth.
The impression he leaves is distinct: he is different from his colleagues.
While most directors are talkative, Iwai is quiet. He is willing to listen. He sometimes avoids eye contact, his long black hair partially obscuring his face.
As a visual artist, Iwai is constantly looking across the gulf between camera and theater, simultaneously asking questions of how the former can be employed in service of the latter.
His lens has a highly digital quality, but he finds that the aura of stage has uniquely gorgeous aesthetic edges, more so than digital devices.
Fix a broken vase
Depicting the subtle inner world of human beings is where Iwai’s interest lies.
When he was kid, he was a movie buff. He was run over by a bus once trying to catch the movie King Kong.
While in a hospital bed, he received an unexpected number of letters from sympathetic schoolmates.
He scrutinized those letters for months, and years later, as he was organizing his drawers, he found those letters again and saw them as a sign.
He was heartened by their comforting words, and began working on Love Letter. “The movie bridges my past memory and present,” he said.
During college, he sometimes skipped dinner to save up for an 8-mm camera. His work was rarely understood by his fellow students though.
After graduating from Yokohama National University, he plunged into the television industry to make money. He shot commercials, music videos and TV dramas.
There wasn’t much room for an aspiring art director at first. His big break finally came in 1995. His short Undo won prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival.
“Scriptwriting and shooting is like fixing a broken vase; I need to orderly put my fragmented ideas together, and this procedure is so demanding,” he said. “Producing a good story is more like observing things I tend to neglect, turning plain things into dramatic conflicts.”
The movies convey sentiments that seem to arise from deep inside the characters, overflowing to the surface – that has been viewed as Iwai’s signature.
He explores questions of alienation, consciousness and memory.
“I also like other types of people, eccentric or deviant people,” he said. “Sometimes I’m not interested in a normal guy. I prefer people who are missing something.”