Shunji Iwai has long stood on ambivalent terrain. To Western audiences he’s known as a prolific and brilliant auteur, but without the overseas cachet of others such as Takeshi Kitano. To his fans in Japan, he’s viewed as the spokesman for the socially conscious hipster — the one director who manages to romanticize the general boredom and mild claustrophobia felt by Japanese youths, without resorting to splashy violence and sex.
His latest film, “A Bride for Rip Van Winkle” (“Rip Van Winkle no Hanayome”) can be described as classic Iwai — full of gorgeous visual imagery depicting a story of the dark side of married life and how money is often a defining factor of social rituals and (supposed) love relationships.
“A Bride for Rip Van Winkle” and four other Iwai titles are being shown at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) as part of Japan Now section. TIFF’s program adviser Kohei Ando said during a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club: “One of the missions of Japan Now is for the foreign audience to get in touch with contemporary aesthetics of modern Japanese culture. And this year, we decided that the works of director Shunji Iwai are the best fit. Personally speaking, ‘A Bride for Rip Van Winkle’ made me proud to be born in this country.”
Clocking in at three hours, this is the longest of Iwai’s films and offers an incredibly dense viewing experience. It stars Haru Kuroki, who won best actress at the Berlin Film Festival for her role as a housemaid in “The Little House” (“Chiisai Ouchi”). In the new film, she is Nanami, a modern-day Japanese woman who develops a relationship with a man via SNS and then marries him, despite barely knowing him. She is consequently betrayed — first by her cheating husband and then by her mother-in-law, who throws her out of the house.
With no place to go, Nanami turns to Yukimasu (Go Ayano), a “fixer” who had supplied her wedding with fake friends and relatives to pump up her scanty guest list. Taking in her situation, he immediately places her with a wealthy household as a live-in maid. She finds herself working in the house while also moonlighting as a rental wedding guest to other brides in need.
“A Bride for Rip Van Winkle” is studded with unforgettable visual imagery. There’s the girl with a brown paper bag over her head, standing alone on a street, underscoring a deep sense of isolation in the digital wonderland that is modern-day Tokyo, and the poignant scene of Nanami looking out of the window, pondering her future but unwilling to take the initiative as she coasts along as a maid and rental guest.
“I always start out by wanting to tell a certain story, but while doing that I also find myself in the throes of a massive inferiority complex,” says Iwai during a recent interview in Shibuya. “I’m always asking myself, ‘Am I going to be all right? Is this good enough?’ No matter how much work I put into it, I’m always unsure, and the most I can hope for is that the audience won’t be disappointed.”
“A Bride for Rip Van Winkle” took two years of development for Iwai, leading the director to reach a point where, he says he was “numb as to the outcome.”
“I had been looking at this film and tinkering with it for so long, all I could say was, ‘This should be OK,’ ” he says. “If people can get some level of enjoyment out of it, that would make me very glad.”
Yet despite the time invested in the movie, he still expresses concern about the technical aspects of his filmmaking.
“I’m intrigued by this digital world — how technology is enabling so many people to become filmmakers while the specifications of the same technology become outdated so fast,” he explains. “If you’re doing anything in the visual arts, it’s crucial to become familiar with this stuff, to be engaged in conversations about cameras and software and editing. But in Japan, everyone just wants to talk about the mental or spiritual side of filmmaking.”
For Iwai, ignoring the advances in technology is a “bad balance” that should be addressed.
“We all want to tell stories, but none of us can do that without the engineering aspects of filmmaking,” he says. “Too many people just want to avoid the subject, which strikes me as kind of sad.”
Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, a relative of Iwai, once tried to discourage the director from going into films, telling him that there was no money in it.
“He was right, of course, but I’ve had the luxury of being able to put money worries aside and concentrate on work, just work,” he says. “When you can do that, you’ve made it. You’ve arrived.
“Now if I can only find someone to drink with, someone who really knows about cameras, software and editing. But maybe I’m asking for too much!”
“A Bride for Rip Van Winkle” is screening on Oct. 29, at Toho Cinemas in Roppongi Hills as part of the Tokyo International Film Festival. Doors open at 3:30 p.m. For more information, visit 2016.tiff-jp.net/en.