It has been said that
"time heals all wounds." But as director Shunji
Iwai's nostalgic Love Letter demonstrates, time
isn't always enough to make the grief go away. Sometimes,
it takes persistence, caring friends, and maybe a simple
twist of fate just to get things moving.
In this elegantly told tale,
Miho Nakayama portrays Hiroko Watanabe, a young woman
living in Kobe who finds that she still hasn't fully
recovered from the loss of her beloved boyfriend, Itsuki
Fujiii. While meeting with Itsuki's mother on the second
anniversary of his death, Hiroko happens upon Itsuki's
old junior high yearbook, the one he received back when
his family lived far away in Otaru, Hokkaido.
Inside the yearbook, she finds
a list of the students' home addresses, and when her
former mother-in-law to be is out of the room, she surreptitiously
copies her fiancé's old address down on her forearm.
However, the old house that the Fujiii's lived in has
been torn down in the intervening years, all to make
room for a freeway. But the lack of a real physical
address isn't a problem for Hiroko; it's the symbolism
that matters. As such, Hiroko writes a short, simple
letter to Itsuki - "Dear Itsuki Fujiii. How are
you? I am fine. Hiroko Watanabe" - and mails it
to the presumably nonexistent address. Sounds like a
simple attempt at closure, right? Wrong. Miho soon receives
a response - from Itsuki Fujiii!
With a plot twist like that,
one might guess that Love Letter is about to
venture into some heavy-duty sci-fi/fantasy territory.
But that's not what happens at all. It seems that Hiroko's
letter was delivered to another Itsuki Fujii, a women
of about the same age as Hiroko who just so happens
to share the same name as her fiancé. This Itsuki
Fujiii is both creeped out and a little curious about
the letter and decides to respond in a similarly ambiguous
manner, never revealing that she's actually a woman.
So no, Itsuki Fujii's response isn't a letter from heaven.
Even so, there is one thing that remains perplexing
about the whole situation. Miho Nakayama also plays
the role of the female Itsuki!
Confused? Don't be. It's not
a case of alternate realities or magical realism at
work here, although there is much magic to behold in
the entirety of the elegiac, yet hopeful Love Letter.
Still, the stunt casting and resultant resemblance between
the two characters is intentional, a secret which will
be revealed as the narrative unfolds. Along the way,
however, a first clue is given - not only did the two
Itsuki Fujiis attend the same school, but they were
also in the same class and knew each other.
In any case, numerous misunderstandings
occur early on in the women's correspondence, but once
everything's cleared up, Hiroko's patient boyfriend-in-waiting,
Shigeru Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa), encourages her to
leave Kobe and head for Otaru to meet her new pen pal.
Shigeru is an old friend of the male Itsuki and hopes
that this journey will allow Hiroko to finally get over
her grief and give their relationship a chance. But
it isn't all about catharsis. As Hiroko searches to
know more about Itsuki as a young man, the "other"
Itsuki is given a chance to reflect on her own past
and exactly what her connection to her male namesake
has not only meant, but may still mean to her all these
years later. What Hiroko and Itsuki find out by story's
end marks a new beginning for both of them in vastly
In taking on her dual roles
in this well-liked film, starlet Miho Nakayama achieves
a rare acting feat: she actually steals the movie from
herself. The film begins as if it's going to focus on
Hiroko and her journey towards some sort of catharsis.
But while that plotline is certainly dealt with in a
substantive way, the surprise of Love Letter
is that it is really the female Itsuki Fujii that I
found myself gravitating towards despite the dual plot.
Not only is she a warmer and more accessible character
than Hiroko, but there is much in her story for the
audience to discover right along with her, a welcome
quality that helps drive the story forward in an immediately
engaging way. Nakayama does a stellar job in juggling
these two roles, as the two characters never feel like
carbon copies. In fact, Nakayama handles her roles so
well that sometimes it even feels as if Hiroko and Itsuki
were portrayed by two completely different actresses.
Both a commercial and critical
success (and with good reason), Love Letter is
an earnest, sentimental, and undeniably moving film.
Thanks in no small part to the majestic winter vistas
of rural Hokkaido, Shunji Iwai's expertly crafted drama
amounts to nothing less than a breathtaking, often magical
film experience. Although it has also been said that
the journey is sometimes more important than the destination,
Love Letter delivers wholeheartedly in its finale,
a small revelatory moment which may just be one of the
most memorable, perfectly paced endings in recent film
history - and guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
(Calvin McMillin, 2006)