Poignant Pen Pals – Rediscovering ‘Love Letter’ (Japan 1995 – 118 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - February 08, 2015
Poignant Pen Pals – Rediscovering ‘Love Letter’ (Japan 1995 – 118 mins)

Also known as ‘When I Close My Eyes’, the beautiful Japanese movie ‘Love Letter’ is one of those touching timeline movies that Eastern cinema excels in. Affecting without being overly sentimental, it tells (with flashbacks) the story of two women who love (in differing ways) the same man.

Following the memorial service for her fiancé, Hiroko (Miho Nakayama) comes across his high-school yearbook. In her loneliness she writes a letter to him and sends it to his old address in the North of Japan, which she finds in the book. Thinking no more of it, Hiroko is astonished to receive a reply from Itsuki Fujii, the name of her dead lover. By coincidence, the woman who received the letter was a former classmate who happened to share the same name as him.

The two begin writing regularly as Itsuki begins to remember more about her name-sake at school, with whom she shared a bond with due to their constant teasing from classmates. We also find out that Itsuki’s father has recently died from pneumonia and, because she is suffering from a terrible cold, Itsuki fears that she will too. Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa), the best friend of Hiroko’s fiancé, is in love with her and offers to take Hiroko to Otaru, North Japan, to meet her pen friend; Itsuki, in the hope that Hiroko will finally lay her fiancé to rest, and move on.

Writer-Director Shunji Iwai made an impressive feature debut here and would later make the excellent ‘Hana and Alice’ (2004), a touching tale of teenage friendship. ‘Love Letter’ is lovingly put together with a dreamy quality courtesy of cinematographer Noboru Shinoda, who worked regularly with Shunji, but sadly died after completing work on the superb romantic drama ‘Crying Out Love in the Center of the World’ (2004). As well as Miho Nakayama’s excellent performance(s), the star of the movie is Shinoda’s beautiful winter photography which is shot in a glorious widescreen vista.

Although the flashback high-school scenes were intriguing and engaging, I preferred the present day moments which I think is where the film’s strengths lay, in both performances and story.
Miho Nakayama plays Hiroko with a tender sadness that reaches out to the viewer. Nakayama also plays the grown-up Itsuki and, even though she does a convincing job, I would have preferred another actress in the part as; in reality it would be an even bigger coincidence if these two people did actually look exactly alike. This same-actress method can also be a little confusing at first. A talented actress, Nakayama had earlier played a small role in the cult actioner ‘Zatôichi’ (’89) and has continued to work steadily in both film and television.

While it’s a bit overlong, ‘Love Letter’ is a wonderful movie about grief, love and loneliness. Filled with vast snowy landscapes and featuring an engaging premise, it’s a sweet, delicate treat for lovers of screen romances of a different kind.

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