by Jason Suzuki
It's been around twelve years since Shunji Iwai shot a feature in Japan. He has kept busy though with the English language Vampire, the animated prequel to Hana and Alice, and some short/omnibus work concerning 3/11. But his return to the Japan-set feature film is a major one: a three hour journey that is riveting, intricate, and emotionally complex. Despite deriving its name from a work of short fiction, the film more so resembles the tomes of masters, destined for some sort of canon, operating on a higher level with much to take in.
From the very beginning the film will feel familiar to anyone who has seen, and appreciated, previous films from Iwai. Nanami, Haru Kuroki at first playing into type but eventually proving the intricacies of her performance, is lost in a sea of people. She is texting back and forth with a date she met online, trying to find each other on the busy street. Everything from how it is shot, the music, the loneliness of its characters felt through the filmmaking to the depiction of technology and its role in human interaction is very much in line with his past work. The fact that it still feels so singular and is instantly gripping and heartbreaking is the true power of the film, Iwai's insight into the desperation and insecurities of loneliness.
The time between her meeting this man and her marriage to him is purposely felt to be rushed. What seems to be their only connection is their shared professions as teachers. He is a full time teacher while she struggles with part time classroom gigs and private online tutoring sessions. Nanami's distinctive quality is her meek demeanor and extremely soft voice. It's this quality that her students mock her for and for which she will be eventually denied a full time position as a result of playing along with a prank on the day her students set up a microphone for her. Just one of the many humiliations Nanami and the audience will have to endure.
She posts updates on her life and confessional thoughts to a Twitter-esque app Planet. To her it is a retreat, a place where she can speak and volume or judgement is no concern. When she worries that the only two people she can invite to the wedding are her parents, who are already pretending to still be happily married for the future in-laws, Nanami turns to social media. A follower tells her that it's possible to hire actors to pretend to be relatives. This is how Amuro enters the picture, a man who will remain in Nanami's life as both savior and devil, played exquisitely by Gou Ayano.
The wedding and the fake relatives go off without a hitch. The ceremony itself is strange, child actors come out playing the younger versions of the bride and groom, talking directly to the real parents about their childhoods. It ties into the theme of truth within facade and what can be found behind anonymity more clearly explored in the online aspects to the film. Pretty soon the comfortable married life starts to crumble when Nanami finds an earring in her apartment leading her to suspect her husband of infidelity. She asks Amuro, who seemingly can do any job as long as it's odd, to look into it. At the same time a man knocks on the door saying he is the boyfriend of the girl her husband is seeing. Out of context video of her trapped in a hotel room with the man surfaces and Nanami is pressured by her mother-in law to leave. Amuro is behind all of it but this is unknown to Nanami. The two will alternate between her seeking his help and him butting in to her life, guiding her under the guise of being a friend. You never know what his intentions are at any moment. Ayano is charming and constantly off putting as Amuro. The requirements of a character like Amuro is that the audience needs to constantly teeter between distrust and hope that he will help Nanami. It's an incredibly interesting role and Ayano meets the challenge.
Eventually Amuro gets Nanami involved in the business of pretending to be a relative for a wedding. It is there she meets the outgoing Mashiro (Cocco whose only other major film role was in Tsukamoto's Kotoko). They soon form a friendship based on foundation of lies and a desperation for connection, all of it coming from an honest place despite any sort of deception. Based on her social media handle Mashiro is the Rip Van Winkle of the title but the film is evoking Irving's tale in much broader ways: a universal sleepwalking through life.
The film understands how life occasionally leads you to reminders of past humiliations. Nanami will encounter weddings and wedding dresses again and again beyond the dissolution of her comfortable life. After being kicked out by her husband and the in-laws, she wanders aimlessly, awkwardly rolling her luggage with her. In a side view of her walking down the sidewalk we see her pass a wedding dress store. It comes off as cynical at first, and there are still elements of the film that are, but as it goes on it becomes increasingly apparent that Iwai knows there is more to the way loneliness and the want for human connection has evolved in the current day and age and it should be looked at through a lens capable of more than just disdain. Nanami is taken on an amazing journey during the course of the film, with moments more intensely absurd than anything seen so far this year. It's this very mixture of the grandiose with the personal that filmmakers wanting to make epics should strive for. Iwai has achieved a timeless depiction of the now.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.
All images © 2016 A Bride for Rip Van Winkle Film Partners