Shunji Iwai is back. After a slew of documentaries and a lackluster American debut, last year's animated return to the world of Hana and Alice was the first sign that Iwai had rekindled his love for feature-length cinema. With Rippu Van Winkuru no Hanayome [A Bride for Rip Van Winkle], Iwai returns to the comfort of live action drama and he does so with style. Fans of early 2000 Iwai have a lot to get excited about, not in the least because his latest manages to stay fresh and interesting for a whopping 180 minutes.
While the Japanese movie industry took a qualitative nose dive, Iwai simply moved his focus elsewhere and went on to do other things. Of course it's not like the past 10 years didn't yield any good Japanese films, but for directors, getting their films made became a much bigger struggle compared to the early 00s. And for a director like Iwai, someone entrenched in the Japanese drama genre, it just wasn't a very nice place to be. Now that things are starting to look up again, it's the ideal moment for Iwai to take back his rightful place.
Beware of the shortened version of Rippu Van Winkuru though. There's a 120 minute cut that no doubt appeals to more narrative-focused audiences out there, but Iwai fans should make sure to seek out the 180 minute director's cut. While bring back the running time without harming the plot directly shouldn't have been too difficult, Iwai's genius is typically found in the moments in between and Rippu Van Winkuru is no exception. I'm generally not a big fan of films overshooting the 120 minute mark, but it's just necessary here.
Rippu Van Winkuru follows the life of Nanami Minagawa, a young aspirant teacher who decides to settle down once she finds out that she isn't really cut out to be a teacher. Nanami submits to the typical Japanese housewife life (she gets married, drops her career and tends to the house), but forces outside her marriage are plotting against her happiness. These events drive her in the arms of Mashiro Satonaka, a free-spirited young woman who opens Nanami's eyes.
Iwai is a seasoned director and it shows. His visual signature is all over this film, with dreamy camera work, a knack for catching just the right light, the occasional visual frivolities and some very nice visual compositions as the icing on the cake. His style lends grace to the film and the characters, complementing their state of mind without ever feeling too rigid or constrained. It's an approach Iwai has been honing since his very first films and he continues to improve on it with each film he makes.
The soundtrack too will be familiar territory for Iwai fans. A combination of famous classical songs and original piano tunes make up most of Rippu Van Winkuru's music. It's a proven formula and it does work well, but the actual choice of songs may come off a little lax at times. Even people who are generally unfamiliar with classical music will recognize the songs, a more adventurous selection could have lent the film some extra credibility. It's only a minor complaint, when all is said and done the soundtrack is effective and that's what counts, but there's definitely some missed potential there.
Taking up the lead role is Haru Kuroki. She does a tremendous job bringing her somewhat fleeting and wayward character to life, even so her presence had me quite confused. She reminded me a little too much of Yu Aoi and I kept wondering if Iwai picked Kuroki because of the resemblance she bares to what is generally considered one of Iwai's favored actresses. It was a little uncanny at times, though I'm sure people not familiar with Iwai's history will look right past it. The secondary cast is up to par, with Cocco and Go Ayano delivering stand-out performances.
The narrative isn't exactly complex, but there's a lot of it and the film packs a couple of nice twists to boot. Kuroki's character has quite a journey in front of her and Iwai doesn't cut any corners. He does find a nice balance between atmospheric and narrative-driven scenes though, easily justifying the film's 180 minute running time. That said, you do need to be in the mood for a Japanese drama, if you're craving some simple-minded action fun then Rippu Van Winkuru isn't going to keep you entertained for the full 3 hours.
It's comforting to know Shunji Iwai is back and hasn't lost his touch. Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken was a solid indication that there was some magic left in him, but with Rippu Van Winkuru no Hanayome he returns to his core style, picking things up right where he left off back in 2004. Strong acting, an intriguing plot and a warm, dreamy atmosphere make this an easy recommend. If you're not familiar with Iwai's work this might not be the best place to start, but fans of his earlier work should make sure they don't miss out on his latest.