Iwai found the right balance between Japanese live action drama and the magic of animation. The film looks great, the story is moving, the characters quirky but lovable.
It's a very sweet, very natural and naive little film that has charm aplenty and feels particularly short for a film that runs well past the 120-minute barrier.
The good stuff
With this film 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.
A vibrant and wild trip through an alternative world. One where the yen became the dominant currency and foreigners flocked to Japan to earn a quick buck. It's one of the least typical films in Iwai's oeuvre, but also one of the most interesting. While a little uneven in places, there is so much raw energy here that I had no trouble convincing me of its strengths a second time around.
In a slightly surprising turn of events, Iwai decided to remake Last Letter, his first China-based film released just two years ago. This is pretty much exactly the same film, only shot in Japan with a Japanese cast. For that reason alone, it's probably best to leave some time between watching both films.
The story hasn't really changed (and is still a bit too convoluted). When Yuri returns from her sister's funeral, she goes to a reunion to inform her sister's classmates. Once there she's mistaken for her sister, and she finds herself incapable of telling the truth. When she meets her sister's first love, things get a bit complicated.
Performances are good, with a stand-out parts for Takako Matsu and Suzu Hirose, and a fun cameo from Hideaki Anno. The film looks pristine, with some trademark Iwai shots, the soundtrack is comfy and on point. It's just that the story gets in the way of the atmosphere sometimes, which messes up the pacing.
Shunji Iwai in China. Last Letter is certainly better than his American adventure, but it doesn't quite match his prime Japanese work. The drama is fine, but there's a little too much intrigue and not enough time to delve into the core drama. The acting is great though and there are some pretty shots scattered throughout the film. A solid entry in Iwai's oeuvre, but he's made better films.
Iwai's take on screenlife cinema. Some parts of The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 were exactly what I was expecting from this odd combo, but Iwai has a few surprises up his sleeve. The biggest one being that this is effectively a core comedy, built on a slightly fantastical premise. Made up of Zoom calls, YouTube videos and moody black and white segments in the near-empty streets of Tokyo, the COVID-19 atmosphere is tangible.
Japan is in lockdown, people are bored. Actor Takumi Saitoh figures he should do his part to combat the virus and orders a "capsule kaiju", a small monster egg that's supposed to grow into a real kaiju and help humanity fight the virus. While tending to the egg, he checks in with friends for help and pointers.
It's a rather absurd premise, especially for people not familiar with Japan's kaiju history. Iwai's deadpan approach is delightful though and the DIY vibe works in favor of the film. There are some more arthouse-like moments (the modern dance sequences - beautifully realized) and the message at the end is a bit heavy-handed, but overall this was a very light, fun and inventive little film. Comes well recommended for fans of Iwai's work, but some familiarity with kaiju culture is necessary to enjoy this film to its fullest.