Last Letter (2020) review

Introduction

Shunji Iwai, the director of narratives like Love Letter (1995), All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) and A Bride For Rip Van Winkle (2016), is back. After turning his novel ‘Last Letter’ into a film for Chinese audiences in 2018, director Shunji Iwai now re-adapts the same novel for Japanese audiences.   

Review

One day, Yuri Kishibeno (Takako Matsu) and her two children Eito (-) and Soyoka (Nana Mori) attend her sister’s funeral. At this funeral, Yuri meets, after a very long time, her niece Ayumi (Suzu Hirose) again. At Ayumi’s grandparents’ home, Yuri sees a letter addressed to Ayumi on the table. It is the last letter that her mother wrote to her daughter and Ayumi, as she says to Yuri, has not read it yet. Soyoka suddenly asks her mother if she can stay at her grandparent’s house for a while to keep Ayumi company.  

Not that much later, Yuri visits her sister’s high school reunion to inform them about her sister’s death. Upon entering the venue, she is immediately mistaken for her late sister Misaki – she decides to play along. Even Yuri’s first love Kyoshiro Otosaka (Masaharu Fukuyama), who is now a novelist, seems to believe she is Misaki. Later that night, at the bus stop, they exchange their contact information. In the exchange of messages that follows, he confesses that he is still in love with her.

Last Letter (2020) by Shunji Iwai

Iwai’s Last Letter is a narrative that investigates the relation of the subject to the reality of his/her loss and the deceptive role the imaginary plays in human interactions. While some might argue that Iwai’s narrative is somewhat superficial, nothing could be much further from the truth. With Last Letter, Iwai does not only succeed in exploring the complex role the image plays within one’s subjective reality, but also shows that the reality of loss can only be accepted via speech-acts.

Concerning the relation of the subject to his loss, Iwai quickly underlines that a tension exists within the subject marked by loss and one between the subject and his/her social environment – that his social environment divided the subject with respect to his/her loss. In other words, Iwai does not only show that the subject struggles to accept the inflicted loss as such – Ayumi’s refusal to read the final letter from her mother is nothing other than a way to evade the truth of her loss – but also that this subject feels the need to hide his/her sadness from the other.

Last Letter (2020) by Shunji Iwai

With his narrative, Iwai also subtly shows how others, via the imaginary dimension, enable said subject to temporarily silence the reality of this loss. For instance, Yuri’s daughter, by telling her – some might say insensitively – that she is the spitting image of her mother, allows Ayumi to temporarily evacuate from her troubled subjective position. In other words, Soyoka’s discourse, a discourse addressed to Ayumi as ego, as semblable, enables her, as strangely as it may sound, to evade the confrontation with the reality of her loss.

The second theme Iwai’s Last Letter explores is, as already mentioned above, the inherent deceptiveness of the imaginary field. This theme is first introduced in the narrative when Yuri is mistaken for Misaki at her sister’s high school reunion. What happens at his reunion is the following: the eyes of the others, the eyes of the others perceiving her bodily reality, project the image of Misaki, as high-school student, onto her.

Why does Yuri accept this projection? Why does she choose to perform the image she had of her sister to her classmates? Is it because, like she says to her husband Sojiro (Hideaki Anno), there was no time to tell the truth? Yes and no. If there was no time to tell the truth of her identity, it was because she did not want (to find the time) to tell the truth. That her acceptance of the imposed image of her sister is subjectively motivated is corroborated by her choice to keep writing Kyoshiro in her sister’s name. One feels – and this is only subtly evoked in Last Letter – that her choice is motivated by a lingering mix of feelings of inadequacy and jealousy caused by the constant comparing she was subjected to in her high-school days and by the imaginary injury she experienced in the field of romance.

Last Letter (2020) by Shunji Iwai

The theme of the deceptive nature of the imaginary is also present in the field of emotions. While Iwai offers a nuanced and natural exploration of (familial) interactions and the expression of emotions (e.g. the heartwarming enthusiasm of children and adolescents, the lighthearted uneasiness that marks a subject-in-love, the painful aggressiveness between human subjects, … etc), he also underlines in this exploration that emotions are also utilized to deceive oneself and others as well as to signal, beyond one’s intention, to the other the failure of one’s attempted deception.

Iwai also shows in his exploration of the deceptive nature of the imaginary how the other (i.e. Kyoshiro), by being preoccupation with his object-goal of desire (i.e. Misaki), is often not only willing to ignore the clear signs of deception and thus erase the subject underlying the deception (i.e. Yuri’s subject) – a form of make-believe against better judgment – and how the other who feels deceived (i.e. Sojiro after discovering Kyoshiro’s confession on Yuri’s phone) often retaliates (e.g. by buying dogs for her to care for, … etc.) in the very field, the dual imaginary field, where there is no way out, where there is no possibility for any kind of subject or subjective speech to appear (Narra-note 1) .

The two themes, the theme of accepting the reality of one’s loss and the theme of the deceptive nature of the imaginary, eventually meet in the narrative. This meeting of themes is made possible when Ayumi, after discovering a letter from Kyoshiro addressed to her mother in the grandmother’s mailbox, decides to write him back. This little game of deception does not only allow Ayumi to assume the position of her mother, explore her high-school past in a playful way, and keep the reality of her loss at bay, but also enables her, when the time is right, to take the plunge and, via speech towards another subject, confront the reality of her loss.           

Last Letter (2020) by Shunji Iwai

Last Letter is, in fact, not only about Ayumi’s loss, but also about Kyoshiro’s loss, the loss of his beloved object, his object-goal of desire, his Misaki. It is, in fact, by exploring his love for Misaki is such a believable way that Iwai is able to deliver such a touching narrative, a narrative that beyond dealing with the acceptance of loss also deals with the loss of something that was, in fact, already forever lost as such, i.e. Kyoshiro’s idealized image of his beloved, an ideal image of Misaki fixated in her youthful days (Narra-note 2).

What stands out in Iwai’s composition of Last Letter is his use of floating movement in his framing. Most shots, whether static or dynamic (i.e. spatial or following moving shots), are marked by this kind of framing. Iwai’s reliance on this floaty-ness has three effects. First, it ensures that the composition as a whole feels consistent – just like a painter would ensure the uniformity of his painting by blending a tinge of a certain colour in all the other colours. Secondly, it heightens the naturalism of the depicted interactions and, lastly, it adds a subtle flair of visual lyricism to the framing of these interactions as such (Colour-note 1).

Last Letter (2020) by Shunji Iwai

Whenever Iwai chooses to decorate a given sequence with music, he does so to infuse a pleasing lightheartedness into the unfolding of the narrative or to accentuate the emotional import of a certain event or a certain interaction/act in a sensible way for the spectator. The same is true for Iwai’s use of slow-motion. Whenever he opts to frame a certain moment in slow-motion – something he only does twice in the entire narrative, the subjective importance of a certain gesture or moment for someone is underlined in a palpable manner for the audience.

What enables Iwai to deliver such a subtle and rich exploration of the complex field of emotions is his emphasis on non-verbal communication, on framing the ways in which facial expressions, however minimal they may be, and one’s body language are used to attempt hiding one’s emotional state as well as the way in which both, ultimately, betray that one tries to keep something emotional hidden. Of course, such pleasing exploration of the subtlety of the emotional field would not have been possible if the cast – Masaharu Fukuyama, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Takako Matsu, Suzu Hirose and Nana Mori in particular – did not deliver great performances.

Last Letter (2020) by Shunji Iwai

Last Letter is an amazing narrative that succeeds, by exploring how the imaginary intervenes within the interactions between subjects, in highlighting the importance of speaking about one’s loss and thereby acknowledging it, but also in confronting us with the fact that, for the subject, the loss is, first and foremost, a loss of an ideal image. That Iwai’s Last Letter is so emotionally moving is not because he cinematographically manipulates the emotions of the spectator, but because he, by focusing on non-verbal communication in his composition, forces the cast to live through the emotions of the characters. Last Letter is thus only such a satisfying and touching drama because the depicted emotions feel natural and genuine (Cine-note 1).

Notes

Narra-note 1: Many spectators will not believe Kyoshiro when he, near the end of the narrative, confesses that he knew from the very start that she was Yuri. The reality, in our view, is that he was caught between an ‘I know (that she’s Yuri)’ and an ‘I want to believe (she’s Misaki)’.

Narra-note 2: His sadness is, in fact, caused by the very discrepancy between his ideal image of her and the ‘truth’ of her tragic life trajectory.

Colour-note 1: The naturalism of Last Letter is not only heightened by the cinematographical movement but also by the natural colour-design.   

Cine-note 1: We are not going to deny that the structure of the narrative plays an important role in making the finale so moving, but the emotional nature of the finale does not depend on the structure as such, but on the genuine emotions evoked in the flashback sequences, emotions that give the emotions expressed in the present their ability to move the spectator.

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