Forget the Real World For a While: Celebrating Shunji Iwai at Fantasia 2021

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Alicia Haddick chats with influential Japanese filmmaker Shunji Iwai on the occasion of his Career Achievement Award at the 25th Fantasia Film Festival. 

Shunji Iwai’s filmography is defined by movies that tackle the mundane anxieties of modern Japanese society, and the difficulties that come with coexistence and communication. The film he brings to Fantasia this year, The 12 Day Tale of the Monster That Died in 8, continues along this road, using the Covid-19 pandemic as a backdrop against which familiar Japanese faces obsess over small, odd things while stuck in their homes.  

As he tells Letterboxd, the aim was to create something that lifted the gloom and let people enjoy themselves for a while—but we’ll get to that. First: a recap of Iwai’s three-decade career, which is defined by characters who are at crucial turning points in their lives.

Iwai came to prominence in the 1990s alongside other well-known countryfolk like Takeshi Kitano, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Naomi Kawase, as a new wave of independent and studio films made waves both at home and abroad. He stood out from this talented crowd with films that captured youthful anxieties and nostalgic beauty, such as Fireworks: Should We See It From the Side or the Bottom? and All About Lily Chou-Chou.

After graduating from Yokohama National University, Iwai got his start working on music videos and TV movies. In the most well known of these, the aforementioned Fireworks (for Fuji TV), we meet Nazuna, whose parents’ impending divorce will force her to move away—so she decides to run away with one of the boys at school on the day of the local fireworks festival. What makes this film interesting is the use of a time loop encompassing the day of the fireworks, turning Nazuna’s desire to escape into a commentary that pits the seemingly limitless potential of childhood against the desire to become an adult (and the freedom lost by growing up).

Fireworks grabbed the attention of Japanese critics and audiences alike. Iwai won the New Directors Award from the Directors Guild of Japan, and the attention gave him the opportunity to work on his first theatrical feature, 1995’s Love Letter.

Love Letter’s rumination on the intersections of grief and love was not just a box office success in Japan, making an acting star of idol Miho Nakayama, but it also whet an appetite for Iwai’s films internationally. The movie received a limited US theatrical release and became a surprise hit in South Korea, not long after the country permitted Japanese films to be showcased there. Over the next three years, Iwai swiftly followed up with Swallowtail Butterfly, Picnic, and April Story.

Of all his films, All About Lily Chou-Chou remains Iwai’s most well-known, as well as his most abstract, arguably his most nihilistic, and inarguably his highest rated on Letterboxd. A year before the film’s release in 2000, Iwai created an Internet forum, centered on a fictional musician known as Lily Chou-Chou, that served as the basis for a story of troubled teenagers who find solace on the internet. Some of the anonymous messages posted in the forum became a part of the film’s story, and the site remains active and open to new comments today. 

This tale of youth hopelessness at the turn of the millennium was a career-high for Iwai, and remains relevant even 20 years later. The fictional teens themselves came of age in a Japan recovering from the economic crash of 1991, which signaled the start of the country’s ‘lost decade’, as salarymen were forced to find new work and the confidence of the employee-for-life hierarchical Japanese work system was irrevocably altered. 

This created a generation who were no longer expected to perform better than those who came before them, and with opportunities narrowing, rates of bullying and crime skyrocketed—just as the safety of the country was also challenged by the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin Gas Attacks on Japanese subways and shocking youth crimes like the Kobe Child Murders. While never directly addressed in Lily Chou-Chou, the experience of these events is infused in the film; the anger and frustration felt by these young characters manifests in bullying, rape, violence and suicide, the latter paralleling Japan’s high suicide rates, which peaked in the late 1990s. 

Iwai continues to be inspired by the events of the world around him: the Covid-19 pandemic powers his most recent film, The 12 Day Tale of the Monster That Died in 8. In the vein of other lockdown romps such as Host, this was produced in isolation using Zoom as both medium and narrative tool. Actor Takumi Saito, playing himself, is out of work and stuck indoors. Following a suggestion from director and special effects wizard Shinji Higuchi, he finds light relief in Capsule Kaiju, becoming obsessed with raising a clay-putty creature, and intently following the updates of a YouTuber recording in her bathtub. 

Meanwhile, fellow actor Non has been raising her own invisible alien. Kaiju cinema, Ultraman love, and dry humor all thrive in this somewhat outlandish quarantine plot. It is a touching and funny story about the way we adapt to unusual circumstances.

The 12 Day Tale, alongside a selection of Iwai’s early works, are screening at this year’s 2021 Fantasia Film Festival, and this week, Iwai was honored with Fantasia’s Career Achievement Award. In celebration of this, we had the opportunity to ask the director a few questions about his illustrious career.

Letterboxd: Congratulations on the Career Achievement Award. How does it feel to see your work recognized internationally?

Shunji Iwai: I feel very honored. It doesn’t feel real to me.

Your retrospective at Fantasia Film Festival covers everything from your made-for-TV film Fireworks to your latest, The 12-Day Tale of the Monster Who Died in 8. Despite their differences, these and many of your films center on how we communicate and connect with those around us. What is it that constantly sees you return to these ideas?

I don’t actually have any particular theme in mind. It’s like finding the material I want to create and cooking it. I may have a cooking habit that I haven’t even noticed.

How has your approach to this idea changed over the years? Are there any events that have caused you to re-evaluate how you approach your work?

In most cases, I can’t use the materials I used once, so I start looking for new materials every time. If there is something that has changed, it may be the writer’s fate that he cannot do the same thing again.

Fireworks is one of your earliest films. Thinking back, were there any lessons you learned at that time that informed your theatrical features?

There was a big difference in production between film and video. All About Lily Chou-Chou was Japan's first 24P HD digital movie.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is one of your most well-known and critically acclaimed films. It is also one of the earliest to explore the impact of the Internet on the lives of adolescents. Looking back on the film today as the internet and social media have become an ever-more important area of our lives, do you feel the anxieties explored in this film still reflect the concerns many feel today?

This story is based on junior high school students at the time as well as my own junior high school days. There is a 20 year interval between them, but it hasn’t changed that much. It hasn’t changed much even now. Under these circumstances, only the media and devices have changed greatly. If I am to produce it now, that aspect will change.

A number of your films have interesting origins. All About Lily Chou-Chou was derived from an early web story you produced; Hana & Alice has its origins in a series of short films produced for Kit-Kat; Last Letter is inspired by your experiences speaking to people after the 3.11 earthquake. What is it that draws you to a particular idea or story?

The material is infinite. I try to make them into films every day, but there are actually 70% or nearly 80% of works that never see the light of day. These unfinished works act as a catalyst and give me a variety of imaginations. If I had completed all my work and put it out into the world, I might not be able to make anything anymore.

Like many filmmakers, you were inspired to create a film about this ‘new normal’ with The 12-Day Tale of the Monster Who Died in 8. How did your own pandemic experiences and emotions influence the making of this film, and how do you see the memory and impact of the pandemic influencing your work in the future?

This unwelcome pandemic can leave everyone feeling gloomy. Let them forget the real world for a while, and make them feel happy. Or let them enjoy another world. It made me realize again that we can do that in our work.

Finally, how do you feel the Japanese film industry has evolved, particularly in opportunities for newer voices? What are the difficulties with producing a film in Japan today compared to when you first got involved in filmmaking, and where do you see the future of the Japanese film industry ten years from now?

There are more movies being made now than in the 1990s, and new fundraising methods such as crowdfunding have been introduced, and there is YouTube. I think it is in an unprecedented environment for the film industry. In any case, it’s not the work that sets the direction for evolution, and be it crowdfunding, be it YouTube, these new technologies are creating new places and erasing old ones. It is the life of a writer who manages to create works while being overwhelmed by the rough waves of technology. I try not to misunderstand that.