The director of this film, the famed artist and writer Shunji Iwai, started his career doing television films before shaking the entire landscape of Japan with films like Love Letter and Swallowtail Butterfly, and he somewhat goes back to the episodic nature of that medium with his 3-hour film, the strangely titled A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, which could've been divided in a miniseries of three chapters and could've had the same effect on the viewer, as we've become attached and we follow the misadventures of our protagonist, who is confronted by her own shortcomings as well as the unknowable forces of 'the other', who is the one that she is initially sheltering from through her shyness.
But even if the main trait that comes to mind when we see the main character, Nanami Minagawa (played sweetly and stupendly by Haru Kuroki), is the way that she seems to avoid any instance of direct communication, either by speaking very softly, apologizing for everything, and being awkward, she is completely different in the world of the social networks. Sheltering under a seudonym, she starts to post status updates on the things that she lives and even criticizes her husband-to-be as she is soon to be married with a guy she met on an online dating service. So, essentially, she needs the mask of anonimity to be truly who she wants to be, or at least that's what we assume.
So, the thing is that she is about to get married, and Japanese weddings are weird, if I am to believe the films that I've seen so far, and the one put together here is spectacular, so Nanami feels guilty of have divorced parents and practically no relatives that she can invite to the ceremony. Due to the pathriarcal nature of the society in Japan, she feels obliged to contact a man that can come up with a bunch of people that pretend to be relatives, a service that is somewhat expensive but still highly succesful. But that seems to be the only thing that works, as Nanami breaks down to the suggestion of his mother-in-law that she shouldn't work as a teacher, like she's done since she graduated; or the fact that her husband seems apathic and can't seem to muster much sentiment for the whole relation.
In a way, what we see for the next two and a half hours of film is the series of awful events that deconstruct the identity of this woman who is just barely understanding how to function in a social manner, and even at the length, that could be discouraging to some, this breezes through with entertaining yet fully emotional scenes, as it doesn't maintain still for too long and it continually throws new situations that Nanami must confront. This is, more than anything, an honest critique of the predominating point of view that permeates every construct of society in Japan (and the world) regarding the role of women, how they should act and what they should do with their lives. The final act is revealing through its symbolism and how it relates to this narrative of both female empowerment and self-acceptance.
This film could be easily compared with Shunji Iwai's earlier masterpiece All About Lily Chou-Chou, as they both have an aural and visual concordance, and they use a similar visual approach. They also both connect their plots to internet communities and how they connect people that are afar, but their anonimity betrays them. In a way, this demonstrates more than anything that Iwai might be the director that has contributed more to our perception of what the internet is and how it works with real people. This time he tackles social networks and how they relate to the identity of ourselves and those around us. And it's perfectly tuned, wonderfully performed and tonally consistent. One of the best films of the year.
A Bride For Rip Van Winkle screens at the NYAFF June 24th.