From the looks of it, Nanami is living the perfect life. She's married and working as a teacher, yet she is not quite happy. Through an internet forum, she is able to vent but it is not enough. After she's loses her job as a teacher and she's suspecting her husband of cheating on her, she contacts an acquaintance from the internet forum to help her. Her life is quickly thrown for a loop and she moves away and finds a job at a hotel, but this is just the beginning of a new and more interesting part of her life.
Shunji Iwai isn't the most common name you hear when people discuss Japanese cinema. With movies like "Love Letter", "Picnic" and the American production "Vampire" under his belt it's hard to understand why. He creates beautiful, tragic, artistic and meaningful stories that people can relate to. As an example, "Love Letter" is possibly my favorite love story of all time after Trier's "Breaking the Waves".
The title of the movie refers to a character that we are introduced to later on in the movie. A porn star, Mashiro, who goes under the name of Rip Van Winkle in her work. The movie's main character, however, is someone a lot less controversial in her career choice. Nanami is a teacher who works part-time at a convenience store. Early in the movie she marries the love of her life: a man that she met online. When it is time for the wedding, her groom asks her to invite more people from her side. Unfortunately she does not know more people, so to not feel shame when the entire place is filled with his friends and family, she hires Amuro, a guy she met on an online forum, to get actors play the parts of relatives. This is not the last time she gets help from this jack-of-all-trades. One thing leads to another, and she leaves her husband and starts to work at a hotel.
There isn't much you can spoil about "A Bride for Rip Van Winkle", yet I try to keep the plot short because the way the movie unfolds in one of its most important parts. It's one of those movies where the ending isn't quite as important as the way there. The movie is essentially in three parts, all separated by Nanami's life and work. The first hour is her married life and the "ideal" life which shatters. She's fired and divorces her husband. This leads to the second part where she gets a job at the same hotel where she lives, which serves as a bridge between the tragic love story of the first part, and the odd and somewhat confrontational love story of the third part. In the third part she gets help from Amuro yet again, and lands a high paying job living in a mansion. All she needs to do is live there, clean, and take care of the pets: exotic fishes of different kinds. She lives there with another maid, and that maid is revealed to be a terminally ill porn star: Rip Van Winkle. As you might suspect, Rip might have a bigger role in Nanami's new job than she expected.
Shunji Iwai's new film "A Bride for Rip Van Winkle" is based on his own novel, which I have not read. However, the name title itself is worth noting: the use of Rip Van Winkle makes you wonder what connections could be made towards the old American short story of the same name, about the old man who is given a drink and asleep through the entire American Revolutionary War. Does the story draw more from the idea of escape and leaving the worries of "war" (the ideal life)? My theory on the reference is simply that - it uses a name associated with not having to be part of a huge tragedy because that's what much of the movie seems to be about. In the end, the movie is both sad and cheerful, because it takes a woman who was unhappy with marriage and puts her in an entirely life style that she happens to grow fond of. Meanwhile we have a terminally ill woman who simple wants someone to be there for her, which agains brings up the idea of escaping your reality.
Nanami, played by Haru Kuroki, is a wonderful character to follow. Almost as if it's a fantasy where a princess is under a spell, Nanami follows Amuro's every word in an almost bizarre way. At times you begin to wonder Amuro's intentions and what will happen to this gullible woman. The movies is nearly fantastical in its way of always moving forward in new directions. Coincidental at times, but without feeling that it's without point. Then we have Rip (or Mashiro, as the character's real name is), played by Cocco (the singer, and actress of Tsukamoto's great "Kotoko"), who is this very tragic figure near the end of her life due to an illness, but at the same time the free-spirit that Nanami needs to find to finally be happy. Amuro (Gô Ayano), of course, shows up as the puppet master at times, and I simply can't decide if I like him or not.
I was lucky to watch the 179 minute version that is currently playing Fantasia International Film Festival. I say lucky, because despite being a long journey to take (and there were times when I questioned the length), it makes it all the more personal. Towards the end of the movie you feel it was all worth it. The theatrical version is an impressive hour shorter, and in my opinion there wasn't an hour to cut. Perhaps it could total to about 30 minutes when cutting stuff during scenes such as the wedding (which was way too long), but not an hour. If you have the chance to watch the director's cut, then don't be afraid of its slow beginnings, because it works as a great introduction to its characters and themes.
Reviewing Shunji Iwai's work is always fun, but never easy. "A Bride for Rip Van Winkle" is impressive for all its themes, many which you can relate to, but even if you don't try to look any deeper into it, it's a beautiful love story with its own identity. Even when characters are at their most clichéed, such as Mashiro at times, they manage to never feel like copies. This is a complex movie, sure, but it's emotionally accessible and that makes it an easy movie to watch for anyone.