If memory serves me right, Love Letter was one of the first movies to be screened at the then Picturehouse at Handy Road, which was Singapore's first art house cinema. I hadn't watched Love Letter until now, some 12 years after it was made, but after watching it, I realized that this is probably a pioneer in most of the Japanese or Korean romance movies to have come out over these years, most of which have adapted some of the themes discussed, most notably about missed opportunities.
Love Letter is an unconventional love story. For starters, there isn't an direct romantic interactions between the lead characters it wants to focus on. Most stories would have romantic scenes played out in chronological order, and the audience journeys together with the leads on their road to togetherness. Love Letter makes an audience work - it doesn't present the material outright, but rather in sporadic memory recollections. Neither does it have the formulaic boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-wins-girl sequence. In fact, we begin with a funeral anniversary, and the sense of loss made permanent.
There are multiple story arcs in Love Letter, but the main one that engages the audience to find out more, is the one between Hiroko Watanabe (Miho Nakayama) and her fiance Itsuki Fujii, whom we never meet, but meet only the teenage Itsuki (Takashi Kashiwabara) instead. Hiroko has lost her fiance two years ago, but refuses to let go. Instead, at the spur of a moment, she copies down the address where he stayed at when he was young, and sent a letter to the address, knowing jolly well that redevelopment has caused the house to stand no more, and her letter will be akin to one sent to Heaven. To her surprise, she receives a reply from Itsuki Fujii, and unravelling the identity of the new Itsuki, discovers that she is someone who bears the same name as her fiance, and even shared a moment in time together as classmates.
The two girls never interact directly (even thought they're played by the same actress), but through their correspondence, we learn more about the life of the boy in question, one which relied on Itsuki's memory to bring to life for Hiroko to dwell in. And there might be a hint why Itsuki the boy had come to choose Hiroko too, perchance also based on his memory with his namesake. Being a quiet guy, expressing his feelings never is easy, but he demonstrates his affections in some quirky manner instead. Thus a very interesting love triangle develops, though one which involves different timelines, and one which never is loud in expression, choosing instead to focus on the subtleties. You wonder when you move on, whether you'll seize the moment with someone who resembles an old flame, though that applies in looks alone, as character will definitely be different, and Miho Nakayama managed to bring differences to the two characters she played, even though it didn't include having massive makeup or wardrobe changes, but relied a lot on subtle movements and behaviour.
Besides the main arc, there are also other arcs on love in the movie, specifically the new budding love between Hiroko and new flame Akiba Shigeru (Etsushi Toyokawa), who tries his best to help Hiroko let go of the past, but yet standing by her when she struggles to do so, and that amongst the family of Itsuki (the female), whose grandfather (Katsuyuki Shinohaara) had a pivotal role in a rather touching scene involving love and loss. The excellent soundtrack by Remedios also accentuates the many beautiful moments in the movie, its main theme is memorable and I believe already a recognizable classic.
Die hard romantics will definitely see a difference in how a story like this gets told by writer-director Shunji Iwai, and therein likes its appeal. It goes against the grain and doesn't wrap everything up in saccharine sweet moments. However, in its digging up past memories, and controlling the flashbacks in a very measured way without serving to confuse, it actively engages you to think and feel for the characters, and providing the space to do so. What is remarkable, is that the movie, after 12 years and counting, had withstood the test of time.
The Collector's Edition Code 3 DVD by Panorama Distributions comes with a 4 frame film strip (mine shows Takashi Kashiwabara standing at the door) and 10 newly printed postcard set. Visual presentation is in anamorphic widescreen, and the visual transfer is beautiful, bringing out the beauty of the long and scenic shots that get peppered throughout the movie. Scene selection is available over 12 chapters.
Audio comes in Dolby Digital Stereo in both Japanese and the Cantonese dub, and there's an optional commentary by Hong Kong film critics Shu Kei and Tong Ching Siu in Cantonese. Subtitles for the movie and the audio commentary is available in both English and Chinese. However, there are noticeable typo errors in the movie's English subtitles, while that for the commentary had a lot more typo errors and noticeable grammatical errors. But none of these will deter you from understanding the movie or what the critics have to share about the film.
If you have time, give the commentary a go. It began with an interesting anecdote on the distribution of the movie in Hong Kong, and both Shu Kei and Ching Siu provide plenty of excellent insights to the movie, sometimes even down to specific scenes, as well as provide a broad discussion on the director's style adopted for the movie, and touched upon the impact the movie had, which lasted up until today. Rarely a silent moment in their commentary, except perhaps at the 1"15 mark, and towards the end of the movie.
For those who can read traditional Chinese, there's a 2 page essay by writer-director Shunji Iwai on the creation of the movie, printed on the inside of the DVD sleeve.