Shunji Iwai started his career directing short TV movies, barely 45 minutes, in the early 1990s. He is now the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival (which begins tonight; read Scout Tafoya’s preview here). He’s the first Japanese director to receive this honor, previously given out to Tsui Hark, Jackie Chan and Ringo Lam in recent years.
Besides the award ceremony, the speeches and the fanfare around his presence, the Festival has programmed three of his most important features. This is a valuable opportunity that will bring the vision and style of one of the most interesting contemporary Japanese directors to new audiences in the city. The three films represent three different moments in his filmography, but at the same time they characterize his unique flair.
Swallowtail Butterfly (1996), his third feature, is his closest approximation to a full-fledged genre film, combining science fiction, horror and musicals in a poignant portrait of the life of immigrants in a dystopia that chronicles their search for their own identity through the creation of a rock band and counterfeit money. All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) is his most popular film, and with reason, as it posits itself as both an exploration of fandom on the internet (using the comments on a forum by fanatics of a singer named Lily Chou-Chou as thematic bridge between the scenes) and the teenage world, with a particular emphasis on bullying and the always-pervasive adolescent thought of being alone in the universe. Also tackling the way internet communities work, his latest film, The Bride of Rip Van Winkle (2016), is an incredibly performed drama about the loneliness that is inherent in the daily use of social networks, while also providing incisive commentary on the patriarchal society of Japan through the misfortunes of its female protagonist. We had the opportunity to exchange emails with the director about his films, immigration and how the internet used to be so much better.
Brooklyn Magazine: Regarding All About Lily-Chou Chou, I think that it’s one of the quieter and less showy representations of internet communities, and for that much more effective. Do you look back to that simpler era of the web?
Shunji Iwai: You’re right—they were less showy. Everything is so “cool” now, in terms of design, and I think there is something about the quick pristine quality of design displays of prior years. I wanted to maintain that. White letters on a black screen.
There are many similarities between Lily Chou-Chou and your latest film, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, in terms of their respective characters’ use of the internet. They are fifteen years apart and a lot has changed. What drove you this time to depict social networks, rather than any other online experience?
It’s hard for someone to live alone and stay away from social network services [SNS]. Of course, I don’t want to take the side of the SNS, but I wanted to represent the irony of the two worlds—of not only SNS but also the society before SNS evolved. I’d like to show how we take to living in this strange world that our ancestors have left us.
I’ve read that you like comic books. Do you prefer American, European or Japanese comics? Who are your favorite authors?
I prefer Japanese. We don’t really have the opportunity to read other foreign comic books. Japanese audiences love movies based on DC and Marvel comics, but I’ve never really seen anyone reading those comics in Japan. I love European comic artists. I love Gipi. He is my favorite.
In your oldest film showing at the festival, Swallowtail Butterfly, the dystopia you created mirrors to the present European migration crisis—which is also becoming a more pressing matter in the United States, especially in the upcoming months. What drew you to portray the lives of migrants in your film, and do you think that we are now getting closer to the world that your film imagined?
The crisis in Syria developed in only a short number of years. No country is exempt from the possibility of such crises—it is possible anywhere. I believe that the cause of human disaster can be connected with our desire for wealth. I’m not sure if our world is getting closer to my film, but I do know that the world is always unfair and stupid and dirty… but beautiful.