Mitsuko Baisho won a Kinema Jumpo, the Japanese Oscar, for her role in "Love Letter" (at the Kokusai), and it's no wonder. It's the kind of role Barbara Stanwyck relished 40 years ago--and Faye Dunaway could play to the hilt today.
Baisho is cast as Kyoko, a Tokyo magazine writer, a stunning and self-confident career woman. She lives in a small apartment in a vast anonymous building, but when she comes home her husband Shoichi (Kenichi Hagiwara), a junior high school teacher, has surprised her by painting a cherry tree in full blossom on their sliding glass doors. For a moment she, her husband and their small son are the very picture of happiness.
Within 24 hours Hagiwara has resigned from his job, gone on a bender and landed in jail overnight. Baisho, who's been through a couple of his drunken sprees before, is upset but has not panicked--yet. It seems that what set Hagiwara off this time was being contacted by his first love Etsuko (Keiko Takahashi), now dying of leukemia and eager to see him one last time. But will once be enough, even though she's been given only six months to live?
What a classic woman's-picture premise! In America the genre has pretty much moved from the big screen to TV, but it's alive and well in the Japanese cinema. And what sets "Love Letter" apart from the typical tear-jerker (Japanese or otherwise) is its expressive style and complex characterizations. It would scarcely come as a surprise if we were to learn that director Tatsumi Kumashiro, his co-writer Jun Takada and his stars were earnest admirers of Douglas Sirk, for "Love Letter" could certainly pass as an homage to him.
Pulling herself together, Kyoko is going to show her husband how cool and controlled she is. It's going to be just fine with her that he's moved out, taken a job selling fish and spending his spare time at Etsuko's bedside; all she has to do is be patient. But she's not a reporter for nothing, and decides to visit Etsuko herself, posing as her husband's cousin. Why, there might even be a story in the woman.
However, neither husband nor wife is prepared for the journey of self-discovery they've embarked upon inadvertently. What if Kyoko is not quite as strong as she thinks she is? And what if the passive, self-destructive Shoichi actually resents her domination even though it clearly has attracted him to her? But what really concerns the film makers is the nature of love, with its astonishing power to reveal truth and to demand extraordinary self-sacrifice. (No Japanese love story is without the element of self-sacrifice.)
The film's plot, were it to be revealed here, would seem outrageous, but the truth is "Love Letter" unfolds with quite persuasive psychological validity. Etsuko, nevertheless, remains a tantalizing enigma, for the film makers seem to refrain from commenting or even acknowledging the woman's basic selfishness; regardless of her intent, she proves to be a remarkable catalyst, forcing Kyoko and Shoichi to consider that they have problems beyond her disruptive presence.
Baisho's Kyoko runs on pure, raw emotion, but Kumashiro never allows her tempestuousness to seem silly, and Baisho has been able to create a highly contemporary woman, assertive yet possessed with a vulnerability that she gradually learns how to turn into strength. Hagiwara has something of the sensitivity and quicksilver personality of a Montgomery Clift and is the perfect foil for Baisho. "Love Letter" (Times-rated Mature for adult themes) is a richly romantic film that dares to take love seriously.
A Shochiku presentation of a co-production of Shochiku-Fuji/Kosaido Eizo/Kei Enterprises. Executive producers Kazuyoshi Okuyama. Director Tatsumi Kumashiro. Screenplay Jun Takada, Kumashiro; based on a novel by Mikihiko Renjo. Camera Yoshihiro Yamazaki. Music Takayuki Inoue. With Kenichi Hagiwara, Mitsuko Baisho, Keiko Takahashi, Kaoru Kobayashi, Noburo Nakaya, Tokie Hidari. In Japanese, with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.