There’s been talk recently about the decline of youth romance in Japanese cinema, as audiences tire of all those teary-eyed paeans to puppy love. Shunji Iwai — whose 1995 breakout hit, “Love Letter,” was an exemplar of the genre — has other ideas. With a title and structure evoking the director’s earlier film, “Last Letter” finds Iwai still searching for the platonic ideal of slush.
It’s a shamelessly corny movie, made more appealing by its cast — or some of them, at least. Takako Matsu, reuniting with Iwai for the first time since 1998’s “April Story,” plays Yuri, a middle-aged mother mourning the death of her older sister, Misaki.
When she heads to Misaki’s high school reunion, intending to break the news to her old classmates, she gets mistaken for her older sibling and decides to go along with it. Things get complicated when fellow alumnus Koshiro (Masaharu Fukuyama), now a failed novelist, chases after her to confess that he’s still in love with her — her late sister, that is.
Rather than come clean, Yuri starts a snail mail correspondence with him, using Misaki’s voice to confide the intimacies and frustrations of married life. However, she fails to leave a return address, meaning that when Koshiro tries to send a reply, his letters fall instead into the hands of Misaki’s daughter, Ayumi (Suzu Hirose).
For its first half, the film is content to continue this comedy of errors, and the performers are game. Matsu’s guilelessness is matched by a well-cast Nana Mori as her daughter, and “Evangelion” franchise creator Hideaki Anno has a winning cameo as her cranky husband.
Just as viewers may start to wonder how long Iwai can keep this up, Yuri gets abruptly side-lined and the focus shifts to Koshiro, as he sets out to learn what happened to his childhood sweetheart later in life, while flashbacks reveal how the pair first met.
The lightness and wistfulness of the earlier scenes gives way to stodgier melodrama, in which Misaki remains an enigma, but Koshiro gets ample opportunities to reaffirm his abilities as a writer. (The film is adapted from Iwai’s own novel, and it’s hard not to see its drab male hero as a stand-in for the director.)
The film’s overlapping timelines and focus on a middle-aged protagonist revisiting an earlier romantic obsession recall Isao Yukisada’s 2004 tear-jerker, “Crying Out Love in the Center of the World.” “Last Letter” is a sweeter prospect, but just as overripe.
Koshiro’s devotion to his idealized love is presented as something noble, but comes across as narcissistic and creepy. Then again, it would take a hard-hearted viewer not to fall for Hirose. Playing both Ayumi and the young Misaki, the actress is in winning form, and her eventual meeting with Fukuyama’s character is so charming that it made me inclined to forgive the film almost anything.
Being an Iwai production, “Last Letter” is generally attractive to look at, although the languid spell cast by its visuals is broken by some superfluous drone shots and distracting camera wobble.
Although this isn’t mentioned in the film’s publicity materials, it comes just months after the release of a Chinese version, also directed by Iwai. The director obviously liked his “Last Letter” enough to think it was worth sending twice. On this evidence, once was probably enough.