From the needlessly apologetic, soft-spoken voice of its heroine to the almost fetishistic maid uniforms she eventually dons, this strange three-hour film clearly sets out to explore the far corners of Japan’s collective psyche. At its core, it challenges viewer assumptions regarding what Nanami Minagawa thinks she wants and what she needs. Yet, it also invites us to challenge its right to make such judgments. It can be difficult and even cruel, but it is worth engaging with the substance of Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Shunji Iwai’s A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.
Minagawa is a part-time teacher, whose mousy voice eventually gets her fired. Consequently, she resigns herself to a housewife’s life married to Tsuruoka, a fellow teacher she met online. However, the impending ceremony presents the first of a series of crises he will face. Minagawa and her divorced parents simply do not have enough relatives for the ceremony. In a fateful turn of events, she is referred to the mysterious fixer Masuyuki Amuro, who regularly provides fake relatives for weddings, among his other services.
Alas, the honeymoon period will not last long. Soon Minagawa suspects Turuoka of infidelity and turns to Amuro for help. Initially, the mysterious mastermind stokes her doubts, while secretly framing her for an adulterous affair of her own. Shamed, humiliated, and abandoned, Minagawa comes to rely on Amuro, even working as one of his fake wedding relatives. That is how she meets the free-spirited Mashiro Satonaka, who might be the first real friend she ever knew. However, their relationship will be quite complicated.
Based on Iwai’s own novel, the rather obscurely titled Rip Van Winkle can be reasonably construed as a tale of vicious game-playing or unlikely empowerment. At times, the trials Iwai showers on Minagawa are almost Job-like. Frankly, some of Amuro’s darker moments are hard to reconcile with the more edifying interpretation, but the ultimate destination is rather profoundly humanistic. In many ways it directly compares to Tetsuya Nakashima’s Memories of Matsuko, but it does not leave viewers feeling so bereft.
As Minagawa, Haru Kuroki is a like a radiant, exquisitely sensitive Candide. She feels each injustice deeply, yet she carries on. It is a necessarily understated performance, given her character’s painful shyness and meek voice. Yet, she expresses a vast array of emotions with great depth and sincerity. Pop-star Cocco gives the film a much needed lift as the wildly charismatic and outgoing Satonaka. She and Kuroki develop some wonderfully rich and ambiguous chemistry together. Former Japanese AV star Nana Natsume is also terrific as Saeko Tsuneyoshi, Satonaka’s AV agent. Go Ayano’s Amuro similarly brings plenty of energy to the film, but he is almost too inscrutable. It is hard to fathom why he inspires such trust from Minagawa.