Writer-director Shunji Iwai’s A Bride for Rip Van Winkle begins as a character study of young part-time teacher Nanami (Haru Kuroki), who’s so shy that her students give her a microphone as a gag gift. After promptly using the microphone in class, however, Nanami is fired, and soon this delicate depiction of feminine naïveté gives way to an interminable saga full of soap-operatic plot twists involving quickly broken marriages, sexual assault, a secret porn career, terminal illness, and a quasi lesbian love affair.
Nanami meets Tetsuo (Gô Jibiki) online and they instantly plan their marriage, which is the realization of her dream but also the impetus of her downfall. Her parents are divorced and hate each other but pose as a happy couple for the sake of their daughter’s happiness. Nanami doesn’t have many relatives so she hires fake ones to attend her wedding with the help of a mysterious fixer, Amuro (Gô Ayano), who subsequently investigates Nanami’s suspicions that Tetsuo is cheating on her. But Amuro sets her up, and suddenly she’s the one who’s accused of betrayal. And when her mother-in-law, Kayako (Hideko Hara), finds out that the guests at the wedding were fake, Nanami’s life spins out of control, which in the logic of this film means waking up in a mansion and being told that she’s a live-in maid and gets to play dress up with strapless bridal gowns all day with her new best friend, Mashiro (Cocco).
A Bride for Rip Van Winkle wants to be an indictment of Japan’s strict cultural norms, which rig the relationships between men and women as necessarily deceitful and misogynistic. It understands that everyone is posing in every realm: online, offline, and in their dreams. And in the film, which is adapted from Iwai’s own novel, Japanese propriety is also constantly haunted by depravity, yet the focus isn’t on this fertile contradiction, but on a cringingly convoluted plot. Nanami is always so powerless before everyone’s abuse that our gazing feels sadistic, if not downright pornographic, by the end.
Only in slow-motion montages where she dresses up in bridal gowns with Mashiro, who happens to be a part-time porn star, does Nanami appear to find solace. But like everyone else in A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, Mashiro is lying to Nanami. Indeed, these sequences do nothing to give Nanami a sense of dignity, as they’re fit for a straight man’s tacky porn fantasy, featuring the two women driving around in a red Alfa Romeo, playing a white grand piano, and feeding each other finger food before making out and cuddling. By the time Nanami and Mashiro fall asleep in each other’s arms, only one of them is properly dead, and yet they’ve been lifeless all along.