By Matthew Fullerton.
In a 1981 essay, the film critic Alan Booth (1946-1993) recognized independent directors as the strength of Japanese cinema. Tragically, he also noted how independent film in his adopted Japan was threatened by formula, largely resulting from the influence of corporate decision-making. For the next decade or so, this threat would only get stronger, frustrating Booth to the point that he would quit the profession. In the quarter-century since Booth’s passing, however, it could be argued that there have been glimmers of artistry and independence in Japanese cinema – most recently, perhaps, with the internationally-celebrated films of Hirokazu Kore-eda – that might please a disheartened critic like Booth. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Locarno-celebrated Happy Hour (2015, now on Blu-ray from Icarus Films), an honest portrayal of a close-knit quartet of women experiencing anxieties and existential crises as they approach middle age, could also qualify as one such film.
The agonies experienced by the four protagonists in Happy Hour are largely brought on by their love lives and ideas of friendship clashing with social norms and what Japanese society deems socially acceptable. The nurse Akari (Sachie Tanaka) is a divorcee disillusioned by love and relationships. She wears her divorce like a badge of honour despite its stigmas, but it is obvious that she is lonely: Her volatile nature and unwillingness to commit to a relationship to an adoring single dad – another stigmatized situation – are testimony to her displeasure at her lot and, perhaps, to societal pressures to live a life more conventional. Fumi (Maiko Mihara), though married, is childless. Her writer husband does not have a career as successful as hers, which weighs on her: She fears being seen as advancing his career through her own work as curator at a Kobe arts centre. Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi) is, on the surface, the most traditional and stable of the four women: She is a married homemaker and mother of a teenage boy. Her reticence, in stark contrast to Akari’s character, underlines her traditional ways, though it is obvious through her stiff interactions with her husband that she is unhappy and finds little inspiration in her role as mother, wife, and homemaker. Finally, there is Jun (Rira Kawamura), who is fighting a losing battle in the courts for a divorce.
As such, the women are unhappy, but they seldom express their melancholy to each other. Yet, other than their ages, it is what ultimately binds them. As a result, the friendship initially comes across as rather shallow. For instance, while picnicking on a rainy day in the hills above Kobe, they praise each other on their contributions to the picnic and one immediately gets the sense that they are starved for validation, which they can only find in each other’s company. When marriage and the family unit – or the single life in the case of Akari – are unfulfilling, it is only natural to look elsewhere for gratification.
Though the women adore Sakurako and find solace in her mannerisms, temperament, and traditionalism, Jun is the glue that holds the group together. When she suddenly disappears, bearing what her husband believes is his child, things start to unravel in the lives of her three friends: They are forced to confront each other with subjects that were once taboo. They question their relationships with the men in their lives, their perceptions of their friendship and their understanding of Jun and her dilemma. They go so far as to point out their character flaws and their displeasure at the state of each other’s marriages and at each other’s husbands, subjects that were well off-limits until Jun’s disappearance. In essence, their friendship, which had heretofore followed closely Japanese social norms, unravels. Likewise, they do things out of character outside their friendship circle, such as the normally reserved Sakurako lashing out at and slapping her son at the news of his girlfriend’s pregnancy; and Akari disappearing from a performance at Fumi’s art centre to go to a bar with a fraudster artist.
By its very nature, Happy Hour’s plot is fiercely independent, engaging with, and confronting, the female condition in modern Japan, including attitudes surrounding divorce, being single in middle-age and even the treatment of the aged (Akari broaches this topic at the drinking party following a workshop at Fumi’s art space). The fact that the female condition is treated by a male filmmaker with such precision is also innovative. This is likely due in part to the fact that the idea for the film arose from an improvisational workshop that the director Hamaguchi had organised in Kobe in 2013 and in which some of his actors had participated. The improvised genesis for the film carries over to the film itself, as several scenes have the ring of improvisation, including, coincidentally, the aforementioned workshop at Fumi’s art space, a colossal thirty minute-long scene. Consequently, the workshop is realistic and convincing, largely due to its length, intimacy and real-time nature. Not only does the dialogue seem improvised and thus more authentic, but even the physical interactions and the workshop’s group challenges often appear spontaneous, leading this critic to suspect that large swaths of Happy Hour were actually unscripted. This heightened realism of both dialogue and action gives Happy Hour a very New Wave-ish feel.
On the topic of time, one cannot talk about Happy Hour without mentioning its duration – roughly five and a half hours – a length that would have made the great Kurosawa jealous. Of course, this makes it difficult to appreciate the film in one sitting. Fortunately, the Brooklyn-based KimStim packaged the Happy Hour Blu Ray in two discs with, perhaps ironically, minimalist packaging and only thirty-eight minutes of bonus material. This last feature comprises interviews with the actors who discuss, among other items, the improvisation workshop that Hamaguchi had organised to find and train his actors. Happy Hour‘s length might confound some critics, but it seems to work as it allows Hamaguchi to plumb depths of character that directors often cannot achieve in a standard-length film.
Further testimony to the film’s artistry and independent spirit is the minimalist and avant-garde-ish soundtrack by Umitaro Abe. Another nice touch is Hamaguchi’s decision to set Happy Hour in quiet Kobe and not in a more renowned hustle-bustle city like Tokyo or Osaka. Technically, Hamaguchi seems to take pains to solidify his film’s independent feel. As an example of this is Jun’s bus ride from the hot springs after saying goodbye to her three friends. The camera bounces and jostles with every bump of the bus, which seems like a conscious choice by Hamaguchi. Likewise, the lack of lighting in Jun’s apartment when her husband pays her a visit enforces the film’s independent feel. It could also very well be Hamaguchi’s nod to a cinematic masterpiece – Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) – another film whose female protagonist finds herself in a socially unacceptable situation, unwilling, or unable, to abide by what society considers appropriate behaviour. Jun’s husband’s face is in near total darkness at the balcony window whereas Jun’s goes from lightness to darkness as she tries to get him to lash out and give her ammunition for her divorce bid. This play on light and dark enforces the stigma of their situation, Jun’s in particular (much like the living room scene between Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, though not so romantic), and heightens the sense that Jun will be ostracized.
Happy Hour’s five-and-a-half-hours is a unique and rewarding display of artistry. It is a truly independent film, clearly free from the pressures of corporate execs concerned with packing cinemas, a once-upon-a-time plague on Japanese cinema.
Matthew Fullerton researches and writes about the cinemas of Tunisia and Japan, two countries in which he lived, worked and studied before becoming an educator and part-time academic in Nova Scotia, Canada. He also writes about agricultural, forestry and rural issues and community matters for regional publications.