The Year of Hamaguchi

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After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed over twenty thousand people in the Tōhoku region of Japan, the filmmakers Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Kō Sakai drove to the affected areas to interview survivors. The result was three full-length documentaries, released in 2013. It’s not uncommon for artists to learn to see by going down into the inferno. Akira Kurosawa, another great Japanese filmmaker, writes in his book Something Like An Autobiography about a trip he and his brother took to look at the horrifying ruins of Toyko after the great 1923 earthquake, a disaster that killed over one-hundred thousand people. Bearing witness to a world rent to such a degree is not something to be lived down. It is the material that a great artist can use, perhaps unconsciously, to darken and deepen their vision, helping it to find a form to express the depthless feelings in new archetypes and broken mirror shards; the material from which another world, born from within this one, is created.

This is not to say Kurosawa was a key influence on Hamaguchi’s work. More obvious precursors are the filmmakers Ozu, Eric Rohmer, and John Cassavetes, alongside Abbas Kiarostami, Edward Yang, and Hong Sang-Soo—but there is a commonality there. The four principal films that Hamaguchi has made since the documentaries (he made five features prior, one of which, Intimacies, over four hours, is about the troubled production of a play, much like his celebrated film from 2021, Drive My Car) are focused on young characters; the oldest is forty-seven. Their relationships are often romantic––but many are platonic as well, like the last episode of the anthology film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, “Once Again,” an ambitious nearly Jamesian ghost-story akin to Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. It is centered on two women, though when the women realize they aren’t who they thought they were, there are two relationships between two women at stake—the missing two are gone to the vagaries of time and circumstance and probably won’t be found again. This dimension is multiplied in his earlier film Happy Hour, a five-hour and fifteen-minute feature from 2015, about four women who have quite distinct relationships with each other, though they still function as a group. Some of them have known each other for many years, other less, and the level of trust between them varies considerably. Some cast hurtful remarks at others, whether explicitly or part-concealed, posing questions about the degrees of intimacy provided between the characters, ones that others must weigh and qualify as they negotiate their friendships. The length of the film intensifies the experience—more minutes means more life. The longer the spectator spends with the drama, just as when we spend time talking with others about their life and ours, the more intimate we become—the more involved we are, whether we like it or not. It’s a quite different experience than episodic TV, with its yen for plot revelation and cliffhanger which stains its imprimatur on our psyche with tinfoil tiaras of suspense, as it is far from the private indices and perturbations nestled in real life. Director Robert Bresson knew the power of the artful cinematic storytelling that reflects our human experience. “The effects of things must always be shown before their cause,” he wrote, "like in real life. We’re unaware of the causes of most of the events we witness. We see the effects and only later discover the cause.” For an hour and a half in Happy Hour we don’t know the full story behind one woman’s desperation and shiftiness; it’s not fully explained until her day in divorce court. But this distancing only brings us closer, twinning the experience of finding out something about someone we only had a scattering of impressions of: effects before cause.

For a five-hour film there are few scenes. A handful are twenty to thirty minutes long, one is forty-five. Yet over the hours that we are immersed in their lives, the film becomes an enquiry into the women’s faces and the litany of mainly downturned facial expressions––the cause of which is often the men, or the “no men,” in their lives. One, Jun (played by Rira Kawamura who bears a faint resemblance to Ozu’s most famous female actor, Setsuso Hara), is getting a divorce and we see her wrecked on the stand at the legal proceeding. Later she has to put up with an unannounced visit from her glacial husband, a control freak who won’t let her go and who, not surprisingly, doesn’t know much about expressing love. The women converge early on in a self-help seminar that one of the four helpers organize, and the lengthy exercises suggest something of the improvisational theater stretches in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1. This and the ensuing meal with those in the workshop, including the guru/leader who will later play a significantly darker role, forces the women headlong into the dramatic mirror, the pieces of which will reflect the complications of the four hours hence. By the two-hour-fifteen-minute mark, when the four take a trip to a countryside spa, the film spirals into a unique harmony—utter happiness at how these women have found each other no matter the regular bumps in the road. They love each other, a fact stenciled by the cliched scene of having a stranger take a picture of the group by a scenic waterfall (and because it is only the halfway point, one knows in a Barry Lyndon-type fashion that misfortune will soon arrive). 

This happiness—against which contemporary Hollywood’s depictions are either cheap or shrill—has been earned, yet even the photo is singed with by a not visible cauldron. The friend with the most to hide, Fumi, and who also has the largest change to come, curls her forced smile inward as she does for most of the five hours. Something left undone tugs her down by her throat. Still, has happiness ever been depicted so effortlessly? Perhaps not since Ozu, especially in these schadenfreude-heavy endtimes. Here the film climaxes. The women come into a treasured zone, an unconditional openness, albeit briefly—it’s what we live for, and maybe it isn’t quite happiness, perhaps something more like a state of nirvana, one orchestrated by Jun, whose highs are so high and lows so low, like Hara’s in Ozu. The film ends with more complications even than at the beginning, but this is very far from prestige TV’s gotchas—there’s much more to be done, and the Rilkean “You must change your life” is wedded with Chinatown’s “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t” leaving the viewer to fend for themself in the transition to reality.

Three years later came Asako I & II, delightful in a very different way. It is a film of youth and young love untried, made by someone younger—a feat touched on by what Antonioni once told Godard in 1961, that the latter was older than him, though eighteen years younger. Those names are not accidents—the film is more early Godard, and early Hal Hartley, complete with something like the latter’s minimalist scores. And Asako uses a bevy of effects not seen in the other Hamaguchi films, fitting a story of mythical swerves inside a medieval-type romance, though it ends at that same null point of Happy Hour. The fickleness of youth gives way to the idea that the grass isn’t greener on another’s island.

These fanciful ins and outs of mood, lust, and love are developed further in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a film clearly indebted to Rohmer’s triptych Rendezvous in Paris. While lacking the comic verve of Rohmer, Hamaguchi does have the whimsy, especially in the third episode. The hints of Rohmer run deeper still. The women dress with color coordinating to their emotions—blue for the sad woman searching out her past and white for her confessor/savior. This setup is telling, and literary. Not only does Henry James reverberate in these scenes, but so does Anton Chekhov’s heart-centric pathos, showing the delicacy of human relations, even among strangers. Still, the ultimate secret of Hamaguchi’s sublime cinema is how he photographs and edits such scenes in a very precise if peculiar manner, engaging the viewer’s subconscious, apart from dialogue, with changing perspectives. Often, especially in Happy Hour, he will use a single camera setup, framing the characters, with a reverse perspective shot, which breaks the so-called 180-degree rule that helps the audience keep track of people in a conversation. As the women figure out what is going on over a twenty-minute conversation in Aya’s house, across two rooms, Hamaguchi shows them from a variety of angles: distant to medium to close-up, all still shots, none moving, coming from all sides and heights. And when they stand by the living room’s large glass doors, having a strip of wood dividing the women (outside are summery plants, trees, and shrubs), Hamaguchi cuts to a shot taken from the exact reverse angle outside, so the shot contains the reflection of the outside greenery on the glass—an apt image for the revelation of someone pretending to be someone else. The effect is spectral and hard to track, but it seems to work unconsciously on the viewer, creating a disturbance or a different state, as Hitchcock did in the between Norman Bates and Marion Crane in the back room of the hotel in Psycho or Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut, during the long talk between husband and wife after they smoke pot, with a variety of angles undergirding the import of the dialogue. What these changing perspectives actually “say” is hard to impress; film is about seeing, and as we take in these still-lives in the blocks of movement time (as Deleuze defined cinema), there’s another force at work beyond narrative. Much like the luster or coloration of words in a sentence, or the shape of a sculpture, we could say the form or the force of the mise-en-scene, shapes the experience to a much greater degree than the dialogue, firing something into an unconscious, whose owner craves a mysterious free flow of electricity from an art object, like T.S. Eliot’s Chinese jar in “Burnt Norton”, whose “stillness, … still / moves perpetually in its stillness.”

Drive My Car is Hamaguchi’s most celebrated, and most written on, film to date. It’s also his most accessible, but perhaps not his wisest. Gone is the classical music score of the earlier films, yet the literary echoes remain. The main character is an actor preparing for the lead role in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which he does by listening to the play on cassette tape in his car while driving—a tape prepared by his wife, who reads all other parts, leaving spaces for him to voice his lines throughout. There are hints of Chekhov’s play throughout, a reflection of the lurid situation of the film (the man’s wife dies soon after he finds her cheating on him with a young actor that she introduced him to). Yet the allusions are not a neat fit, and those people who have Louis Malle’s indelible Vanya on 42nd Street in their minds, with Wallace Shawn, with his drowsy, frumpy mannerisms, in the lead role, might have an extra-cinematic experience to embolden the many scenes of the play that are read out or performed.

The film’s most interesting character is a young woman who is assigned to drive the actor around during his residency in Hiroshima two years after his wife has died. The driver is poker-faced and melancholy, and over time the actor comes to rely on her and the two become close. Yet, Hamaguchi has her reveal a past that’s a little too hard to believe, and the willing suspension of disbelief that cinema can rely upon is pushed to its limits; does everyone’s dark secret need to be the worst tragedy imaginable? Asako and Wheel are full of these incredible congruences and symmetries, but they are enfolded into a fairy tailish and whimsical story.

By chance, on the day after I saw Drive My Car, I came upon a passage in Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne that reflected something of the discomfort I felt about what the film was missing, however accomplished it is. While detailing the effects of Cezanne’s colors, Rilke writes:

One also notices each time how necessary it was to go even beyond love; it is of course natural to love each of these things, when one makes it; but if one shows that, one makes it less well; one judges it instead of saying it. One ceases to be impartial; and the best—love—stays outside the work, does not enter it, is left aside, untranslated…

There are more judgments in Drive—the story has moments where Hamaguchi strains for effects that are puzzling, like carping Billboards on a highway, taking one out of the cinematic dream, especially when the young actor speaks to the grieving husband about letting go of his dead wife. “You lived with such a lovely woman for over twenty years”, he says, “and you should be grateful about that” ––this from a rabidly sexualized man who has not only had affairs with multiple women besides the protagonist’s wife, but was involved in a sex scandal with a minor, and happens to murder someone. These details begin to strain the senses, so when he tearfully continues “Even if you love a person deeply, you can’t completely look into that person’s heart. You’ll just feel hurt…you should look be able to look into your own heart pretty well”, how can the viewer take it seriously? The other three films were love affairs between Hamaguchi and the main characters, just as There Will Be Blood and The Master are Paul Thomas Anderson’s love affairs with his main characters and actors. Drive My Car flexes didactically, the director’s love is conditional—the characters have to carry out his plot, the impartiality is missing, as well as ambiguity—the perfect recipe for a modern-day Oscar-bait.

There are other anchors and grace notes that dot and dapple the twelve hours of these four films. Seemingly, the degree of Hamaguchi’s involvement with literature, literary devices, readings, and plays (he once tried to be a novelist) reinforces the architecture of his films. In addition to Drive, Happy Hour spends an hour on a fiction reading and Q & A. The second episode of Wheel also carries a private reading—a woman voicing a man’s novel to him (something she was put up to by her boyfriend, who wants her to tempt his old nemesis and get him fired), and Asako has a secondary character who is an actress, and, in a magical scene, complete with reverse perspectives, she and her friend defend her acting against a critical man who will eventually marry her. There is also the use of slight fast motion for seemingly innocuous scenes, like a woman eating in a restaurant shortly before her astral meeting in “Once Again,” as well as parts of the main conversation, which may be odes to those moments in A Woman Under the Influence that are sped up. In the end, a lot comes back to people like Cassavete. “I guess every picture we’ve ever done”, he once said, “has been to try and find some kind of philosophy for the characters in the film, and so that’s why I have a need for the characters to really analyze love, discuss it, kill it, destroy it, hurt each other, and do all that stuff…the rest of the stuff doesn’t interest me…that’s all I’m interested in…love.” Hamaguchi is similarly frank about his own films:

The in-betweenness of melodrama is something I’m particularly fond of. It’s because it opens a margin for perspectives. One can feel the sadness of the tragedy; the other will cherish the laughter. For me, the foolishness of melodrama becomes its actual seriousness because it enables the filmmaker to grasp the essence of the time. And this is precisely how I perceive the reality of ours; how I feel it. We live seriously, but then again, we do foolish things.

Maybe Hamaguchi is one of the first filmmakers who has melded the pandemic into his cinema in an accomplished manner. After he shot the first two episodes of Wheel, he started shooting Drive, only to be interrupted by the first lockdown in March 2020. Later that summer he shot the vaunted third episode, possibly incorporating the pandemic into it as a strange computer malady that makes people not use computers—reason enough for strangers to meet and talk. He then resumed work on Drive that winter, forcing him to move the setting to Hiroshima—and the film to end with the actors wearing masks.

Deleuze spoke of Kurosawa in relation to Fyodor Dostoevsky, saying they had a common problem—their characters were both engaged in impossible situations, with Deleuze adding, “At the same time they are taken by this imagery, questions of life and death, they still know that there is another question that is more urgent, even if they are not exactly sure what it is.” Relaxing the “impossible situations,” this can be applied to Hamaguchi’s characters as well. They are growing out of love with each other and the pasts they make monuments to, but then what? The young female driver in Drive is off to a different country, with a dog in her car. The women in Happy Hour are cast into the unknown, but in “Once Again” it is simply a hug, a gesture as serious as waving about a knife.

Greg Gerke has published See What I See (Zerogram Press), a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, a book of stories (Splice). He edits the journal Socrates on the Beach.