There are a number of films which centre around an unexpected disappearance. The negative space of the missing person both in their physical and emotional absence brings with it its own mini black hole, sucking those left behind into a pit of confusion and despair which forces them to consider their own lives in more detail than they’d ordinarily be comfortable with. For the four women at the centre of Happy Hour, a five and a bit hour long film from Ryusuke Hamaguchi (The Depths, Touching the Skin of Eeriness) the sudden escape of the “lynchpin” Jun sends each of the women into a tailspin as they re-examine their stable, if unfulfilling, existence.
The four women are Sakurako – a housewife and mother to a teenage son, Jun – her best friend since middle school, Fumi – who works in events and is married to an editor, and Akari – a divorced nurse. The four became friends just because Jun thought they’d all get on so introduced Fumi and Akari forming the little quartet of late 30’s ladies. They hang out together and talk about the general kinds of things women talk about – their husbands, jobs, children etc. However, Jun has a secret she hasn’t told the group. She’s in the middle of contesting a divorce from her emotionally abusive husband who refuses to consent, necessitating a long and nasty court battle. When the truth is revealed in an unwise way, it causes a rift in the group and brings the cracks in its foundations closer to the surface. When the gang enjoy one last trip to a hot spring, Jun stays behind and then never comes home. Without their binding thread, will the three women’s relationships to each other and to the other people in their lives be able to survive?
Each of the women in Happy Hour has her own particular sadness. Each in each, they’re all lonely or in some way dissatisfied with the way their lives have turned out. Sakurako married her high school sweetheart, has a nice home, a not unhappy marriage and a teenage son who’s doing OK until he gets himself into a more serious situation. However, her husband believes in a strict division of labour where he takes care of everything outside of the home (i.e. earning the money) and she the inside meaning he has little input into the raising of his son and refuses to help her when she really needs his support. She longs to be noticed again – as a woman, but also as a person outside of “wife” or “mother” which have begun to sound more like job titles or names of appliances rather than warm terms for the most important person in your life.
Fumi’s problem is similarly common – she resents her husband’s interest in another woman. Though Fumi and Takuya look like a model couple, they both work so much that they’re hardly ever together and are in danger of drifting apart. Takuya seems taken with a young novelist he’s working with and though Fumi says she doesn’t have a problem with it because she trusts him, she does and she doesn’t. Matters come to a head first at the hot springs resort where the women are taking a holiday while Takuya escorts Nose, the novelist, as she explores the resort for a series of onsen themed short stories. Later when Nose arrives for a book reading, Fumi’s frustration is palpable as Takuya’s clueless insensitivity continually places her in an awkward position.
Akari’s problems aren’t atypical either as finding herself divorced at 38 she’s the only one in her group of friends without a husband and perhaps worrying about running out of time to find one. She’s the loud mouth of the group, the one who isn’t afraid to speak her mind though she tends to speak without thinking and make the situation worse. However, her brashness is masking a deeper lack of confidence as she worries about being valued both inside and outside of work. Though we’re constantly told how important she is in her working environment both as a steady pair of hands and as a mentor to the younger members of staff, doubt seems to creep into her mind and she finds complements hard to believe.
The person we get to spend the least amount of time with is Jun, whose problems are a little more unusual. Married to a scientist with a cold and logical approach to life, her marriage has turned into a prison sentence with an unrelenting gaoler of a husband. Kohei’s love is selfish to the extreme, he says he loves Jun so he has to keep her even though he knows she doesn’t want him.
Occasionally, the four begin to feel like archetypes in somewhat contrived situations designed to help the film explore the contemporary lives of middle-aged women. Perhaps Jun really did select them for their complementary qualities – a little like a girl group with the fluffy one, the quite one and the feisty one, but every so often it’s a little on the nose. Although, Hamaguchi largely manages to make the extreme running time work for him by giving his characters the necessary breathing space, he fails to reign in key episodes which eventually become tedious. Both the early workshop and later book reading, almost the two axes of the film, play out in essentially real time neither of them managing to justify that decision. Hamaguchi has also inserted a few structural oddities and unresolved side plots such as the spontaneous return of the photograph girl, late stage car accident and intercutting of Jun’s storyline which don’t seem to serve a clear purpose in the narrative and only succeed in adding frustration.
Happy Hour almost justifies its mammoth running time but does undoubtedly stumble at certain stages – notably the book reading which proves just as tedious for the audience in the cinema as it appears to for the audience in the room. Still, it supplies ample room for exploring the everyday lives of its wide-ranging cast and more particularly of its central group of women each of whom, essentially, just want to be seen. Turning in surprisingly pleasing production values for its low budget approach, Happy Hour is an ambitious if not always successful film but even where it fails it’s never less than interesting.