Asako I & II (寝ても覚めても, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

asako I & 2 posterDualities define the perpetually submerged worlds of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour followup Asako I & II (寝ても覚めても, Netemo Sametemo). Waking and sleeping, fantasy and reality, past and present, presence and absence, love and sadness. Asako (Erika Karata), an ordinary young woman of the contemporary era, finds herself in a similar position to many of the heroines of contemporary Japanese literature in that she has no idea what she really wants out of life and is essentially torn between a series of idealised lives snatched from movies and magazines. Yet she is also haunted by a broken heart, arrested in a state of perpetual adolescence thanks to an early disappointment in love in which remains horribly unresolved.

As a university student in Osaka, Asako attends a photo exhibition dedicated to one of the few books put out by legendary Japanese photographer Shigeo Gocho titled “Self and Others”. Fascinated by an eerie picture of two little girls dressed identically, one slightly taller than the other, Asako’s attention is eventually caught by a striking young man. She leaves the exhibition and follows him until he eventually turns and faces her. Firecrackers some teenagers had been struggling to light suddenly explode around his feet. He strides over to her, asks for her name, and then leans in for a kiss – at least, that’s the way he later tells it to a disbelieving friend who points out that “no one meets like that”. An arty type in dungarees and shaggy hair, the young man’s name is “Baku” (Masahiro Higashide) – he uses the character for wheat (his dad was big into grains) but it’s also a homonym for explosion which a is key indication of the unpredictable excitement he comes to represent for Asako as her uni best friend Haruyo (Sairi Ito) attempts to warn her by insisting that Baku is the heartbreaking type and whatever she has with him is destined to end in tears.

Haruyo’s prediction comes to pass when Baku steps out one day to buy some shoes and never returns. A brokenhearted Asako makes her way to Tokyo and begins working a cafe but two and a bit years later, she is stunned to find “Baku” wearing a suit and working in an office. He doesn’t remember her and says his name’s Ryohei, but Asako can’t shake the association which is both attractive and repellent in equal measure. Ryohei is smitten, he felt the connection too, but Asako doesn’t quite know what to do with this unfortunate coincidence.

Events repeat themselves with only mild distortions – Asako and Ryohei attend another Gocho photo exhibition though this time with Asako’s Tokyo best friend, Maya (Rio Yamashita). Rather than a motorcycle accident, Ryohei and Asako find and comfort each other after the 2011 earthquake and eventually become a couple, move in together, and even get a cat. Asako begins to fall for Ryohei, but can’t be sure her love for him isn’t really love for Baku refracted through a different lens. Baku, a man with a wandering heart, once told her he would always return no matter how long it might take. There’s a part of Asako that’s always waiting, held back, afraid to move and unwilling to acknowledge the death of her younger self as immortalised in the image of herself with Baku.

When Haruyo runs into Asako and Ryohei unexpectedly in Tokyo, she gives us our first indication that Ryohei really does look like Baku and the association isn’t just a projection of Asako’s romantic anxieties. Haruyo’s first words to Asako are that she hasn’t changed – they’re intended as a compliment, but Asako bristles. She feels as if she’s moved forward, matured, is preparing to enter a comfortable middle age with Ryohei at her side but deep down she knows she hasn’t. She’s still the naive student pining for a lost love that never cared enough about her to resolve itself. She worries she’s been playacting and that her relationship with Ryohei isn’t “real” even if she cares about him enough to have her feeling guilty for this mild form of betrayal.

Later, offered another possibility, Asako feels as if her life with Ryohei has been like a dream, or perhaps the only waking moment of her life. When Ryohei introduces a work friend to Maya as an excuse to get close to Asako, they watch a video of her performing a scene from Chekhov’s Three Sisters – a play famously about self delusion in which the fierce belief in an impossible future becomes the only thing which makes life possible. The climactic earthquake hits just as Ryohei is preparing to watch Maya perform in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck – the play which lays bare the playwright’s key tenet, that if you take away a man’s life lie you take away his happiness. Ryohei’s friend Kushihashi (Koji Seto) might rip into Maya’s “narcissistic” acting, denigrating her for attention seeking rather than baring her soul on stage, but Asako admires her determination and absolute certainty in her chosen goal, things she herself lacks.

Talked down by the soothing tones of practiced de-escalator Ryohei, Kushihashi is prompted to confess that his outburst was mostly out of jealously, that having given up his dreams of the stage for a conventional salaryman life he resented seeing someone else embrace theirs. Asako can’t decide which “dream” she wants – a life of fireworks and unpredictability with Baku for all the heartbreak it might bring, or one of gentle happiness with the good and kind Ryohei. A series of crises prompt her into making a clear choice – seemingly her first, though it may be too late. Real love is messy, painful, and ugly, but it’s beautiful too once you learn to see through the miasma of self delusion and romantic fantasy.

Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Heaven is Still Far Away (天国はまだ遠い, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2016)

Heaven is still far away still 1Ryusuke Hamaguchi returns to the theme of objects in motion with his haunting short Heaven is Still Far Away (天国はまだ遠い, Tengoku wa Mada Toi). When one thing ends, conventional wisdom insists that something else must begin but real life shows us that that isn’t always the case. For three people attempting to deal with the legacy of an unsolved serial murder case, forward motion has been impeded, or perhaps refracted, and not least for the victim herself who remains a still point in an otherwise turning world.

Mitsuki (Anne Ogawa) tells us that her mother explained to her when she was a child that when you die you go to “heaven”, which is a place beyond the clouds. For Mitsuki, however, heaven still seems so very far off – after all, there are still so many things to experience here on Earth. At present, Mitsuki lives with Yuzo (Nao Okabe) – a strange and blunt young man who has the rather skeevy job of adding mosaics to pornographic videos. One day Yuzo gets a phone call from another young woman, Satsuki (Hyunri), who wants to interview him for a documentary she is making as a graduation project which will focus on her older sister who was murdered 17 years previously. Yuzo didn’t really know Satsuki’s sister but something he did after she died has captured her imagination and Satsuki would like to explore why he did it.

What ensues is a series of odd, concentric conversations as Satsuki tries to articulate her artistic intentions to the grumpy Yuzo who is either a quite a tactless person or one who likes to appear so for various unexplained reasons. Satsuki’s main hope, it seems, is a kind of exercise in emotional excavation. Confused by the way some things can carry on when others end, she wants to wants to mark out the shape her sister cut into the world by finding out how her presence and absence has affected the lives of those around her. For reasons which aren’t immediately clear, she wants to start with Yuzo because, through an accident of fate, he finds himself at the exact intersection of both of these points.

Satsuki asks if Yuzo bears a grudge towards her seeing as his life too has been derailed thanks to his connection with her sister’s life and death. Yuzo replies that he doesn’t – he bears the responsibility for the way his life has turned out, even if it might have been impacted by external events. Satsuki wrestles with trajectories, accepting that her family may have fallen apart on its own but always wondering what might have happened if she had died in her sister’s place, why her sister had to die rather than someone else’s, why parts of her life have also stopped in the wake of her sister’s absence. If Satsuki has “lost” something, did Yuzo “gain” it or did he “lose” too in gaining an additional burden? The only truth is that Mitsuki has become a point of refraction in each of their lives, looking on from the periphery unseen but making her presence felt even in her absence.

Hamaguchi once again makes the everyday seem strange as the past continues to haunt our protagonists, in ways both literal and metaphorical. An eery sense of sadness pervades, yet endings are refused in favour of dualistic circularity. Objects in motion must remain in motion, even if they appear to have stalled. One life refracts another, and absence defines presence. Heaven may still be far away, but it’s there all the same and its presence is felt, even if unseen.

Available to stream worldwide via Le CiNéMa Club until 24th May.

Happy Hour ハッピーアワー ( Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2015)

get.doThere 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 30s 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 quiet one and the feisty one, but every so often it’s a little on the nose. Hamaguchi largely manages to make the extreme running time work for him by giving his characters the necessary breathing space, allowing key episodes the room to develop into deliberate tedium. Both the early workshop and later book reading, almost the two axes of the film, play out in essentially real time, pushing towards a particular kind of abstract realism.

Happy Hour fully justifies its mammoth running time but does undoubtedly stumble at certain stages. 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.