Happy Hour ハッピーアワー (2015)

Happy Hour   

Happy Hour Film Poster
Happy Hour Film Poster

Happy Hour ハッピーアワー(2015)

ハッピーアワー「Happi- Awa-」 

Release Date: December, 2015

Seen at the London Film Festival

Running Time: 317 mins.

Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Writer: Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Tadashi Nohara, Tomoyuki Takahashi (Screenplay)

Starring:  Rira Kawamura, Hazuki Kikuchi, Maiko Mihara, Sachie Tanaka, Shuhei Shibata, Ami Kugai, Sachiko Fukunaga, Reina Shiihashi,

Website IMDB

Happy Hour is a film unlikely to get licensed in the West. With a five hour seventeen minute running time dedicated to showing the lives of four middle-aged women, distributors might think that the film is likely to test the patience of many and for some in the audience I was with when I saw it at the London Film Festival that proved to be true. For viewers with patience this is less the endurance test it sounds like and more an example of a character-driven story rich in small incidents and details that build up to show lives of three-dimensional characters whose stories are quietly compelling. While slow it paints a fascinating picture of contemporary Japan with a little social commentary added.

Happy Hour tracks the friendship between Fumi (Maiko Mihara), a cultured and elegant gallery curator always in fashionable attire, Akari (Sachie Tanaka), a nurse and a fiery character with a blunt and brave demeanour that matches her strong physicality, Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), a beautiful and demure housewife who dresses plainly but catches the eye of others, and Jun (Rira Kawamura), a kitchen assistant and the most outgoing of the group.

When we first meet them they are on a daytrip. They have taken a cable car to the top of a mountain overlooking their home city of Kobe but their view is shrouded by rain and mist. Despite this, just being together is clearly fun for the girls. Away from their families and responsibilities they talk about anything and everything over their bento lunches and sandwiches, revealing dissatisfaction with relationships.

Happy Hour Mountain Trip

Sakurako is a dedicated housewife but would like more appreciation from her family made up of a stoic and loyal husband named Yoshihiko who works for the city and leaves all family matters to her, a secretive teenage son named Daiki who is dating a pretty girl at his school, and a mother-in-law who has recently moved in but proves hard to read.

Akari is well-respected in her hospital and often looked to as a source of strength by friends and colleagues, especially a new junior nurse who is a bit of a klutz. She works hard and she likes to play hard but since her divorce she feels she lacks a man and romance in her life and wants some passion.

Fumi is concerned by her husband Takuya’s lack of deep communication. They do small-talk well but she feels a distance growing between them despite the fact that they live comfortably together and she helps him by opening up her gallery space to showcase new authors he works with as an editor.

Jun doesn’t complain too much. Her husband Kohei is a scientist and she seems to be happy. However, she has a secret and that is she hasn’t told anybody about the divorce proceedings she has launched against her husband. Tired with his passionless demeanour she seeks a way out. Desperate to confide in someone she chooses to tell Sakurako, a friend since junior high. Jun’s divorce and the decision to tell just one of the group sparks a series of events and emotional upheavals that leads to the disappearance of Jun, the one who brought the four women together and forces the four to face the problems in their own lives, all of it based on the absence of love. It seems that all they have is each other and their friendship.

Happy Hour Film Image 2

At the start of the film, they are four firm friends facing the future together, 37-year-old ladies with desires and fears but each supporting the other. By the end of the film with the friendship at risk and the support possibly waning, the four women are bringing about changes they would never have contemplated before and the audience has been taken through these dramatic incidents by following director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s lead which is established through assured skill and good performances from the lead actors.

The first question to answer is how does the long running time feel? I am sure that for some it will be a turn off especially with the small-scale nature of the tale but many people watching this will probably be aware of the type of film they are going to see. It is one that slowly takes its time to display the lives of the characters and allow the audience to access their emotions through showing the minutiae as well as the major events. I found that although the film plays out in what feels like real time it never drags, every second containing dialogue or acting or something that helps build a detailed depiction of what these character’s lives are like. There are always things to contemplate. Everything seen and heard on screen is crucial for understanding the gradual shifts in character’s perspectives as they find that they want more emotionally from life.

Shot over what seems to be the course of weeks and edited in a way that favours long takes and calmness, this is rather like watching real life unfold. We are embedded in the lives of these characters from the major dramas to the small things. This is a feeling enhanced by the filmmakers realistically grounding the action in the little scenes that may normally get cut from a film – an Yukihiko giving Jun a lift to a train station that turns awkward when they talk about Sakurako, Jun’s bus ride which includes a conversation with a young woman, Fumi fleeing a disastrous dinner date with her husband and his literary protégé through busy streets and along lonely walkways. This smallness and slowness is not often problematic or boring. Scenes go on for what feels like naturally long lengths of time before coming to the end at just the right moment where you get the sense that something has been achieved and your time has not been wasted.

Happy Hour Rira Kawamura, Hazuki Kikuchi, Maiko Mihara, Sachie Tanaka,

The actual story is fairly basic and the characters have a slight archetypal feeling to them but their development is interesting and they become complex and unpredictable, like watching real people grappling with emotional problems that beset us all. The fallout from Jun’s revelations leads to a fracturing of relationships, the splintering of personas’ and the revelation of extreme alienation that the women feel from their loved ones and their growing desire to be desired and to be loved. There is a little social commentary as we see that the four women have lost their individuality in the eyes of others and those closest to them neglect their emotional and physical needs. The lack of communication and being stripped of their individual qualities by their families and friends has left the characters feeling somewhat hollow and it is interesting to watch them deal with this emotion and overcome it. They do so by trying to harness the primal energy or awakening the love inside of themselves and others and this leads to some wild moments where they break away from life. This is made more potent by the constant immersion we feel thanks to the deliberately slow running time.

This feeling of believability is something helped by the actors who are mostly non-professionals. Ryusuke Hamaguchi has drawn out good performances from cast members who are taking on their first acting role in a feature film. The four women at the heart of the story have seemingly formed a strong bond rather quickly and look like true friends on screen. The dialogue that they speak to each other rings true with fluctuating emotions they convey and don’t as they negotiate helping each other and protecting their friendship without giving in to anger and selfishness – and that’s not always a battle they win. This spices up every encounter the girls have with each other and adds dramatic impetus to the film.

The most charismatic characters are Akari and Jun. Sachie Tanaka as Akari, the nurse whose tough exterior and garrulous nature creates comedy as she butts heads with more reserved character but this covers up a sensitive side. The other shining light in the film is Rira Kawamura as Jun, the mischievous dark horse of the group and the most independent woman of the bunch. She is the glue that binds everyone together and despite coming across as weak at first, the audience will grow to love her and miss her after her disappearance much like her friends do.

Happy Hour Film Image 3

A special mention should go out to Shuhei Shibata as Kei Ukai and Reina Shiihashi as Kozue Nose, two of the young characters who change the lives of the women. Shibata plays Ukai as the ultimate chancer with a silver-tongue. From the word go, both the audience and the women zero in on how much of a flake he is but the man does have charisma and whenever he is on screen the sparks fly. Reina Shiihashi is plays the novelist Kozue as a naturally beautiful but ultra-cute woman who is intelligent but deceptively shy since she is capable of brave acts like staking out her emotions to the man she has fallen for.

The people in this film are subject to sympathetic treatment from the script and visuals so it is very easy to engage with it emotionally.

There is always something to catch the eye in Yoshio Kitagawa’s cinematography and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s direction, something always helps symbolise and help bring out the story and inner feelings of the characters. There is the use of close-ups and extreme close-ups that the filmmakers use to make the audience study the characters more during dinner party conversations and confrontations so we in the audience, with knowledge of what characters think and believe can see how it affects their every physical aspect.

Indeed, the film’s aesthetic is a mostly unfussy one which captures the mundane aspects of urban life so we can appreciate the characters who exist in them – the bland but ordered streets, overpasses, clubs, cafes’ of the everyday Kobe the women know all too well and find stifling. Then there are the shots and sounds that give a new meaning and energy to the characters, the spectacular sights that jolt them (and some in the audience, most probably) from their stupor. This is especially true when the women are challenging their societal roles, the expectations of others and striking out into new territory or are just together, out and about doing their own thing and being independent of those around them – a woman riding a ferry alone as it slowly motors underneath a jaw-droppingly huge bridge and the camera tilts to capture the sight, a jaunt the four women take to the more beautiful and relaxing town of Arima with its hills studded with tree groves, winding paths, and waterfalls.

Happy Hour Film Image

Ultimately, the film builds dramatic momentum from all of the character interactions and details and it culminates in a low-key climax where you know that their lives have changed forever and questions about the friendship remain but not in the way you expect. The film conveys the vagaries of life pretty well and the open ending is fitting. Whether it is satisfying will be up to the viewer to decide. It worked for me.

Movie-goers in the West have long complained about the lack of films about women with strong roles and detailed stories. Perhaps these film fans live in a mono-lingual world because Japanese and Korean filmmakers cater for the female market with a range of titles that span genres and there is a growing movement of female filmmakers who would put Hollywood and Europe to shame for the wealth of talent they have and stories they create. Happy Hour is a good example. It presents us with complex portraits of real women, three-dimensional characters and not stereotypes. The emotions are universal and believable. It provides a fascinating and profound story that draws its strength from revelling in the everyday details and actions that make up real life and thus gives us insight into lives as lived in contemporary Japan. Isn’t that one of the strongest aspect of films? That we can live and understand other lives?

4/5

I’ve overdone it with this review (the first in the English language as far as I can tell). I concede that this will not be a film for everyone. At times even my patience was strained and I did wonder whether I should have opted to watch the more entertaining sounding Yakuza Apocalypse (2015) but I ended up appreciating it. At times I felt like it could be a counter-point to something like Tokyo Sonata (2009), albeit less artful and ultimately satisfying. The film plays at the Leeds International Film Festival.

Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has made waves with some documentaries and his short film, Touching the Skin of Eeriness (available to view legally online) and now he is back with a five hour drama about four women in the city of Kobe. It’s a prize-winning film, the four lead actors walked away with the best acting prize at the Locarno Film Festival earlier this year.

I’ll write something about the film Taksu for Gigan magazine at some point.

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10 thoughts on “Happy Hour ハッピーアワー (2015)

  1. I loved the exterior shots, long drawn out shots of rivers, waterfalls, roads and seeing the sea drop off over the horizon. I liked the core story, showing tumultuous relationships with friends and their partners.

    I hated the editing…or the lack of editing, I felt that the book reading was unnecessary long, either cut it short or if they really wanted the book reading in, compliment it with some of that beautiful Arima scenery, when talking about the train journey, show it, when talking about the rivers and slopes and the golden hot springs themselves, show them! Showing a woman at the centre of the screen with a plain background offset only by the occasional shot of the audience for (what at least felt like) 40 minutes was tedious! I appreciate that they showed someone in the audience clearly getting bored, I appreciate they were trying to create realism, I appreciate that it was asked if Kozue Nose intended read the story in such a monotone way during the Q&A but I got the idea 10 minutes in.

    By the time the book reading started, I felt that the interesting parts of the film were over, aside from some night time motorway shots and the final rooftop scene we never got another visually interesting shot again (was the ferry scene before or after book reading?)

    I understand that they are amateur actors, throughout the film I could tell that some of it was improvised but key scenes were scripted, the difference in acting was jarring, the scripted scenes felt robotic not just Kohei who was clearly supposed to be robotic (I imagine because he’s a weak actor). The stand out actor Jun, was gone way too early and it was sad (for me) that she never came back, even for the sake of realism she should have come back, if just to ease some of that book reading tedium that I couldn’t shake right up ’til the end.

    I think that if I had walked out during the book reading, I would’ve seen the best of the film.

    Pre book reading:
    Pretty visuals, Interesting character development, clever use of certain amateur actors’ acting weaknesses into character traits.

    3.5 out of 5

    Post book reading:
    Dull visuals, dragging dialogue, lost momentum.

    1 out of 5.

    1. The visuals were always interesting and held a message even when they didn’t seem to say much.

      Potential spoilers in this reply

      When you make those suggestions of intercutting scenes from Arima into the book reading it makes a lot of sense in keeping the pace of the film lively. Kozue was giving a story filled to the brim with details so they could have showed the hot springs, the way she appreciated things like the light on the train journey, and other things she viewed on her research trip. However, was the purpose of focussing our view of the book reading to make us get a taste of what other characters in the room were feeling – not just the bored and sleeping ones?

      That long running talk which has us focussed on Kozue and watching her was designed to put us in the shoes of Fumi who has to stand in public in her own gallery and maintain a facade of patience and appreciation while overseeing an event where her husband’s latest discovery is on stage reading a story that pokes at all of her uncertainties about his fidelity. There’s nothing to distract her from this young woman (no props, nothing to catch the eye, a white background and the source of Fumi’s misery in front of it) who is very beautiful, very intelligent, and also very interested in Fumi’s husband. She has to endure the spectacle with her emotions building up and also a close friend who also harbours suspicions and can see parallels between the story being told and what has transpired in real life. With nothing much to distract from Kozue’s presence on stage and Fumi’s husband being so enthralled by the girl, it keeps us firmly in the event it gave a taste of how uncomfortable and embarrassing the whole thing must have been for Fumi, effectively trapped in that room with a threat to her current lifestyle and uncertainties over the future, which explains the resulting fallout after.

      I also think that the book reading was drawn out for so long to mix the drama and comedy – the people falling asleep and looking bored – and I wrote notes about the endless descriptions Kozue was giving and how I was reacting to it. I have been to/worked events like this and those varying reactions and the environments ring true. When Kohei takes over the Q&A it was funny at first but then it became heart-breaking and painful because you could see Kohei was struggling to come to terms with his feelings for Jun who wants to escape while the others who knew him silently judged.

      Depending upon who you are, there’s very little more embarrassing being in the same room as an ex or a love rival who seems to have won.

      I felt that the performances were full of the liveliness and awkwardness and rote speech and actions that pepper everyday interactions. The scripted scenes you write about weren’t bad acting but a delivery of the listlessness and indifference that the characters actually feel for their partners and life which isn’t always fun to watch, I guess. Sometimes it’s really hard to care or convey how much you really do care so you fall back on familiar phrases or deliver things with a lifeless energy just to get the day over with. The robotic nature of Kohei in particular seemed to suggest he’s condemned to being loveless which was truly sad even if he recognises his faults although perhaps it’s also the limit of the actor’s ability. This is a story about needing love and recognition and there’s a lack of it in the lives of the characters as demonstrated by the dialogue.

      Like you say, it’s all for realism but it also puts us in the shoes of the characters.

      The ferry scene was before the reading and it’s the last time we see Jun which the filmmakers did deliberately to leave a hole in the narrative that both the characters and the audience will feel. She’s escaping from her situation so a return wouldn’t be feasible for her to return since the husband can check phone records etc. The group’s friendship is at its greatest risk with this event and we feel it.

      Thanks for the reply! You gave an interesting reading of the film.

      1. You say it puts us into the shoes of the characters, I think the long running time and the drifting of the main story does a disservice to them!

        I understood why Jun went and never came back, I understand it was to leave a hole in the group, as I said for the sake of realism she should have come back into the film, not necessarily to Kobe, it could’ve been a shot of her pushing a pram, looking content, after all it was about the four women, each woman had an arc, I felt hers was incomplete.

        “I have been to/worked events like this and those varying reactions and the environments ring true.”

        Absolutely! But 10 minutes of it would’ve been sufficient to convey all the messages necessary and cause cinema audiences to experience it.

        I’m not saying cut it to the bone but some of it needed to be dropped.

        If it was wanted so badly, then he needed to forsake realism, there’s no reason not to! More angles, more shots of the audience, it’s texture, no matter how interesting a book reading is, your eyes would never solidly stick to the speaker, if it was supposed to be from Fumi and the husband’s perspective, the camera should have been a wide angle shot behind the heads of the audience, they weren’t at the front of the audience after all.

        I can go to a book reading tomorrow if I really wanted to. Anyway, they forsook realism by saying that Fumi’s husband didn’t hear the story! He’s the editor! He should know the story inside and out! That was a very awkward way to force Kohei into the position of chairing the Q&A so they aren’t against forsaking realism for the story, plus most of the real discussion happened after the book reading in the bar where Kohei asked Kozue about her love life.

      2. I didn’t see it as a drifting of the main story but the inciting incident that forces Fumi to drop her social mask. Like life, it’s messy.

        Jun didn’t have to come back for the story to still work. The fact we had no idea we she went added to the sense that she had taken such a drastic measure, gone to ground, and there is no easy resolution for any of the women involved and it follows the open ended nature of each character – they have to make their own way now. People do just disappear like that for whatever reason. For Jun, she had to escape and she does so, proving that she’s the bravest of the group and the one more in touch of her emotions earlier on. Maybe it would have been satisfying to see her in a new environment with her baby but that ending might have been too trite when she’s taken a massive risk and the future is uncertain. That image of her alone on the ferry is very striking!

        I think, based on this discussion, the Q&A is going to be the main sticking point for an audience. I was into the whole thing and appreciated the mirroring of the events in the story Kozue created and the film. There was enough movement and action to keep my attention and there were shots of Fumi and her husband, Fumi watching him, the husband looking at on in awe at Kozue’s reading.

        As far as he, the editor, not knowing what Kozue was going to come up with, throughout the run-up to Arima he said he was going to allow her the freedom to do the research and write something out. As far as I was concerned it was like the test run of one of a number of short stories and Kozue got pulled up on how it didn’t work by members of the audience. We eventually get to that awful moment in the restaurant because the characters have had to endure this reading/Q&A and I felt like I understood how they were feeling and why they were reacting because of the way it was presented. Cuts to different things may have taken me out of the moment.

  2. Hayley

    I started to flag a couple of times but oddly I didn’t feel the length; when it got to the end I actually thought “oh, was that really five hours?!”. I’m quite a passive person though, and not great with judging time so that might say more about me than the film. I enjoyed it while I was watching it but the more I think about it the more flaws I come up with. Still, an ambitious and largely well put together piece.

    There is another, though less expansive, review of the film from Locarno on Mubi https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/locarno-2015-day-9 which is where I first heard of it

    1. I’m pretty patient but a dull film will drag and I will feel it – some recent splatter films I watched come to mind – so I was satisfied to find I took in the whole experience and engaged with it rather than just looking at the screen and waiting for the film to end. I like the ambition shown by the filmmakers and I think getting those performances from non-professionals was great. The visuals were also impressive.

      I didn’t check that review. I searched online for Happy Hour 2015 to get the IMDB page and found more entries for other films because that’s such a ubiquitous phrase so of course others will use it as a title. Whilst in work yesterday I did consider ways of cutting the length of the review.

  3. RE: Length.
    I think it was Siskel who said it — The rule is “a good movie is never long enough, and a bad movie is never short enough”

    … also I could look at these magnificent faces forever.

    … horror movies … not so much anymore
    : )

    1. I love that quote! Thanks for telling it!

      Some people do have a problem with the final hour but I thought the film felt just right and I could imagine it going on. In fact, I almost expected it to keep going just before the credits rolled.
      .
      The four actors playing the friends did a really good job, which is why they won the acting award at Locarno. They are all talented and beautiful and I hope we get to see them in more films!

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