Happy Hour ハッピーアワー(2015)
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.