By Michael Sicinski

It’s a strange film that calls to mind both Out 1 (1971) and Sex and the City. But Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s Happy Hour is defined by that odd tug between spacious, undirected improvisation on the one hand, and an incident-driven examination of the ups and downs of four women friends on the other. The resulting mix, worked out by Hamaguchi with mostly first-time actors through workshops in Kobe, oscillates between poles that reasonably seasoned viewers might be prompted to consider “cinematic” and “televisual,” even though the very nature of the Happy Hour project makes these descriptors rather inadequate.

One of the key themes of Hamaguchi’s film—and a word that not only features prominently in the dialogue, but jumps out as the Japanese characters use its English-language cognate—is “communication,” and Happy Hour explores several different ways that audiovisual media can depict or describe this basic act. People talk, they fight, and have domestic dramas in a conventional sense, but they also touch, listen, observe, and create. By allowing for space in Happy Hour for these more passive forms of social interaction, Hamaguchi shows what both art cinema and TV dramedies omit, yielding a highly unusual, upper-middlebrow atmosphere for the reception of new ideas.

Happy Hour is a fascinating anomaly. In the Competition lineup at Locarno, it was the longest film by some distance at five hours and 17 minutes. But also, when seen alongside the other more stylized, formally assertive works in the Competition, Happy Hour certainly seems more like high-minded television, perhaps an experimental variation on a conventional Asian soap. Happy Hour is indeed long. But last year’s Golden Leopard went to Lav Diaz for his epic From What Is Before, which is only 21 minutes longer than Happy Hour. If Diaz’s film “feels longer,” this is not only because of Diaz’s preference for extended, fixed-frame shots and Hamaguchi’s more conventional decoupage, but also because of Happy Hour’s tendency to emphasize human psychology and incident, as opposed to Diaz’s more marked interest in the structural determinants of human existence.

In this light, what makes Happy Hour more “like TV” is its patient elaboration of character, and, in particular, its slow but in-depth explication of patterns of relationship and history among its chief protagonists. From the opening scene of a foggy hilltop picnic, Happy Hour quite deliberately introduces its four key characters. Jun (Kawamura Rira) is a quiet, somewhat serious woman, who, even in this early scene, exerts a subtle pull as de facto group leader; Sakurako (Kikuchi Hazuki) is a demure housewife, deferential and nervous; Akari (Tanaka Sachie), a nurse, is the gruff, sardonic, slightly butch member of the group; and Fumi (Mihara Maiko), a manager of an arts space, is the sophisticated, generous, but perhaps silently judgmental friend.

Over the course of the film, we learn a great deal more about them, especially marriages past and present. To Hamaguchi’s great credit, none of these initial impressions ever becomes the sum total of the women’s personalities, nor are the early intimations entirely off-base. Given the depth and seriousness of Happy Hour as an endeavour, the women are not types à la Sex and the City (“I’m such a Charlotte”). But this is partly due to the fact that, unlike popular TV, this film uses its expanded length to propose shared experiences for the four friends that are simultaneously touchstones for later interactions and metaphors for the crises they are facing in their everyday lives.

Though it seems that many of the women’s social events are somewhat standard bourgeois vacation outings, such as a trip to a hot-springs spa resort (the film’s second major event), Fumi’s art shows also serve as a primary anchor. Although Happy Hour doesn’t let us know the extent to which we are witnessing a typical span of time among the women, Hamaguchi structures Happy Hour around three key activities, two of which are events at Fumi’s downtown Kobe venue, interestingly named PORTO. The first and third are highly uncharacteristic of what we usually think of as cinematic material, at least outside the confines of artist-centred documentary. The fact that Hamaguchi devotes so much time to them, and the manner in which he does so, speaks to the filmmaker’s rare and intriguing representation of the place of aesthetic engagement within otherwise ordinary lives.

The first section of Happy Hour is organized around a movement workshop led by Ukai (Shibata Shuhai), an artist-activist who first gained notoriety for unorthodox arrangements of rubble following an earthquake three years prior. His seminar is called “Finding Your Centre,” and begins by balancing a chair on a single fulcrum of its leg at a diagonal pitch. As it turns out, Ukai became a “sculptor” by balancing large pieces of flotsam in similarly confounding ways. For Hamaguchi’s part, he realizes that Ukai’s description of his work will evoke inevitable memories of the Kobe earthquake of 1995, even as it goes understandably unmentioned. Although it would be a crass simplification to think of Happy Hour as a kind of extended, metaphorical observation of the 20th anniversary of the Grand Hanshin quake, all of the film’s characters, from various points in their adulthood, find themselves taking stock, realigning their respective “centres” and finding old interpersonal rifts only worsening in the course of time.

The movement workshop is in some senses a lovely combination of Rivette-style theatrical inquiry and the gentler explorations one might find in the academically inflected self-help projects of Brené Brown. Ukai emphasizes physical communication and group dynamics, with exercises such as having small, and then increasingly larger numbers sit back-to-back, using the others’ weight to stand or, in one of the most significant for Sakurako and Akari, placing one’s head on the other’s abdomen so as to “listen to their guts.” In description, such behaviours sound silly, characteristic of standard theatre trust games, and in reality they aren’t so far removed from this. But Hamaguchi permits the seminar to take up nearly an hour of screen time. His organization of space, his intimacy, and, in particular, his articulation of small, private reactions of performers with the broader group dynamic, suggests a strange hybrid of Rivette and Rohmer, without ever settling down into the lock-groove rigour of either one.

We are even privy to the dinner afterward, where Fumi and her PORTO associate take guest artist Ukai out for an obligatory meal. Akari, Jun, and Sakurako come along, as do several of Ukai’s old school friends. We see that the Zen guru is a bit of a cad, and learn more about Akari’s job (she’s hamstrung by bureaucracy and fear of malpractice) and Jun reveals that she is in the process of divorcing her cellular-biologist husband Kohei (Zahana Yoshitaka), a fact only Sakurako already knows. As usual, Fumi is taciturn, but Akari feels betrayed by the deception-by-omission.

Earlier in the scene we learn that Akari is a divorcée whose husband cheated on her; Jun explains that by way of planning her split from Kohei, she’s hooked up with a younger guy. Jun’s divorce court hearing, which they all attend shortly after the dinner, creates further group disruption. The camera is fixed on Jun in the witness box, her friends behind her in the gallery in deep focus. She explains that Kohei never hit her or psychologically abused her, but through his coldness “murdered the best part of her.” Kohei is contesting the divorce, and since Jun has admitted to adultery, her petition has little chance of succeeding. Hamaguchi’s centrality of Jun in this section—the emotional fulcrum of Happy Hour—will serve as a pivotal formal moment as well.

The second section at the hot springs becomes the final moment of closeness between the foursome. Each of the women is experiencing problems in her own private life. A key sequence in this central section of Happy Hour involves the four friends sitting in robes playing mahjong. There is an openness among them during this shared moment, as a general bitch session about work and husbands gives way to a more nuanced, wistful reflection on their lives. As women in their 30s, they have many years ahead of them, and yet none are satisfied. But Jun’s decisive action to intervene in her own unhappiness creates a kind of shockwave through the group, forcing each of them to take account of their own resignation and passivity. Jun offers a feminist consciousness-raising by example.

And so, at the mahjong table, the women find themselves wanting to assert new identities, or to somehow break with their past selves. The friends take turns introducing themselves to one another as if they are meeting for the first time. In a lovely formal coup, Hamaguchi departs from the casual editing that has up to now characterized the mahjong scene. Here, he moves to direct address, frontal close-ups, and straight cuts—the cinematic language of Ozu. If Jun, Akari, Fumi, and Sakurako are indeed stripping their identities down to their core, or trying to begin again, Hamaguchi accompanies this starting over with a return to one of the fundamental syntactic moves of Japanese cinema. But these straight-on close-ups also recall the frontal isolation of Jun in the witness box during the divorce hearing. Now, each of the women is similarly isolated, subject to her own “trial.”

Key to Happy Hour’s conclusion is the fact that Jun, claiming to want to stay on longer at the hot springs, separates from the other women when they head home. Hamaguchi’s tracking shot from the back of the bus, with Akari, Fumi, and Sakurako disappearing from view, provides a hint of what’s to come. Since Kohei will not grant her the divorce, Jun has decided to move away without telling anyone where she’s going. This provokes the expected strain on the remaining three women, all of whom originally met through Jun. But to make matters worse, Kohei calls them together to press them for information. He informs them that Jun is pregnant, and makes it clear that he will search for and essentially stalk Jun. Fumi and Sakurako, meanwhile, suspect one another of knowing more about Jun’s whereabouts than they’re letting on (they don’t), while Akari feels sufficiently betrayed as to want to wash her hands of Jun, and the others.

As the foursome dissolves, alliances break down and the fallout of Jun’s divorce results in ruptures in the friends’ identities, well beyond what they might have anticipated at the hot springs. The central event in this third act is a fiction reading by Yuzuki Nose, co-organized by Fumi and Takuya. While this is the extended art event that brings most of the principal characters together, most of the bonds between them have already been stretched to the breaking point. Fumi resents having to listen to Yuzuki’s rather precious, impressionistic writing, and is consumed with watching Takuya for signs of attraction to the demure young author. Ukai has been scheduled to conduct the Q&A following Yuzuki’s reading but bails. He hits on Fumi in the hall and, striking out, uses the exact same line on Akari outside while smoking. She goes for it, and off they go. In a bizarre twist, Kohei, having been involved with a minor literary event of Takuya’s, comes up from the audience to conduct the Q&A on the spot. Even more improbably, he does a fantastic job, drawing out the latent phenomenological elements in Yuzuki’s jejune, self-involved prose.

Like Ukai’s movement seminar, Yuzuki’s reading is a highly unusual cinematic event. Hamaguchi allows it to play out in nearly real time, and it zeroes in on the fundamental crises facing the women of Happy Hour. More importantly, it does so in oblique ways. Yuzuki’s short fiction is comprised of a series of portraits of spas and hot springs, detailing both her immediate responses to the environment and her sense of her own body in relation to those around her. While the descriptions Yuzuki provides are unspectacular, they speak to the ongoing theme of communication that Hamaguchi explored as a sidelong metaphor, with Ukai’s demand for expanded touch or the women’s desire at the hot spring to shed old self-conceptions and emerge renewed.

When I characterized Happy Hour as perhaps being an upper-middlebrow work of art, I was trying to make an effort to reconcile some of its seemingly incompatible impulses. However, these impulses are only at odds based on our standard assumptions about how art functions, or even what might count as a transformative aesthetic experience. A movement-based seminar promising to help us “find our centre” should in fact realign our way of being in the world; spa treatments at natural hot springs are supposed to be “revitalizing;” fiction about the experience of female embodiment ought to provide “a new way of seeing,” as Kohei says of Yuzuki’s work. In fact, most of the time art lets us down. But in Happy Hour—which is based on a series of experiments with non-professionals—Hamaguchi proposes a life-world in which the experiences that are really supposed to rearrange our daily identities actually do.

After all, by the end of the film, Jun is but a memory, Fumi and Sakurako are both requesting divorces from their useless husbands, and Akari appears to be less bitter and lonely, fully embracing the primacy of her career. Admittedly, there is something a bit pat in these concluding scenes. Happy Hour’s final 45 minutes are too incident-driven, a squaring of accounts. But ultimately Hamaguchi’s long-haul approach yields surprising emotional dividends. That’s because we are seeing the gradual accumulation of pressure along active interpersonal faults and, despite their genuine resistance—comfort, shame, depression, self-doubt—something must give. These women simply have to move.

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