Five-hour Japanese film captures the eerie intimacies of everyday life

Hats off to MOMA for giving an amazing new film – “Happy Hour”, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi – a week-long run, starting today. The film is extraordinary both in its art and in its dimensions: it lasts five hours and seventeen minutes, which is why MOMA only shows it once a day, at 4:30 PM, and why it’s such a hard movie to release at all.

“Happy Hour”, a five-hour film by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, revolves around four women living in Kobe.COURTESY OF RYUSUKE HAMAGUCHI

The very concept of ‘exit’, as opposed to a handful of scattered screenings, is important from a bureaucratic point of view: the film’s availability over a period of seven consecutive days makes it eligible for the year-end review. by review organizations, polls, and (if it were that simple) the Academy, and I’d be shocked if that didn’t end up at the top of my own end-of-year list.

“Happy Hour” is Hamaguchi’s seventh feature film (I did not see the others), and its length is quite justified, even richly and deeply filled. The recent film he most closely resembles is Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret”; Like Lonergan, Hamaguchi is a genius at scene construction, transforming the fierce poetry of a painfully revealing and pugnacious dialogue into a powerful drama supported by a seemingly spontaneous but analytically precise visual architecture. “Happy Hour” is the story of a group of four middle-class women. One of the four, Jun, has been friends with each of the other three, separately, for twenty-five years, and she introduced them to each other and brought them together as a group more recently.

The four live in the city of Kobe. All are thirty-seven years old. Sakurako is married to Yoshihiko, a hapless and overworked bureaucrat, a modern employee’s version of Japanese cinema classics; she stays at home, alongside her stepmother, who lives with them, to raise their teenage son, Daiki. Fumi, an artistic administrator, is married to Takuya, an editor whose work with a young female writer, Kozue, threatens to become personal. Akari, a hard-headed and outspoken nurse, is divorced; in her loneliness, she invests a lot of energy in her friendship with the other three. Jun, who is unemployed, has filed for divorce from her husband, Kohei, a biologist, who opposes it.

The action begins in the simplest of premises: the four friends plan to spend a night together in a nearby spa town and its hot springs. But this trip only takes place halfway through the film. Before arriving there, Hamaguchi sketched – or, rather, sculpted, with an exquisite touch of filigree applied to the heaviest of materials – a deep web of experiences, joining the carefully observed details of the job and the links of tense and resonant friendship with the elusive and tragic mysteries of romantic love. Fumi, who runs a performance space, organized a sort of New Age seminar for some sort of communication guru, whose display goes from a literal balancing act involving chairs to intimate exercises for her ten attendees. . The scene – in which the characters go from passive observation to physical action, and, in the process, actually appear to undergo a spiritual and emotional transformation – lasts half an hour. It’s a tour de force of controlled cinematic energy, as the ordinary staged action rises with a sense of silent miracle to seemingly metaphysical power through shifts in angle, composition, light and simple and amazing atmospheres. Here, as throughout “Happy Hour,” seemingly daily neglectful events reveal their transformative force and lasting effect, unleashing an overwhelming torrent of new memories on the fly.

Akari is deeply affected by her work in a hospital. She is well aware that medical practice is a matter of life and death, and in her harsh approach to a young nurse starting her career, she admits the terror of accidentally injuring a patient who is a staple of the profession. His downright existential attitude towards his work corresponds to his demands towards his three friends; her need for perfect transparency, for absolute and blunt truth, makes her both an ideal and a scourge for those she loves. (The character is played by Sachie Tanaka, whose reaction to a friend’s bitter charge, her neck muscles involuntarily contracting, is one of the performance’s recent highlights, reminiscent of the eroticized twitch of Judy’s eyes. Garland in Vincente Minnelli’s “The Clock.”) Akari is shocked to learn that Jun has filed for divorce and accuses him of keeping the matter a secret. But the extended courtroom scene that follows, that of Jun and Kohei’s divorce hearings, which Jun’s three friends attend as spectators, is one of the most beautiful courtroom scenes ever. I have ever seen, both in the conflicting agony of the process itself and in the emotional manipulations that result from it, on the part of the married couple, their lawyers and the judge.

“Happy Hour” is more than an intimate drama. His spectacularly complex understanding of the details of everyday life, which – as in the courtroom scene – are seemingly linked by powerful cinematic cables to the vast societal structures below, features private lives and a political world, a way of life in which ideas and feelings are dominated by the force of law and the weight of tradition. The underlying, overarching drama of the film is the struggle of these four women to forge their own identity and their own destiny in the face of these powerful social forces. This great achievement is not an accident; it’s an ambition that Hamaguchi embodies in the film itself, in another surprisingly composed and fluid piece, involving Kozue’s reading of his new set of stories, one of which portrays a hot-spring romance where the four women make their brief trip. Kozue’s story – and the Q.&A that follows on stage, and even the post-reading conversation, between Kozue and several of the four friends and their husbands – embodies artistic ambitions, energies, desires and passions. of Hamaguchi on screen while exposing their risks in action.

Throughout the film, Hamaguchi transforms this action into a natural symbol, reminiscent of how Douglas Sirk did it in his romantic fifties melodramas. A train journey and the closing of the doors, a ferry journey passing under bridges, the pointing of a crutch at an intrusive man, a contrast of modern clothes and traditional dresses, a swarm of gray suits at a red light – the physical details of the characters’ lives match perfectly with their very existence, jumping beyond their context to form a world of independent emotional connections and ideas that arise. “Happy Hour”, a resolutely modern work of cinema, delves deeply into the classical traditions of melodrama – as well as its coincidences and its violent contrasts – to rekindle a latent power of large-scale observation through painfully close contact with the agonizing intimacies of contemporary life. life.

Marie A. Evans