Long Time Coming
by Nick Pinkerton

Happy Hour
Dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan, no distributor

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour has a rambly, digressive quality that belies the precision of its construction. After an opening that establishes its core ensemble cast of four 37-year-old female friends, the movie is pulled hither and thither by each of their individual stories, intersecting again only to break off into different—but often curiously parallel—routes. It’s a bit like a straight, open stretch of highway that suddenly dissolves into a mess of seemingly aimless footpaths, meandering about and occasionally crisscrossing, each one flecked with distracting and alluring spurs. (Most of the supporting parts are every bit as interesting as the leads here.) You weave along the footpaths, in due time forgetting all thought of returning to the main road, and as the day closes, you’re left at a dead end, staring at the sea.

The title doesn’t seem very descriptive at first; pleasure is hardly Happy Hour’s presiding emotion, and it runs a slender 317 minutes—that’s five-and-a-half hours for those who don’t want to do the math. If you remember that for every stolen happy hour you still have the other twenty-three to contend with, however, you’re getting closer to the film’s worldview. It begins with one such moment of escape, a daytime outing by the central quartet, giddily riding a funicular to picnic above the port city of Kobe. Arrived at the top, however, they’re forced by rain to take shelter under a gazebo, with the city below rendered invisible in the haze. “This resembles our future,” says one, Fumi, which starts them on a discussion of the prospects of women at their time in life. The city is ugly, and so are the credit fonts. The outlook isn’t so good.

In due time we get to know each of the four. Fumi (Maiko Mihara) works at an arts space, and is married to a dour literary editor, Takuya (Hiroyuki Miura), who wears the long hair of a bohemian but shows none of the bohemian’s joie de vivre. Akari (Sachie Tanaka), who sports a bob and has a toothsome grin that sometimes recalls that of Haruko Sugimura, is the lone divorcée of the gang, and works as a nurse—a job that’s a source of terrible pressure, she confesses, because of the grim realities of Japan’s large aging populace. This demographic shift is reflected in the group; shy Sakurako (Hazuki Kikkuchi) is the only one of them with a child, a teenage boy nearing the end of high school, and for the boy’s sake she’s subject to the whims of her overworked, sexless husband. Sakurako has been friends since junior high with Jun (Rira Kawamura), who’s the common thread between the friends. Jun also longs for motherhood, though she’s long past the point of irreconcilable differences with her own man, Kohei (Zohana Yoshitaka), an impassive biologist who specializes in fertilized egg development.

Jun, it transpires, has initiated divorce proceedings, and the fact that she has shared this information with Sakurako before telling the other two will become Happy Hour’s first major point of conflict when it finally arises 80-odd minutes in—when many other respectable features would be into the closing credit crawl. This revelation comes at a communal drinking session following a workshop organized by Fumi and led by a kind-of performance artist, Ukai (Shuhei Shibata), who gained a measure of notoriety for improbably balancing debris on the beach in Tōhoku after the earthquake, and is now trying to establish himself as a guru, teaching people to “listen to [their] center” and locate their own inner balance through nonverbal communication exercises. (It is worth briefly noting here that Happy Hour was apparently developed by Hamaguchi and his cast in a workshop environment.) Ukai’s class, which includes attempted psychic communications and lots of non-sexual touching, takes up around a half-hour of screen time, and along with the outing that follows makes one of the film’s two major set pieces. The other is a reading in the same space by one of Takuya’s authors, 25-year-old Yuzuki Nose (Ayaka Shibutani), who recites a crummy, callow short story that seems to give credence to Fumi’s suspicions that there is something less than professional about the relationship between her husband and the young writer, followed by yet another post-event celebration that turns sour.

In more than one way these counterbalanced scenes reflect each other. Both draw most of the dramatis personae together before following them off on their individual trajectories again—the last third of the movie takes place in the immediate aftermath and fallout of the reading, which leaves no marriage fully intact—and the language and ideas being explored by Ukai and Nose, the film’s disruptive creative types, aren’t entirely dissimilar. Nose, recounting the diverse nude forms seen in a bathhouse visit in the climax of her story, muses “how our bodies are just the combinations of various body parts,” a random mix-and-match, while Ukai instructs his pupils to a heightened awareness of their physical selves, leading them in exercises that encourage them to merge into cooperative organic units. Even Kohei’s research into cell division seems to be guided by some of the same questions about the origin (and limitations) of the individual.

One of Ukai’s exercises has him guiding his students in finding their axis, then pairing them so that they can seek correspondence, instructing, “Adjust your center line with your partner’s line.” These moments of alignment—and the vast sea of disharmony in which they placidly bob along—are crucial to Happy Hour. In showing harmonious connection, Hamaguchi makes sparing use of striking direct-address shot-reverse shots, in much the manner of Eugène Green, as when Sakurako locks eyes with a potential suitor from across a table while he recites the unhappy story of his divorce. The most noteworthy example of this comes flush between the film’s two big event scenes—appropriately enough, very near to the film’s center—when the quartet take an overnight trip together to the nearby hot springs at Arima and, facing one another after a game of Japanese mahjong, reintroduce themselves, individually locking their eyelines in turn.

In such moments, Happy Hour fairly radiates with quiet directorial confidence. Accordingly, it was a prizewinner at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, and made enough of a splash when screened at New Directors/New Films to be invited for a weeklong run at the Museum of Modern Art. Though I suppose that I am not in a minority in being unfamiliar with Hamaguchi’s previous work, he has apparently been making both documentary and fiction films since 2007. Happy Hour is an outlier among his listed credits for its remarkable length. Shot on a shoestring with unknown actors—it’s the lone listed film credit for its four leads—it’s a movie that’s almost unimaginable without the virtually bottomless “magazine” of the digital camera. As Lav Diaz and others have of late discovered, feats of extreme runtime are one way to make one’s work stand out above a crowded festival field, but Hamaguchi doesn’t much go in for long static takes, preferring to break even fairly staid dialogue scenes into a plenitude of diverse set-ups. Several commentators have noted the similarity between the scenes at Ukai’s workshop and the rehearsal exercises in Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou (1969) or Out 1 (1971), but instead of Rivette’s unbroken real-time sequence shots, Hamaguchi sections things up through variegated coverage, building up multiple mini-dramas, fissures of tension and little jolts of attraction.

Hamaguchi’s interest is less in “sculpting with time” than in giving his characters the space in which to unhurriedlyreveal themselves in the roundin this respect Happy Hour is closer to the usual terrain of the television miniseries than any of the above-mentioned mega-movie suspects. And sure enough, the grace note scenes that occur when the film cedes the stage to its rich cast of secondary characters, letting them show themselves in a wholly different light, are where it comes closest to making a claim for greatness: Kohei, heretofore a robotic tight-ass seen sitting impassively through a divorce proceeding, reappears to lead a sensitive, touchingly awkward Q&A after Nose’s reading; Ukai sheds his New Age skin to reveal the horndog lounge lizard beneath to Akari, whose ongoing tutelage of a younger nurse later reaches a poignant conclusion; or the privileged moments between Jun and Sakurako’s self-absorbed teenaged son, or with a strange young woman she meets on the bus from Arima, who tours the country looking for waterfalls.

Happy Hour leaves plenty of room for these unexpected narrative swerves, maintaining the appearance of spontaneity within the blimp hangar dimensions of its narrative architecture, while its style is an admixture of formalist artifice and realist signifiers, of the cinematic and the televisual. Nondiegetic music is kept at a minimum, mostly disposable scraps of complaining strings and downbeat piano doodling. The film’s lighting is naturalistic, never prettified or softened, and periodically we get extremely backlit scenes plunged into near darkness, as in a key moment when Kohei arrives at Jun’s bachelorette apartment to beg for a second chance and, while cast in silhouette, receives a glass of iced tea on his scalp for the trouble. There is a diagrammatic rigor to the way that Hamaguchi constructs scenes, though he occasionally throws his schematics to the wind, as with a strange handheld shot from a cameraphone POV during a group photo. Dialogue is mostly delivered in an even, measured voice, with speakers waiting their turn to weigh in, and the film’s presiding tone is that of an unusual calm, with scant sense of a larger social world buzzing just on the edge of the frame. The bars and restaurants of Happy Hour seem unoccupied by anyone other than the featured characters, and, with the same small pool of characters popping up, one gets the impression that Kobe has a population of not more than one hundred souls.

As character recur, so do incidents: The film’s back end is a domino tumble of marital breakdowns and nasty accidents (a car crash and two stairwell spills), which I choose to take not as manifestations of directorial laziness or desperation but as choices keeping with the film’s running themes of symmetry and symbiosis—once in sync, these women can’t help but stay on the same path towards heedless independence.

Which brings us to that final view of the sea at the film’s closing, an “Ah, but life goes on” shrug, a gesture which feels insufficient after so much time passed—though sticking landings is hard under the best of conditions. There’s a pretty short list of folks who can turn the trick following three-plus hours, after which point harmoniousness of form often takes a backseat to other qualities. But as the double-album still has to be measured on tunes, so the big goddamn movie has to be measured on scenes, and Happy Hour’s got ’em, many detailed to a fault: Sakurako walking with her mother-in-law and then her son away from a family shame, he dragging his unwieldy bicycle down the steps to the train station; or Akari hopping on a broken ankle through a packed nightclub where the average attendee is fifteen or twenty years her junior. It’s a film that wears its runtime lightly, which generally is meant as a compliment, though it also doesn’t leave any feeling of a strain afterwards, and there’s something that doesn’t quite sit right about a work of this size that doesn’t tax a viewer a bit more—committed to being an epic of minutiae, it sputters and stalls when shifting registers towards the tragic. Still, Happy Hour commands respect through the audacity of its conception and scale, and it earns affection through its humane attentiveness. Best of all, it’s a movie where it’s rarely obvious what’s around the corner, and gives hope that Hamaguchi’s next move will be as unpredictable, another leap forward—or to the side.