Written by Varun Ramadhyani
“If there’s one quality that separates John Cassavetes’s filmmaking from almost everybody else’s, it’s the density of detail in the storytelling.” -Kent Jones “The War At Home”.
If you’ve been paying any attention to the film festival circuit during the year 2021, you’ve probably come across the name Ryusuke Hamaguchi. And if you haven’t, well then you almost certainly will in the coming weeks.
A breakout year for the contemporary Japanese director, Hamaguchi took the festival circuit by storm with not just one, but two (!) films. These films, Drive My Car, and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, played to acclaim while securing both US and international distribution.
Previous to this, the director initially tapped into the scene with a 5 and half hour monstrosity, Happy Hour, that nearly exhausts the 5 main characters' interior and emotional lives, as they try to make sense of, and establish some sort of meaning in their own lives. From there, he completed work on a tight 2 hour romantic comedy (of sorts) Asako I II, a movie which explores the hidden, duplicitous desires in a person's life, and how that affects the people that care about them the most. And like any great director, these films are preceded by an abundance of material including, documentaries about the Tōhoku earthquake, various short films, and a couple of feature length from his stint at Tokyo University of Arts. Suffice to say, he is no newcomer, and his varied filmography only proves it.
This brief introduction is all leading up to a question, however, which is why do we care? Hamaguchi is clearly already established. He will have a career regardless of if you finish this article or not. And there are a multitude of articles already published, and being published, that describe his signature themes, narratives, and atmospheres. I even feel comfortable in saying that the point of this article isn’t to convince you to try to seek out his films. No, the point of this article, and the answer to the question asked above is simple. It’s the filmmaking. The craft. Specifically, it’s the ability of Hamaguchi, using his camera and actors to pull into focus his characters’ natural quirks, and use them to push into the next arc of the movie.
A continuously ripe idea in all of film is that of restricting characters in a room, and observing what happens, what develops. Watching them closely, capturing micro-details of personalities existing next to each other, impeding on one another, and forcing each one to respond in their own way, revealing, in the end, some core detail about themselves.
There’s an approximately 45 minute scene in Happy Hour, where the 5 main characters attend a workshop led by an eccentric artist. In it, the characters are asked to perform various exercises having to do with balance. When we watch them perform these exercises, the camera is slow. Observant. Patient. Panning on occasion, cutting to the characters in medium close-ups and wides showcasing their bodies straddling each other. We get full coverage of the room, seeing them leaning on each other, focusing, working as a group, as a unit, and finally, in the end, finding their balance. Together.
And in this process, many different facets of each of the characters' personalities rise to the top. The camera notices all these romantic desires at play, relationships being built in real time, and of course, the core topic of the film, friendship and memories being sown.
Watching this sequence, it’s as if they just put 4 digital cameras in the rooms and let the actors have at it. It’s hard to imagine that this scene was accomplished without some type of improvisation in it, because how else would you go about guiding those performances. There are aspects to these performances that feel too organic, too spontaneous and of the moment to plan for. And yet, it still maintains precision. Speaking to that previous point, we are meant to see those extraneous details. The things that rise to the top are carried over in the accompanying 4 hours, becoming their own backdrops for dilemmas, character arcs, and memories of friendships for the characters. It’s almost as if those details are planned. From a directorial perspective, you get the best of both worlds. Performances that capture emotions authentically, and completely grounded in their own sense of reality. And also, you’re writing these emotions, shooting and editing them into a movie that relies on them as essentially plot points. It is structured. It is purposeful, in addition to being improvisational.
As a filmmaker, let me just advise you all, THIS IS DAMN NEAR IMPOSSIBLE TO DO. For us lowly filmmakers, nowhere near the level of Hamaguchi, it’s always a trade-off. The two approaches being “Do I sacrifice pre-planning, and control to let the actors go all out, and create something in front of the camera that is ‘real’?”, or, “Do I guide actors in a direction, and control their performances to cull the emotions/traits that is required for the piece?”. I can guarantee you, it is never both. As such, this is mind-boggling to behold. It’s not just that Hamaguchi is balancing these aspects, living in the gray area between these two approaches. No, it’s that this movie uses these approaches simultaneously. The characters are so real, they feel so lived in and natural, that when they respond to something in their environment it becomes a part of the character. Hamaguchi then takes this response, compounds it, and brings it back 30 minutes later to illustrate some core aspects of the characters. On screen, it’s fantastic to watch. To see something that feels so in the moment, and yet still holds the precision that is needed to carry the weight of narrative. It’s reassuring to be in the hands of a master, to know no detail will be left overturned.
Take for instance the exercise sequence and the scene accompanying it. In the workshop, through an awkward encounter that the camera captures, one of the characters Kazama is attracted to one of the main characters, Sakurako. Afterwards, while Sakurako is getting something at a vending machine, she is approached by him. He asks her out on a date. She refuses, which then becomes the springboard for an invite for all the main characters to a dinner at a local restaurant. At this dinner, in a round table sort of way, the conversation morphs from a discussion around the workshop, to the characters themselves. Still early on in the movie, this scene operates as an exposition scene. The main character’s past histories are revealed, where they currently are in their lives, and how they are all faring in their journeys, forcing the characters to understand themselves. This resulting scene, which sprouted from an encounter that lasted maybe 3 minutes, goes on for over 30 minutes. This extraneous detail, the one sided attraction of Kazama, becomes the starting point of the next arc.
In the deft hands of Hamaguchi, the frivolous parts of human interaction, the spontaneous results of face-to-face human connection, become the impetus for a whole movie. Through his marvelous execution of continuously pulling organic details through natural performance, enabling actors to give stunning performances, and using the performances they provide to guide the direction of a narrative, results in a film that feels like the real world. Serious Filmmaking Chops. It may not necessarily be new, but the degree of execution is flawless. In a name, it’s Cassavetes. In another breath I’ll mutter the name Mike Leigh. And in a year, I think we’ll all be saying Hamaguchi.