Original Name: Happī Awā
Director: Ryūsuke Hamaguchi
Debut at: Dec 2015 (317 min)
Country: Japan (Japanese)
IMDB Link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4780662/
A few days ago I finished a mammoth-size of a movie, Happy Hour, which is more appropriate as (Un)Happy 5-Hour, one of the longest film I’ve watched in recent years, clocking at 5 hours and 18 minutes. This film, along with another Japanese contemporary movie (which I will review right after this), in a sense, help reviving my love for cinema and give me a much deeper respect to the Japanese modern cinema (which I wasn’t too keen of before). Despite the length, Happy Hour boasts some of the strongest acting amongst its large cast, all the more impressive that they’re mostly non-professional actors. It’s interesting to see how my own perception about Happy Hour change after an hour mark. In the first hour, I take it as a formal drama, given how the characters keep their formal distance to each other, especially regarding their spouse. All of that starts to crumble the moments they’re telling the truths to each other, and in most cases the truths hurt a hell lot. Happy Hour is a meditation of the breakdown of marriage and how the need for constant communication and being honest to each other play a crucial part in every relationship.
If it sounds like Happy Hour is a dark depiction on marriage in the same vein of, say Woody Allen’s Husbands & Wives or Bergman’s Scene of a Marriage, it is not. The first strength of Happy Hour is its deliberate pacing where the film allows us to spend time with the four leads and let their characters sink into us, to observe them in their minute interactions, sometimes as the events unfold in real time. Cast by non-professional actors from Hamaguchi’s acting workshop (where he eventually forms the core concept of Happy Hour), there’s always a sense of realism that it almost feels like these characters play a version of themselves on screen, playing out the from an extensive improvisation by Himaguchi, the writers and the cast. The four main leads of the film: Jun (Rira Kawamura), Akari (Sachie Tanaka), Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi) and Fumi (Maiko Mihara) are in their late-thirties and are all close friends, to the point where you can see they comfortably being themselves amongst each other. The catalyst arises when Jun, in a casual remark when they have a drink with other people after one workshop, that she had been cheating on his husband and is in a process of divorce hearing. It kicks off a series of slow-burn change that force the others into confronting their own lives, their relations with one another, and themselves.
A seemingly over-long unconventional workshop that happens right at the beginning of Happy Hour is, in a way, suggests many themes that the film eventually addresses. On one level, it’s a theme of communication and our desire to reach and to be reached by other people. Many characters remark on how refreshing to actually spend time to listen or physically come into contact with one another, something that would be implausible in real life. That contrasts to their real lives situation. On the court hearing, Jun confesses that she feels dead inside due to the lack of warm by her husband. On another level, it’s a look inwards to find your central focal point, which for me is a representation of finding your true self. It becomes a visual motif for the film as well. Occasionally, we have shots that place the character right in the middle of the screen. Just like how the workshop tutor Ukai explains that it’s a process of “aligning your central line to your partner”; these shots often occur when the characters are in their most vulnerable. One such example is when Jun standing in front of the court when the opposing lawyer questions her. It’s naked truth right there.
Although spanning at over 5 hours in a leisurely pace, I was impressed by how neat the overall structure is*. There are 3 extended sequences where Happy Hour films in a real time (the workshop, Jun’s hearing and the poem reading). Apart from those, the film builds up the women’s situation mostly by conversations. Jun’s role in the film can be felt vibrantly despite the film intentionally spends the least time with her. She appears late (excluding the first sequence of the four of them together) and vanishes just as quickly. She serves as a harbinger of love who brings people together and when she’s gone, it causes a ripple effect to her friends. There are some subplots, however, that feel hastily put together like the plot thread regarding Sakurako’s son. Apart from that though, the film never feels purposeless and the interweaving plots all head into the same direction.
“When you try to be true to yourself, it gets difficult to speak”. It’s the heart of many tales in Happy Hour. Every relationship is based from communication and conversation. For their spouse, they find many obstacles to fully connect to the other. Sakurako with her housewife duty, Jun who feels she doesn’t have any real conversation with her husband, Fumi who feels she can’t talk about her deepest feeling. It’s a desire to connect with the person they love and a disappointment when that need doesn’t fulfill. At one point or another, they become a party who is at fault. They become harden with the emotions. But then again, fault isn’t a decisive factor at the end of the day. The film doesn’t want us to judge, or to sympathize with the characters anyways. If the film has any sort of statement, it’s the insensitive of the husbands, portrayed by mostly cold (with a punchable face) and static male cast. Jun’s husband, for example, is portrayed in such insensitive light at first that it’s the more surprised to see him handling the Q&A section too well. Granted, we don’t really see the story in their point of view, but it remains the same: to their spouse’s eyes they’re a cold figure who can’t understand their feelings.
Happy Hour is a film that let the small moments and little drama emerge over the time, boasted by superb performances of its cast. I was sink in by the lives of its cast, and while the impact of Jun’s decision might feel small for her friends at first, it carries a huge impact behind. To borrow a line from Yoko Ogawa’s work: “the waves of emotion were gentle, but I know they would ripple on forever”.
*notice how the film frames the main leads. We start with all 4 together, then we have 3 of them arguing. Then we only have Sakurako and Fumi alone in the train. And the film ends with Akari alone in the balcony. It’s as neat as it gets.