A Wonderful World of What-ifs: A Conversation with Ryusuke Hamaguchi

The director discusses his film "Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy," and his approach to rehearsals, melodrama, comedy, and trauma in his work.
Lukasz Mankowski

Premiering during a virtual edition of this year’s Berlinale, where it was awarded the Silver Bear, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a three-short-tale drama that encapsulates an imaginative trajectory of what-ifs. An intermingling of fantasy and coincidence plunges the audience into: a triangle dramedy between the two now-lovers and one ex-lover, grasped in a narrative of loops that should find its fans among both Kiarostami and Hong Sang-soo aficionados; a seduction-attempt-gone-wrong, with an unexpected twist that evokes the essence of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s prose of uncanny eroticism; and a reconfiguration of the Japanese motif of passing each other by (surechigai) set in a seemingly post-pandemic reality, where the two women fall for each other’s expectations to be someone else.

Hamaguchi’s style is a real treat to indulge. His Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is crafted with precision towards the dialog and its delivery, abound in almost Brechtian theatricality, but what stands out the most is his ability to remain both somewhat firm and delicate towards the characters and their feelings. This is because Hamaguchi reaps wonders out of the emotional subsoil of his actors and manages to seize something of pure beauty in the wheel of repetition. Having the privilege to talk with him, we went through his detailed process of preparing his film’s moodscape for intimacy and empathy. Through a network of mutual and rather extensive reliance—that is, between the director, his actors, the environment they strive for, and the lines, first written, then spoken—Hamaguchi is able to establish a bridge between the audience and the substance of his film. The words say it all. The connection comes with the lines, embedded in corporeal reiterations; they take the audience’s eye by surprise. All of the sudden, we feel very close, as if spellbound; intimate to the bodies that speak, and the mood the words evoke. No one has such tenderness towards the human component in modern Japanese cinema. To invoke Nobel-recipient novelist Olga Tokarczuk’s words, if we have a view on the world, it is Hamaguchi among the Japanese filmmakers who has a sense of it.

Through a Zoom conversation, we discussed Hamaguchi’s methods of emotionless repetitions of the script, as well as the value of rehearsals—one might have an echo of such approach in his second movie of the year, Drive My Car, which centers on theatrical rehearsal—and having his characters turn their gaze directly at the camera. We tackle transitioning from feature-length stories to the short film, establishing a balanced working environment, and the post-traumatic components of his work (especially his approach towards the Fukushima 3/11 disaster, as this year marked the 10th anniversary of the triple tragedy: earthquake and tsunami leading to a nuclear disaster), but also Hamaguchi’s affection towards melodrama and comedy.

NOTEBOOK: The narrative of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy revolves around two themes: coincidence and fantasy. What made you reflect on these?

RYUSUKE HAMAGUCHI: At first, I thought of making a seven-episode series with coincidence as the key concept. Even long before that, I was fascinated with the idea of coincidence and captivated by its notions: how it happens, how we take advantage of it, how it influences our lives. For instance, an intrusion of a bird flying in; a scene of a train passing by. I started to think about defining coincidence and framing my understanding of it into a film. In some way, this became about the ephemerality of things; about seeing a moment. I find it extremely difficult to seize the moment in the narrative. If you decide to focus on a particular moment in the storytelling of its own pace and rhythm, it becomes nothing but simple opportunism. It’s convenient to do it. I think it’s alright if you decide to include a coincidence that isn’t related to anything in particular just to achieve a realistic approach. But otherwise, it’s risky. The world is abundant in coincidences. There is not a single person who hasn’t experienced it. But to handle the randomness of our everyday life to coin a narrative is extremely difficult. The question becomes: how much is there you can craft from the coincidences you have inside of yourself? For me, it gradually became a project about the circle of coincidences. It started from there and I used this motif as a lead. That’s where the title came from as well.

NOTEBOOK: What about fantasy?

HAMAGUCHI: Fantasy and imagination come in hand with coincidence. As you start to think about coincidences, there’s a lot of aspects you reflect on. For example, there are rarely no coincidences at all; or that most of the time it revolves around trivial things. You don’t call earthquakes or other disasters a coincidence. So when that triviality happens, the image of everyday life fades out for a second and you find yourself in a different world, one that is detached from reality. Facing coincidences makes us, human beings, reflect on the chain of events. We start to wonder: what would I do if that didn’t happen? Would I do something else? Coincidences open up a world of what-ifs. And this is where imagination starts to do wonders, starts to exist in a wheel. We’re bound to fantasize each day. And that is something that fascinated me throughout the process of writing Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. I realized that thinking about coincidences has actually made me think about one’s ability to imagine things up. That’s how the concept for the series came around.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve just mentioned the aspect of detaching oneself from reality and this is something I thought of the characters of all your films—they’re somewhat different, detached, disconnected. How do you achieve that in terms of acting?

HAMAGUCHI: It’s a very broad process. Actors act. That’s what they do, it’s their job. They do it while imagining things; acting whilst using the fantasy of their own. They speak their lines, deliver the words, and move their bodies into motion. And at some point, the things they do become truly real. That’s what we call a good performance; when we can believe in it. Even though we know it’s a lie, we choose to take it as a reality. Maybe we don’t have much choice. The narrative unfolds in front of our eyes, and we take it as it is. One can ask: why does it happen this way? Frankly speaking, that remains a mystery even for me. I guess that to make it easier, one has to establish a favorable environment. To do so, we rely on the script; or specifically—on the lines. These are the dialogues that put our attention towards the intimacy between the characters or arrange the preface for the relationships. Sometimes the lines in the script might be an obstacle for the actors’ performance, especially when they can’t grasp their meaning. That’s why script reading is very time-consuming for my films. With an extensive focus on the lines, we can delve deep into the nuances of every dialogue: see what makes us uncomfortable or what’s weird. When I stumble upon something that doesn’t click, then I change the line. Sometimes I’m able to find the right expression, but there are times that I need to erase something. This is a very in-detailed process that takes time, during which step by step I establish a relationship between the substance of my lines and the actors. They need to learn the words that are left from the whole process. Then, they act with what they learned. And then… something happens. [laughs] Something clicks. It’s not always the case, but somehow this works as a knot. There’s a connection that appears out of a sudden. Of course, it starts from the casting. It’s a very important thing. The actors have to fit the roles from the script. That’s about 70-80% of the success. The rest is up to the process of establishing a particular relationship between the actors and the words they go through.

NOTEBOOK: There is also a rare sense of intimacy between your actors. How do you work on establishing the connection between your actors?

HAMAGUCHI: When the actors spend time with each other, this is when they start to rely on each other; this is when intimacy appears. It’s also very important. The rehearsals mean everything to me. In general… I tend to choose actors who seem to be good people. Simple as that. I want my actors to like each other on the set. We spend a lot of time together, so mutual trust is crucial. Since acting is not about individualism and the range of delivery tends to be wide, without the reliance that is born throughout the initial process, we wouldn’t be able to depend on each other. One needs to be assured that expressing oneself in front of others won’t do any harm. If there’s a sense of security, then it will appear in the role or the lines the actors deliver. It becomes apparent.

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned spending a lot of time on the rehearsals, repeating the lines over and over again. Is it similar to the image of Natsuka Kusano’s Domains [2019]?

HAMAGUCHI: Truth to be told, I haven’t watched the film, as it hasn’t premiered in Japan yet, so I can’t really tell. But, since Kusano worked on the script for Happy Hour and from what I’ve heard from other people, the impression is that it is somewhat similar, indeed.

NOTEBOOK: That’s exactly the image I have in mind when you speak of your approach towards rehearsals. That being said, you also tend to use a very peculiar trick in all of your films. All of a sudden, characters act their lines facing the gaze of the camera. There’s something uncanny about it every time it happens.

HAMAGUCHI: Indeed. I guess right now it has become a part of our reality. We attend meetings that take place online. Facing our laptops we gaze right into the lenses of the cameras. In that sense, I think the amount of data transmitted has increased. That’s because our faces have become exposed. In fact, we can only read our faces. We can sense that someone is bored right away, that the focus is not there. We became able to read such trivial things with ease. When you set the camera in front of someone’s face, the frontal facial expression will get you the most information. The problem arises with a need for performance. The camera is an obstacle for acting. The presence of the device interferes with actors’ presence and prevents them from being natural. There’s a risk that one might capture that state, which is not so good for the film. To prevent this, I realized that the actor’s ability to concentrate increases with rehearsals. Of course, up to a certain point. The thing is to capture the moment when the focus is at its peak. When the actors climb to a point where they can seize the emotions I’m looking for, this is the time I decide to make the actual shoot; this is when I put the camera in and ask for delivering the lines the same way they just did, but with them gazing into the camera. In many cases, that’s how working with actors on the most important dialogues works for me. Such a shoot translates into a more direct connection with the audience. The viewer is left with a feeling of facing the actor’s gaze. I guess the part of it comes with the fact that actors’ ability to focus might work wonders. One of them is the feeling of uncanny.

NOTEBOOK: I have a feeling that the lines in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy became very precise to the extent they somewhat resemble the ironic or grotesque. That wasn’t dominant in your previous works. What’s the reason behind that?

HAMAGUCHI: I think I didn’t intend to deliver something ironic. In fact, what I wanted to convey the most is comedy. But I guess your perception might be related to the general aspect of how we perceive coincidence as a whole. In a way, it’s about things unfolding astoundingly; we can’t predict that. That being said, all the characters from my film are serious about life. They’re also quite serious about being perceived as serious, no fooling around. But once something serious happens, they retract, distance themselves to look at things with a sense of aloofness. It starts to seem strange to them, somewhat absurd. I think this is how it is in the film.

Then, there’s also the distance that comes to the audience. And in a good way, it's very easy to achieve thanks to comedy capacity. Oftentimes, I hear that the audience watches the characters with a sense of inferiority. But out of a sudden, depending on the coincidence that happens, the narrative starts to develop in one way or another and the viewers start to wonder about the state of things they participate in. This is when they might even distance themselves from the image they observe, especially if it’s a comedy. Your comment has actually made me realize that maybe these things indeed connect the audience with the aesthetic notions of irony or grotesque. That it’s a certain mechanism. But for me, this is the way comedy as a genre works and that’s how I intended to grasp the reality in my film—through a lens of comedy.

NOTEBOOK: You also seem to rely significantly on the melodramatic expression. What is so interesting for you in this genre?

HAMAGUCHI: It’s quite similar to my approach towards irony or comedy. But, as a matter of fact, for some reason it seems that melodrama is often considered a silly genre. Take a look at Douglas Sirk. He’s the perfect example of the melodrama master. You hate his films while loving them. Whatever theme or motif he used, I adored his work, but deep in my heart I also considered it a bit silly. And indeed, if you try to look at his work objectively, it’s a foolish game he played. But for the people at that time, he managed to resonate with them, as he presented something that they could identify with, something highly important. Back then, melodrama was a drifting genre—it would either squeeze your heart with the dramedy or make you laugh your throat off. There was a space to balance between tragedy and comedy. Melodrama is, in fact, something in between. This ambiguity offers a vast amount of crankiness. The in-betweenness of melodrama is something I’m particularly fond of. It’s because it opens a margin for perspectives. One can feel the sadness of the tragedy; the other will cherish the laughter. For me, the foolishness of melodrama becomes its actual seriousness because it enables the filmmaker to grasp the essence of the time. And this is precisely how I perceive the reality of ours; how I feel it. We live seriously, but then again, we do foolish things. This is how we live our lives. That’s the reason why I link my films with the notion of melodrama—because, as simple as it is, I consider life as melodramatic.

NOTEBOOK: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is your first collection of short films. In the past, you focused on a very extensive format, with Happy Hour in particular being a five-hour long drama. What was the biggest challenge for you to go through this transition?

HAMAGUCHI: The biggest one was the limit of information I could include in the short form. Short stories need to be more compact as there’s less time to use. I can’t say definitively that it’s more difficult. There is, of course, a more convenient side of the feature film. There, you can include something even though you didn’t intend to do it in the first place. You can rely on time, use it to your needs, include something naturally with the flow of the story. There’s a lot of space to navigate around. Personally speaking, I think the longer the film, the easier it is to make it melodramatic in a sense I’ve just mentioned earlier. Except it’s even easier to make it more serious, a tragedy over comedy.

With this project, for better or worse, I felt I couldn’t establish such a connection between the characters and the audience as I normally witness with my feature films. There’s a distance between the two. But, there’s also a potential for comedy. It’s not necessarily about the difficulty nor about the challenges I had with the short formula. Rather than that, it’s about the peculiarity that I found interesting and used to my needs. Just as much it’s easier to achieve a more serious narrative in feature-length form, it’s easier to make a comedy out of the short story. I guess it might come with the fact that once we have the distance, we also don’t know the characters in the film that well. And precisely for that reason, we might not be able to understand everything. But still, there’s a sense of reality, because it’s not uncommon to be indifferent towards someone. When we don’t know the people we watch, and because there’s the distance, we observe the characters with reserve; they wear the face of another to us. As a result, a new reality unfolds, a world we barely know. That’s the magic of the short form. It plunges us into a completely unknown reality.

NOTEBOOK: What reappears in your work is the image of the 3/11 disaster, that happened precisely ten years ago. Sometimes it’s a direct image of it—a documentary, Tohoku Documentary Trilogy [2012–2014]—and sometimes it’s less obvious. In Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, you set the third piece in Sendai, a city that had to be rebuilt after the earthquake and tsunami. How does the memory of tragedy influence you and your work?

HAMAGUCHI: When I spent two years making a documentary in Sendai, the influence on my life was heavy. I wondered, what exactly is a disaster? It’s not like we comprehend it, nor are we able to do so. I thought I might be able to reflect on it through a documentary. In some way, I felt I understood something that I didn’t before making the film. At that time, I tried to be honest with the effect that the tragedy had on me. In such cases, one can try to become indifferent, put on a shell, detach from the sadness to stay strong. But suddenly, the everyday life one is used to changes without a reason. Something comes to an end. The reality I knew disconnected from me.

The everyday of Japan before 2011 seemed to be limitless. There was no difference between yesterday and tomorrow. The cycle would go on and on. That’s how everybody felt about the reality they lived in. When the tragedy occurred, something had stopped and we knew that the experience would reshape us. This feeling redefined the everyday life we lost for a second. We started to experience the notion of time. It has set us into motion. Something did come to an end, but with that, we could also tell that a new tomorrow has come. This is to say, one we couldn’t possibly have in our minds, but one we had to face nonetheless. This is how the experience of 3/11 looked for me. I think it made me stronger. And all of that sneaked into my work. The experience has stayed with me to this day.

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