I’ll Be Your Mirror: Disability in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Films

Disability emerges as a major theme in Hamaguchi's films, tying together the power of storytelling, performance, and the act of listening.
Emerson Goo

Left: Storytellers (2013), Right: Asako I & II (2018).

When the COVID-19 pandemic (which health justice activists have been calling a “mass disabling event”) waylaid plans to film Drive My Car in Busan, South Korea, Ryusuke Hamaguchi was initially unenthusiastic about his producer’s suggestion to instead shoot in Hiroshima. In Esprit, he explains his worry that it was too heavy-handed a location, both because of the city’s history and his own. Understanding why requires us to rewind to March 2011, when another social and environmental crisis brought into relief the major themes of his work, notably a focus on disability and its relationship to storytelling, performance, and the power and politics of listening.

In the months following the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake, media outlets likened the Japanese government’s expedient response to Hiroshima’s miraculous rebirth after WWII. Meanwhile, filmmakers were seeding an artistic counter-response, documenting the individual voices buried under a homogenized, national narrative of reconstruction. As part of the Sendai Mediatheque’s Center for Remembering 3.11, Hamaguchi directed a documentary trilogy with Ko Sakai about survivors of the disaster, a project that helped him find the pulse of his career. Early features like Passion (2008) and The Depths (2010) charted dysfunctional relationships, but 3/11 located that dysfunction in much more corporeal anxieties: the fragility and mutability of existence, and the persistence of bodily disorder in a country eager to sweep away the wreckage.  

Storytellers (2013) concludes Hamaguchi and Sakai’s trilogy, following folklorist Kazuko Ono as she collects folk tales from elders across the hard-hit Tohoku region. Unlike the interviews recorded in the previous films, The Sound of Waves (2011) and Voices from the Waves (2013), the folk tales appear irrelevant to the disaster, detailing oddities like mice pounding mochi, shadow people, or singing buttocks. The film’s title (which could describe all of Hamaguchi’s post-3/11 films) clues us into its intentions. The focus isn’t on the stories, but the people telling them: how their regional flourishes and inflections trace the contours of a life, and the lands and waters they grew up around. As scholar Ran Ma argues, the elders shed their narrow status as disaster “victims” by performing their folk tales for the camera, heralding a world where the continuity of human existence is renewed by, and contingent on, a vernacular knowledge of nature. Contrast this with the forbidding coastlines of Asako I & II (2018), where massive concrete seawalls cut off the ocean, signaling the disorientation of its titular character. Storytellers powerfully reminds us that we receive these stories from other people, other bodies we must sit with and deeply listen to.

Despite being spry interlocutors, the elders claim their memory isn’t what it used to be. For Hamaguchi, the storyteller is never a fully abled or capable subject. Whether through the direct inclusion of disabled characters, as in Asako I & II and Drive My Car, or through metaphors of body horror, as in Touching the Skin of Eeriness (2013), disability destabilizes the precarious boundaries that cleave the self from others. Why has its importance in his films been scarcely discussed? Disability has always been socially invisible, but even more so in literature and film, where it’s often reduced to an isolated marker of tragedy, abnormality, or lack. Historian Paul Longmore writes that images of impairment have abounded on screen, but are rarely related to wider, systemic phenomena. Disability doesn’t get to participate in culture, only deviate from it.  

Touching The Skin of Eeriness (2013)

Touching the Skin of Eeriness is an attempt to challenge this attitude, drawing out the alterity of “normal” bodies through contemporary dance. Unlike the conversational density of Hamaguchi’s recent films, it is a tantalizingly sparse abstraction. The film opens on two shirtless students, Chihiro (Shota Sometani) and Naoya (Hoshi Ishida), learning a dance where they behave like repelling magnets, following but never touching the other person. Their teacher is also the film’s choreographer, Osamu Jareo, known internationally for his work in disability dance. Hamaguchi shares numerous affinities with Jareo’s practice, which dispenses with a traditional rehearsal/performance structure in favor of interactive workshops, allowing caregivers and access providers to be present. Involving amateurs alongside professionals, Jareo is less concerned with conventional ideals of athleticism or grace than with gestures of effort and risk. To paraphrase pianist Conrad Tao, effortful motion produces its own virtuosity, one in which the body is disciplined almost to the point of failure. And failure is generative, rather than final: when Chihiro and Naoya accidentally touch, Jareo offers encouragement: “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Actually, touching could be part of the concept.”

The strange dance at the core of Eeriness pulls the world into its orbit, revealing protrusions and contortions beneath skin like a shoal exposed at low tide. After dance practice, Naoya is startled by his partner observing his back. “Your spine looks freaky. Like you never fully evolved,” says Chihiro. We meet Chihiro’s older half-brother Togo, who once told him that some people carry a bump on the back of their head, like the scaly armor of the Polypterus, an ancient fish. Later, as Togo cruises down a river on a skiff, we learn that Polypterus endlicheri is an invasive species in Japanese waters, with an alleged appetite for gnarled-looking hands. The story of this bump and this fish has followed Chihiro through life, and when Naoya asks him what he thinks of the dance, he murkily opines that it’s as if he’s a fish, and Naoya the water. These motifs of biology and disability swirl into a portrait of a Japan toxified by environmental catastrophe, crescendoing to a conclusion that mutates the dance into an oneiric ritual of transference. But we don’t see its effects play out, as Eeriness is only a proof-of-concept for a feature, FLOODS, that remains unmade.  

Asako I & II (2018)

Flash forward, as Hamaguchi is prone to do, to 2018. After refining his approach to performance in Happy Hour (2015), where an artist who balances tsunami debris prompts the film’s leading women to listen to each other’s bodies, disability fully enters the frame in Asako I & II. Asako (Erika Karata) and her star-crossed lover Baku (Masahiro Higashide) meet in Osaka at an exhibition by the photographer Shigeo Gocho, where she fixates on a photo of twin girls. This exhibition is doubled in Tokyo where Asako meets Baku’s doppelganger, Ryohei (also Higashide). What goes unmentioned is that at the age of three, Gocho contracted spinal tuberculosis, leaving him with a short stature and reduced lifespan. He died in 1983, at 36. To discern his relationship to the film, we must again turn away from the story—his photography—to face the storyteller: Gocho himself.

The closest thing to a biopic of Gocho is Makoto Sato’s influential documentary, Self and Others (2001). Acutely aware of his image as a visibly disabled man, Gocho reflected the questioning gaze society cast on him back onto others. Linking each individual, he surmised, was a web of intimacies no photo could capture. Children, whom he could meet at eye level, were frequent subjects. Sato directly acknowledges Gocho’s absence. Rather than depict his life on screen, the film roams the streets he photographed, interviewing the people who appear in his photos (including the twins). Interspersed throughout are entries from Gocho’s own diaries, read by Hidetoshi Nishijima. This use of voice-over resembles Oto’s (Reika Kirishima) tapes in Drive My Car, which ground her as a presence long after her departure.

One diary entry in Self and Others recounts a childhood treatment which forced Gocho to lie completely still in bed, only glimpsing the outside world through a mirror in his room. This was a formative experience for him, and is paralleled in Asako I & II during a scene where Asako, after running out on Ryohei for Baku, meets Nobu (Daichi Watanabe), an old friend with ALS. A boisterous, overprotective character in the film’s prologue, Nobu is now mute and almost totally paralyzed. In film, a medium classically built on vocabularies of movement, paralysis, especially as severe as Nobu’s, is often equated with the death of performance. More sympathetic portrayals of paralysis compensate for a paralyzed character’s inexpressiveness through condescending appeals to their rich inner life (which often conjure up visions of mobility). Hamaguchi does neither. What we see is on the surface: Asako talks to Nobu over his bed. He initiates their conversation through imperceptible gestures, beginning by offering Asako tea. Nobu’s mother lists syllables for him to assemble: “A, E, U, I, O. O. O, huh? A, I… I, Ki, Shi, Chi… Chi. A… A. A, Ka, Sa, Ta, Na, Ha, Ma, Ya… Ya? Oh! Ocha, tea! You don’t have to tell me that!”

This scene lasts almost a minute, prolonging an action so routine—offering tea to a visitor—that it would have happened whether or not Nobu had mentioned it. But this deliberate act of hospitality tells Asako that her friend is, after nearly eight years apart, still listening to her. Nobu continually asserts himself as a performer, demonstrating his concern for Asako and conducting their interactions towards a revelation he cannot know. When Nobu’s mother tries to console Asako with a story we’ve already heard, about a secret rendezvous with a boyfriend in Tokyo, Nobu stops her unhelpful rambling: “Oh, he’s telling me not to go on about this again. Playing the straight man like a true Osakan.” While taking the laundry in, Nobu’s mother takes her son’s cue and secretly tells Asako a different story: the man in her Tokyo tryst was not, as the film previously led us to believe, her current husband. In an oeuvre lined with understated epiphanies, this might be Hamaguchi’s best.

Drive My Car (2021)

When Yusuke (Nishijima), Drive My Car’s glaucomic theater director, casts Yoona (Park Yoorim), a mute actress, as Sonya in his production of Uncle Vanya, he doesn’t expect to be sitting at her dinner table with his chauffeur, Misaki (Toko Miura), and his dramaturge, Yoonsu (Jin Daeyeon). Yoona is Yoonsu’s wife, and they communicate in Korean Sign Language. In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that Hamaguchi found the physicality of sign language an ideal model to wed his ideas about the body, performance, and storytelling to. In an interview with Kobe Planet Film Archive, Hamaguchi mentions being invited to a Deaf film festival in Japan, where he and his interpreter were often the only hearing people in the room. His observance of sign language and Deaf culture is evident in how he films KSL with clarity as a well-formed language, a standard most films by hearing directors never meet. And while Yoona isn’t Deaf (a fact that many reviews of the film misrepresent, due to a conflation of deafness and muteness), Park’s oft-praised performance was made possible by her Deaf sign language coaches Lim Sahyun and Emi Kuwabara. The film’s inclusion of KSL, though well-meaning, is a troubling one. Drive My Car is Hamaguchi’s most significant engagement with disability, and also the most disappointing.

It is not that the film’s portrayal of disability is insensitive, but that it is overdetermined to a fault. Broadening Longmore’s inquiry into the overrepresentation of disability in film, literary theorists David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder introduced the concept of “narrative prosthesis” in their 2001 book of the same name. They argue that disability is commonly deployed because it can, unlike many marginalized identities, enter a text when authors seek to mine it for its “representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight,” and be withdrawn (like a prosthetic limb) when its utility is exhausted. I am not the first to point out that Hamaguchi leans on disability at precisely these intervals. On the use of KSL in Drive My Car, critic Lawrence Garcia writes:

“…just as I've grown increasingly wary of the critical tendency to simply fall back on the term ‘expressive,’ it is somewhat telling to me that the film's mute Korean actor figures prominently in the two moments—the outdoor rehearsal, the penultimate performance scene—clearly meant to convey a sense of quiet ‘revelation.’”

These scenes invest meaning in their silences through sign language, staging an act of listening across linguistic barriers. But this point could have been made with any of the other foreign actors in the film, so why use Yoona in particular? Hamaguchi’s fascination with sign language leads him to aestheticize it as a purer, more sublime form of expression that bypasses the awkwardness of spoken language. Yoona’s muteness becomes an overwrought metaphor that divulges its latent powers through the spectacle of KSL, one that displaces what film theorist Vivian Sobchack calls the unseductive and unmotivated experience of living with a disability. This is not to privilege lived experiences of disability as more authentic, but to affirm that disability is always embodied beyond mere metaphor. Sobchack’s prosthetic leg cannot stand in for her body even as it is reliant on it—her leg “will never go out dancing” without her. Likewise, sign language moves the body, but it is not just a kind of exceptional body language.

The film’s treatment of sign language forces it into a schematic rigidity. Director and critic Shinji Aoyama, in a column for boid magazine, questions why Drive My Car, despite its multilingualism, doesn’t show the actors exchanging languages. It’s not entirely accurate to claim no one learns anyone else’s language: Yusuke learns “compliment” in KSL during the aforementioned dinner scene, and some of the actors sign “good job” after rehearsals. Yoonsu talks about studying KSL to court Yoona, and some language learning occurs between the ending scene’s jump from Japan to Korea. But these are either fleetingly brief or off-screen moments, and KSL is largely confined to Yoona’s character to emphasize her uniqueness. In the context of Yusuke’s play, the lack of language exchange “disables” the actors’ communicative abilities, requiring that they surrender to the text of Uncle Vanya. There’s a power to this conceit in how it upends the abled/disabled hierarchy in the performing arts by placing Yoona on a more even field with her peers, and making an important point about the way disability is socially constructed in the process. But if this was Hamaguchi’s intention, it would have been better to let the dramaturgy speak for itself, rather than rely on Yoona to impart these lessons. To echo her question to Yusuke, “Why do you ask me something you don’t ask others?”

The ending of Aoyama’s Eureka (2001), which chronicles a road trip undertaken by three survivors of a bus hijacking, is reminiscent of the scene where Yusuke and Misaki arrive bearing flowers at the ruins of her old house. Misaki remembers her mother, an abusive woman with two personalities, who she didn’t rescue when their house collapsed during a landslide. Like Oto, she persists only in the circulation of stories and the routines of driving a car. Misaki never knew whether her mother was mentally ill, but like Yusuke, she grieves over her unanswered questions. Interrogating the unreliability of appearance through characters with split identities is nothing new, but stereotyping or adherence to clinical definitions of mental illness isn’t my critique. What’s disturbing is how flimsily Misaki’s mother is contrived: her disability only exists to be prodded at as an object of speculation. Misaki’s own characterization of her mother is never questioned; there is only interrogation without self-reflection, a regressive moment of catharsis. It’s an irresponsible variation on the wisdom Koji (Masaki Okada) imparts to Yusuke before he’s arrested: that the route to the inaccessible other is through the self. Asako I & II used Gocho and Nobu to explore the connection between surface and interior, without dwelling on the “mystery” of their personhood. Drive My Car turns Misaki’s mother into a puzzle with missing pieces, filled by ponderous explanations of her behavior that deny her individuality—except to say that she was crazy.

Back in Hiroshima, we witness Yoona’s final monologue, where she signs the ending of Uncle Vanya over Yusuke’s body, as if playing a modified version of the improv game Helping Hands. If this scene means to convey through its disabled characters, as the blind Pozzo and mute Lucky do in Act II of Waiting for Godot, a recognition of interdependence as necessary for survival, it rings hollow. Unlike Beckett, for whom disability is an ordinary (yet no less absurd) condition of existence, Hamaguchi doesn’t care to detail the way disabled people live out their lives. Disability is found throughout Drive My Car, but doesn’t fully exist within its world, only acting to signify it on a literary level. That the film devotes so much time to elaborating the way life and art converge and limn each other through performance, intertextuality, and the process of adaptation raises an interesting point: within its narrative, disability occupies the intertext, much like the plays that stitch it together. It is rendered capable insofar as it references the “source text” of the normative, abled body (and functions as an adaptation thereof), to be marveled at for its fidelity (or lack thereof) to an original. The intertext might not be such a bad place to be stuck in, given its power. But it still underestimates what disability in film can really be. 

Tables and Windows (2016)

“I wanted to know her language, so I learned it,'' says Yoonsu. I keep thinking of him and Yoona, and how the fascination with their language does not extend nearly as much into the way they navigate the world together. They are only mirrors for the kind of life Yusuke and Misaki yearn to have. Nevertheless, they both contribute an uplifting playfulness to the film. When I first watched Yoona’s final lines, I recalled a similarly playful performance piece, Tables and Windows (2016) by Christine Sun Kim and Thomas Mader, partners in life and art. Kim is Deaf and a native American Sign Language speaker; Mader is hearing and an ASL learner. Like Yoona and Yusuke, they play a version of Helping Hands. Using ASL, they perform (often comical) descriptions of furniture (which appear as text on screen), inspired by choreographer William Forsythe’s technique of “room writing.” Crucially, they switch places, controlling either facial expressions or hand/arm movements, but never both at once. In Drive My Car’s penultimate scene, Yusuke is only a passive participant, watching Yoona’s elegant gestures envision the long, long days and nights they’ll both resolve to live through. But Kim and Mader enact something much more concrete and vital. They work with and struggle against each other as they become the text that binds them, furnishing that world piece by piece, imperfectly entangled.

I’d like to thank Aiko Masubuchi for her assistance with this article.

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