Testing the Waters: the Early Films of Ryūsuke Hamaguchi

The Japanese director who rose to sudden prominence with "Happy Hour" and "Asako I & II" had been developing his cinema for many years.
Evan Morgan

Asako I & II

When Asako I & II premiered at Cannes last year, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi seemed as surprised as anyone to find himself on the Croisette: “It came as a total shock” was the director’s refrain in a number of interviews. Hamaguchi wouldn’t be the first filmmaker honored by a major festival to feign modesty when the press comes calling, but in his case there’s reason to believe the disbelief. Numerous paths run to the Competition these days—the parallel section step-ladder, the coming-out party shortcut for precocious first timers, the winding return of old hands—and Hamaguchi seems to have followed none of them. Given his rather sudden appearance in the upper echelons of cinema culture, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Hamaguchi’s trajectory most closely maps onto the voguish newcomer model, that his career began more or less ex nihilo when Happy Hour premiered at the Locarno Festival in 2015, and that these last two films represent the overnight flowering of a fully formed vision. In reality, we live in a world, at the movies and seemingly everywhere else, bereft of useful workshop models, which allow young people—burgeoning film directors, for example—to develop their craft in loose but not wholly unbounded environments, which encourage productive failures, and which do not make funding contingent upon a notional return on investment, either in the popular market or at the festival marché. Hamaguchi, against the odds, appears to have cultivated such a model by partnering—for an unusually extended period of his career—with universities, seminars, and other cultural institutions only casually affiliated with the seventh art, organizations that promote research and development rather than discouraging it, though that makes his pre-Happy Hour oeuvre, which consists of 10 features and 8 shorts, a difficult one to countenance using the prevailing critical paradigms, which are often unfriendly to drafts, sketches, and dry runs. It doesn’t help that this early exploratory work has remained stubbornly difficult to see, unless you were lucky enough to have caught the small program Harvard Film Archive ran back in 2017. But now, more than a decade after graduating from Tokyo University of the Arts with his second feature, he’s finally matriculated to a significant American retrospective, courtesy of a series currently running at Metrograph in New York City. 

The film that earned him his degree, Passion (2008), codified an approach already apparent in his early 8mm shorts: a collaborative environment centered on the actors, an attention to language—the power of recitation, to be more specific—and, perhaps most importantly, a taste for performative sequences that operate as discrete units within the overall structure, but which typically resist acting as too-neat synecdoches for the work as a whole. Like Nothing Happened (2003), produced while Hamaguchi was apprenticing around the Japanese TV industry in the early 2000s, runs only 45 minutes in its short version but arguably has two scenes that function this way. In one, a young man rides a mostly empty train, framed against an imposing window, its square shape and rounded corners replicating the 8mm film gauge, while a potential lover reads a few dozen definitions from the dictionary. She starts with natsuo (the season after spring characterized by plant growth) and ends with naderu (to repeatedly and gently stroke with the palm or fingers). She touches his face, the word made flesh. 


In another scene, a different young man, played by the director himself, recounts some memories from his youth, the many trials of a bullied classmate. The telling is as unremarkable as the story is long, but by dedicating so much time to it, both Hamaguchi the character and Hamaguchi the filmmaker coax at least one listener into a kind of unwitting role play. An acquaintance sitting across the table, a woman with no personal investment in the remembrance or its subject, experiences a sudden and unwelcome transference. Overwhelmed by her identification with this a complete stranger, she bolts from the table, only explaining herself later: “I couldn’t handle being in his shoes.”

Passion takes as its subject the awful truth that intimacy is by no means a guarantee of such empathy; in the wrong spaces, it might in fact act as an impediment. That is, not incidentally, a key insight of the comedy of remarriage, the narrative template that Hamaguchi deploys to structure the film’s otherwise desultory roundelay of twentysomethings coupling and decoupling. Befitting a film made in partnership with a university, the milieu is comfortable and bookish, populated by academics, artists, and trust fund kids, the kind of people who will re-appear across Hamaguchi’s cinema, if not always at the center then at least at the margins, and who provide the films with a largely unspoken—but crucial—class valence. Even in the lightly rarefied world of Passion, there are subtle stratifications: relationships are circumscribed by the square footage of the apartments in which they are consummated. The film’s drama is instigated by a philanderer’s refusal to return home to the one room pad he shares with his fiancé, choosing instead to wile away his evenings in the walk-up that his lover inherited from her rich aunt, luxuriating in the roomy digs and the correspondingly spacious mise en scène. Life at home is an impoverished closeness.

Proximity without presence: one working definition of violence. It’s what the spurned fiancé herself gropes at when, in the wake of a student’s suicide, she gives a long, actorly lesson to her pupils, attempting to illustrate her insight that violence is bound up in proxemics, in the social and personal spaces that enforce the gap between “I and others.” Given that her instructions take the form of a simulated slap—she just barely avoids colliding her palm with an unsuspecting boy’s face—the students are rightly skeptical. And she quickly fumbles into a crude turn-the-other-cheek morality, ending with the decidedly unhelpful and, in light of the circumstances, rather inappropriate suggestion that “maybe to be killed is a way to forgive.” But the performance is clearly more personal than pedagogical, an attempt to process the emotional violence imposed by the spaces of her domestic life, which have scrambled her perception of intimacy and distance, and so her failure to generate meaningful insights for her students is beside the point. She’s feeling about to locate the anxiety she senses in her otherwise safe world, and she very nearly touches it.


The same might be said of Hamaguchi, who, despite inhabiting the same nominally safe milieu, senses something rumbling just beneath the surface of Japanese life. It might be lurking there in his subsequent feature, The Depths (2010), a queer thriller that, like Passion, was produced under the auspices of the Tokyo University of the Arts (with additional support from the Korean Academy of Film Arts) and which, as the title suggests, treats repressed homosexual urges as an unabating subterranean pressure. But because Hamaguchi doesn’t understand the specific disorentations and dangers that govern gay intimacies, at least not in the same way that he does the rules that order heterosexual relationships, The Depths plumbs only at the surface. It does, however, deepen his visual sense relative to Passion, where camera placement served to confine the performers in tight, rigid frames and, save for a few choice moments, to deemphasize their ambient environment. Here, like his former professor Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hamaguchi approaches Japan’s urban spaces with a little more distance, cautiously even, as if they’re haunted by some free floating trauma. For Kurosawa, who came of age during the mid-century economic boom and began his career as the bubble burst, it’s the inescapable ruin of industry: all those abandoned buildings and leaky warehouses. Hamaguchi’s Japan suits his own era: industry has definitively given up the ghost, and in its wake there’s a kind of minimalist stasis, a world that is neatly functional, middle-class, and a little dull, perfectly in keeping with the MUJI aesthetic of clean lines and soothing creams and umbers that now seems to rule everywhere. But the comforts are deceptive, precarious somehow, and these early films evoke a palpable undercurrent of distress that seethes between and around people, even if its precise source is as yet unclear to Hamaguchi.  

2011 provided a tragic jolt of clarity. After the Tōhoku earthquake and the ensuing tsunami, Hamaguchi travelled to the affected areas, conducted interviews with dozens of survivors, and produced—in partnership with co-director Ko Sakai—a quartet of films that seek to measure the social, topographic, and linguistic aftershocks still rippling through the local communities. Whether the result of his collaborating with another filmmaker or his unfamiliarity with the documentary medium, which he was testing out for the first time, the films do not make a particularly strong case for Hamaguchi as a documentarian. Something like Storytellers (2013), the third film in the series, remains too narrowly committed to its premise—elderly citizens of the Tōhoku region swap folk tales in a handful of long exchanges—to capture the wider social panorama that might help ground the legends in time and place. We hear repeatedly of river communities that reside in perpetual flood zones, that live always on unstable ground, but we do not see how they buttress their lives against this ineluctable fate, either through story or structure. Whatever their conceptual failures, the documentaries proved decisive for Hamaguchi: if the experience of making them did not radically alter his project—most of his aesthetic preferences, from direct address close-ups to a reliance on natural light, are very much in evidence—such close proximity to cataclysm did sharpen the question at the heart of his cinema, previously inchoate, and now suddenly clear: How do we live together in the shadow of catastrophe?

A strange question, perhaps, given his focus on small intellectual communes—not often burdened with so exigent a concern—but by his next fiction feature, the four-hour Intimacies (2012), a general air of crisis is already creeping in. The theatrical troupe at the film’s center, a cohort of students from the acting school ENBU Seminar who helped develop the film with Hamaguchi, cannot ignore the emergency percolating outside their little black box. Here, the spectre is cloaked in military garb, taking the form of a fictional war between the Koreas. Unexpected and geographically adjacent violence doesn’t halt the production of Reiko’s play, the performance of which encompasses half the film’s runtime, but it does alter her method. Instead of conventional rehearsals, she holds Q&A sessions with her troupe, instigating debates on the possible deployment of Japan’s self defense forces to the Korean peninsula. The parallels to Hamaguchi’s own process are obvious (gather some performers, drop them in a classroom, workshop a few ideas) though the actors, like the students in Passion, are dubious of the exercise she’s leading: ”Shouldn’t we be rehearsing? This is like playing with fire.”

The resulting work would seem to confirm their suspicions. Hamaguchi’s interests in the play are primarily structural (it’s his most sustained experiment with duration to date) and visual (camera position is demoted to an even lower rank than it held in Passion) but the text itself is fairly rote juvenilia, a veiled retelling of Reiko’s relationship with Ryo—who serves the triple role of boyfriend, co-writer, and lead actor—that is hardly worth the two hours spent on it, particularly in light of the time Intimacies spends away from the stage, where it more convincingly develops Hamaguchi’s proxemics.

Reiko and Ryo seem closest when they’re apart: their most affectionate regular gesture is to wave to each other, across a river, as they ride separate trains to work, an expression of love that requires a touching attention to arrival times—Reiko knows Ryo’s precise schedule—but which also suggests a perpetual parting. And partings do indeed haunt their relationship: some years prior, Ryo vanished without warning, and though he returned, the rupture created by his disappearance never fully resealed; he will not be the last Hamaguchi character to leave such an absence. And after the conclusion of the play, which Reiko watches from the front row, suspended, as other Hamaguchi women before her, in a border zone between proximity and distance, Ryo once again flees from domestic life: he volunteers for the army and ships himself off to the front lines. The play has only pushed them further apart; perhaps the shadow of war renders all those recitations powerless. Or, as Ryo puts it, “words have their limitations.” 

Touching the Skin of Eeriness

Away with words: bodies suddenly gain primacy in Touching the Skin of Eeriness (2013), Hamaguchi’s subsequent short, a film defined by the strange, ritualistic dance exercises of choreographer Osamu Jareo, who serves as both collaborator and performer. In the role of dance instructor, he coaches two students, Chihiro and Togo, through an unusual pas de deux where touch is forbidden: the young men contort their shirtless bodies around each other, snaking closer and closer together, while strictly avoiding contact, as if a magnetic force repels their flesh. Hamaguchi’s eye responds to all this lithe movement in kind: cinematographer Yasuyuki Sasaki introduces a resinous fluidity to the camera work, liquifying the fixed frames that had regulated the earlier films; the runoff seems to ooze through everything else, granting the light a new black lacquer glow and dissolving narrative strands in favor of mood.  

The dominant feeling is of long submerged violence rising slowly to the surface. Given the omnipresence of water throughout, primarily in the shape of a river that writhes its way around the film, its latent power kept at bay only by massive concrete embankments that dot the landscape, Touching the Skin of Eeriness is most explicable as a cryptic response to Tōhoku. Chihiro’s ominous words to his dance partner, “You’re the fish and I’m the water,” would seem to foretell his final act of violence. Standing on one of those embankments, he performs another unsettlingly touchless ritual, this time with Togo’s girlfriend: they appear to be moving in for a kiss but before their lips can touch, they put their hands in front of their mouths and bite, rupturing skin and smearing the blood across their faces. In the next scene, the young woman is found by the river, drenched and dead. Chihiro’s responsibility for the crime seems beyond doubt, but in the final scene—a second rehearsal in Osamu’s studio—he somehow uses the movements of his body to transfer the guilt to his dance partner. The police show up and Togo announces that he’s the murderer. What all this means is ambiguous, and Touching the Skin of Eeriness, like all these early films, probably functions best when taken as a sketchbook for future work. That’s literally the case here: Hamaguchi meant this short to act as a kind of precis for an as yet unmade feature. That would explain the narrative and psychological haze, though I doubt the follow-up would have provided anything like definitive answers, expect perhaps on one point: if we are attempting to locate the anxiety that seeps in around the edges of Hamaguchi’s cinema, we might look to the absent sequel, or at least to its title: Floods.

When Asako I & II premiered at Cannes last year, a number of critics seemed surprised that the auteur who made Happy Hour would turn to something as superficially pop as this tale of bourgie Tokyoites in love. Because Happy Hour was received in a kind of vacuum, sealed off from the preceding works, there was a tendency to treat it as a forward-looking statement of intent rather than the last version of a draft many times revised. If taken as a summative work, it certainly fulfills a number of promises: the dynamism of the drama is now commensurate with the dynamism of the workshop that produced it; the rigid compositions echo Passion and Intimacies, but seem deliberately controlled instead of haphazardly locked down; the physical and verbal exercises do not smother psychology, they deepen and reveal it. But structural and durational experimentation is merely Hamaguchi’s process, not his preoccupation, and it's Asako I & II, not Happy Hour, that throws his cinema into relief. The only notable change he made to Tomoka Shibasaki’s source novel, to move the action from the late 1990s to the early 2010s, ought to make that clear: Tōhoku makes its definitive appearance in Asako I & II, and afterwards, no ground is stable. That’s why Asako—like Ryo before her—waffles between flighty inconstancy, which is unfulfilling but which might allow her to bend as the world applies external pressure, and domesticity, which is necessarily breakable. When events finally force her to choose, she climbs an embankment and looks out to sea, as if to contemplate all the dormant, destructive powers that chance and circumstance might spring on her. She returns home nevertheless. And so this film, which ends with two views of a river, suggests that Hamaguchi’s people dwell in constant threat from calamity, from disaster, from rising waters. But they might yet live, together.

"Ryūsuke Hamaguchi" runs May 10–17, 2019 at the Metrograph in New York.

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