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At a tense moment in Drive My Car—the movie that has taken Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi from a darling of the festival circuit to a four-time Oscar nominee, including for Best Picture and Best Director—one of the movie’s main characters, himself a director, faces an incipient rebellion from his cast. He’s staging a multilingual theatrical production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and as the actors struggle to divine his intentions during the latest in a series of table reads, he instructs them to simply focus on the words in front of them. “We are not robots,” the actress playing Sonya rebels. How are we supposed to do better if we don’t know what you want? “You don’t have to do better,” the director replies. “Just read the text.”
That exchange, a version of which also appears in Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II, is as close to a mission statement as this unassuming master gets. His movies, four of which are now available for streaming in the U.S., vary widely in subject and tone—from a sprawling melodrama about middle-aged women to a sci-fi short in which a virus has returned society to the pre-internet era—but they share an understanding that emotion doesn’t have to be present on the screen to be felt by the viewer. Hamaguchi’s characters are often driven to despair, but they rarely shed so much as a tear—although it’s probably no accident that his international breakthrough is the exception to that rule. Although his movies are not all as long as the three-hour Drive My Car—both Asako I & II and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy come in at a tidy two hours, while Happy Hour is longer than those movies combined—they all move at a similarly measured pace, letting us settle into the journey rather than focus on where it’s headed. The world seems to stand still, whether we’re living through a moment in real time or jumping forward by years, and when it starts up again, we’re not quite where we started.
Here’s a brief guide to the Hamaguchi movies you can watch at home.
Drive My Car
Loosely based on a trio of Haruki Murakami stories from the collection Men Without Women, Drive My Car has been racking up awards since its Cannes debut last year, including Best Picture honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics—the first time that trifecta has been achieved by a movie that’s not in English. The story centers on Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater director channeling the grief of his wife’s sudden death into a production of Uncle Vanya, but as much as the movie is suffused with melancholy, there’s a subtle playfulness to it, too, most succinctly illustrated by the fact that the opening credits roll 40 minutes in. Kafuku’s process, in which the actors—a multilingual bunch who all perform in their native tongues, including Korean sign language—read the play over and over until the words have been incorporated into their bodies, mirrors Hamaguchi’s own, as well as his interest in blurring the lines between fiction and documentary. There’s plenty of drama in Drive My Car, and not just Chekhov, as Kafuku comes to terms with the idea that his marriage died long before his wife did. But Hamaguchi’s dedication to letting the story’s revelations develop through sometimes elliptical conversations rather than forcing them to the surface gives them a unique, slow-burning power, and he understands as few filmmakers do how the front half of a car can be the most intimate of spaces, part traveling confessional and part time machine.
Where to watch: Drive My Car is in theaters, is available to rent for $5.99, and as of March 2, just began streaming on HBO Max.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
As noteworthy as Drive My Car’s many achievements have been, it’s not even the only great movie Hamaguchi released in 2021. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is as succinct as its pandemic-era twin is sprawling, a series of three short stories loosely united around the themes of, to quote its Japanese title, “chance and imagination.” Compressed into 40-minute arcs, the movie’s segments highlight Hamaguchi’s facility with knotty romances and erotic tension, especially when it’s expressed in words. (His characters like sex, but they like talking about sex even more.) Each story is full of enough surprises that I won’t risk spoiling their plots, except to say that they’re mostly built around intense two-person conversations of the kind Hamaguchi excels at staging, and none of them end up where you think they will.
Asako I & II
A recurring theme in Hamaguchi’s movies is the way the ghosts of past relationships can haunt us long after they’re over, sometimes outlasting by years the romances they represent. That idea finds its most literal expression in this 2018 movie, whose title character falls madly in love with a mysterious drifter, has her heart broken by his abrupt departure, and then takes up years later with a man who looks exactly like him. Of this quartet of Hamaguchis, Asako I & II is the one where the reserved acting style he favors least well serves the story. As Asako, Erika Karata is enigmatic verging on blank, staring into the middle distance when she’s meant to be falling in love at first sight. (Imagine Jules and Jim’s Jeanne Moreau drained of her fiery impetuousness.) But as the plot unfurls, the inward-turned nature of the performance also takes on new layers. It’s as if she’s been coasting through years of her life, to the point she’s forgotten what real feelings are like. An early shot shows Asako and her drifter boyfriend splayed out across a road in the aftermath of a motorcycle crash, their faces placid as they stare, unharmed, into each other’s eyes. But they haven’t avoided the impact entirely; it just takes a while to catch up with their bodies.
Where to watch: Asako I & II is available for digital rental and purchase, and with a subscription to the Criterion Channel, Mubi, Hoopla, and Kanopy. Grasshopper Film’s Blu-ray and DVD include an interview with Hamaguchi and his short film Like Nothing Happened.
The movie that first brought Hamaguchi to international acclaim is both a breakthrough and an anomaly. After making a trilogy of documentaries about the impact of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s Tohoku region in 2011, Hamaguchi felt ambivalent about returning to the contrivances of fiction. So he spent months staging improvisational workshops with nonprofessional actors and developing a story about four Kobe women in their late 30s coming to terms with the state of their lives. The resulting 2015 movie stretches over five hours, but for a film of that duration, it’s uniquely uninterested in its own length. Hamaguchi never tries to awe you with patience-expanding sequences or make you bend under its cumulative weight. If anything, Happy Hour feels light on its feet, its length arising organically out of the situations it depicts. (By the time in its fifth hour a character steps up to read a short story she’s written, you know you’re going to hear the whole thing.) One sequence, in which three of the characters take part in a Sunday afternoon workshop organized around the idea of “listening to your center” and share a drink afterward, takes almost an hour on its own, but it went by so quickly and was so engrossing I found myself staying up past midnight just to see how things turned out.
Unlike Drive My Car, which benefits from the sustained viewing most easily achieved in a theater, Happy Hour can be dipped into and out of almost at will. It’s the rare movie that deserves to be called novelistic, not because it’s epic in scope but because it functions through the patient accumulation of detail rather than through building up narrative momentum or juxtaposing events. That’s a way of saying not to let its length scare you off, but also that once you start watching, it becomes a moot point.
Where to watch: Happy Hour is available for rental and purchase through digital retailers, although it’s arbitrarily split into three parts. You can also stream it for free with ad breaks through Pluto TV, and with a subscription to the Criterion Channel. (Note to the thrifty cinephile: A month of the Criterion Channel costs less than renting all three parts of Happy Hour.) Kimstim’s Blu-ray and DVD include interviews outlining the film’s unique production process.