Five Transcendent Films to Watch by Oscar Nominee Ryusuke Hamaguchi

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Asako I & II, 2018
Asako I & II, 2018(Film still)

As Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film Drive My Car competes for multiple Oscars later this year, we recommend five of the Japanese director’s films to add to your watchlist

It’s not every day that an international filmmaker blows up overnight – but then again, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s got a knack for distinction. Count the accolades the Japanese filmmaker’s picked up for the two films he’s released in the past twelve months: Cannes FIPRESCI Prize, Berlin Silver Bear for Best Director, Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, National Society of Film Critics Best Film Prize. The list goes on. Wheel of Fortune of Fantasy (released February 11 in the UK) has enjoyed the lioness’ share of these – but that’s only because the BAFTA and Oscar-nominated Drive My Car has proven such a big hit with critics.

So what’s all the fuss? Well for one, Hamaguchi (a former student of the great Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa) offers delicate respect for the work of his actors, whose roles are developed over a long period of time through workshops and collaborative practices. The result is a brand of limited-budget filmmaking that puts believable dialogue, naturalistic performances and a phenomenal sense of realness at the forefront. The methods through which these results are achieved are often directly incorporated into the films’ narratives themselves (story threads involving classes or rehearsals for performative arts are a regular occurrence) – and as such, Hamaguchi has also developed a reputation for making films with gargantuan runtimes. It’s justified – the proof is in the pudding.

In a 2021 interview with MUBI’s online magazine The Notebook, Hamaguchi spoke of a profound experience he felt while watching director John Cassavetes’ film Husbands in his twenties: “For some reason watching those people on the screen, I felt as if their lives were more real and vivid than my own.” I can scarcely think of a better quote to describe the works of Hamaguchi himself. And that is what makes him the most exciting “new” director to emerge from Japan in years.

So go and see Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy this week, and then tuck in with some of Hamaguchi’s (many) other insatiable works before Drive My Car competes for multiple Oscars in March – where it has the potential to become this year’s Shoplifters, or even Parasite. You can get started with the highlights below:

Drive My Car, 2021

Having already competed for the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2021, Drive My Car opened 2022 in style by picking up a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Motion Picture – Japan’s first since 1960. Since then, the film has become only the sixth in history to win Best Picture from the three leading US critics groups (joining the likes of Goodfellas and Schindler’s List) – and the first one not in the English language. These nods ensured it is a frontrunner to win the Best International Feature Film prize at the Oscars in March – but the plot just got even thicker in February when the film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay too.

A transcendent adaption of a short story penned by Norwegian Wood writer Haruki Murakami, this three-hour opus marks the apex of Hamaguchi’s experimentations with longform cinema. It is the story of a widowed actor (a captivating Hidetoshi Nishijima) invited to direct a multilingual adaption of a Chekhov play in Hiroshima, where he finds himself reflecting on the past and the present while being driven in a red Saab 900 Turbo. Like the play itself – the preparation for which is eked out mindfully throughout the film – it is a film that communicates its message enigmatically, and abstractly. It might also be Hamaguchi’s masterpiece.

Underpinning the exemplary performances and crisp imagery is a minimal but evocative score from Eiko Ishibashi, a Japanese jazz-pop composer also known for her collaborations with former Sonic Youth member Jim O’Rourke. Her work here, built on languid drums, strings, guitar strums and ivory keys, effortlessly reflects the film’s pensive mood — leading noted critic Mark Kermode to name it his top film score of the year in 2021.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, 2021

The logical next step into Hamaguchi’s canon is assuredly his latest work – which won him the Best Director award at Berlin Film Festival in 2021. Relieved of any of the intimidation that comes with some of the XL runtimes found elsewhere, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy instead offers an anthology of three short films that each conjure up a fleeting sense of magic. The director’s attentive curiosity for the complexities of human relationships remains a rousing central theme in each.

A woman excitedly gossips about a budding romance with a close friend. A sexually charged conversation unfolds between a promiscuous student and a reticent university professor. Two former friends are brought together following a high school reunion, though neither can remember the other’s name. These are the three simple tales that comprise Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy – but it is in their transfixing presentation that the film’s power lies. 

Take the former – the opening tale of this triptych. The extended conversation, told by Tsugumi (Hyunri) to her friend Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), unfolds largely uncut in a series of long takes in the back of a cab, providing a lengthy, meandering opening to the film. But in its unassuming and blunt plainness, which allows the natural dialogue and realistic performances of the characters to shine, there is a beguiling verisimilitude – and this is what ameliorates each one of these microscopic character studies to a place of brilliance.

Asako I & II, 2018

“What’s your name?” says flip-flop-wearing Baku (Masahiro Higashide) to the meek, pixie-like Asako (Erika Karata). They meet here, for the first time, on a riverside path – surrounded by children letting off fireworks. This is love at first sight for the young woman, sealed by a kiss on the lips.

Two years later, after their relationship is suddenly truncated, Asako encounters a salaryman named Ryuhei (Higashide, again) who looks identical to her bygone first love. She imprints herself upon him, and the two become a couple – until a reminder of Asako’s past ignites an emotional crisis inside her.

Featuring all the hallmarks of a Hamaguchi classic – gentle pacing, fluid performances and urban, inner-city cinematography among them – Asako I & II is a confounding study of unresolved emotions set within an unlikely romantic framing (and with a conventional runtime of two hours). A precursor, in many ways, to Drive My Car, the film also offers a delicate difference of flavour thanks to a soundtrack of warm and woozy synth pads and playful, arpeggiated melodies, courtesy of electronic musician and DJ Tofubeats. 

Happy Hour, 2015

A group of middle-aged female friends in Kobe begin to reconsider their relationships after one files for divorce from her husband. As the nuances of each subject’s personality is laid bare, complex transformations begin to take place as the characters grow in unique fashions. Lengthy diversions and immersive side-plots revolving around seminars, book readings and courtroom proceedings, meanwhile, offer a space for reflection and rumination on the slow-moving events taking place. 

Happy Hour was developed following a six-month succession of improvisational acting workshops held by Hamaguchi from 2013, in which he claims that all participants became “professional in listening” to one another. As a result, this hypnotic character study is rich with believable performances – and the four amateur leads (each of whom was originally a participant in the workshops) were jointly awarded the Best Actress prize at the Locarno International Film Festival. 

Clocking in at a staggering five hours and 17 minutes, Happy Hour not only trumps Hamaguchi’s previous experiment in long-form composition (2012’s Intimacies), it is also the longest narrative feature in Japanese filmmaking history. Despite this, the director claimed in a 2021 introduction to the film that he still feels it is short – since the overall production, which included developing the relationships between the performers and defining the individual characters, took a year to complete.

Touching the Skin of Eeriness, 2013

This 54-minute pilot film was originally conceived to be shared with potential investors to raise funds for a wider narrative project called Floods, but as of today the latter has never been completed. As such, some strands of this abbreviated drama end up unfulfilled – and the narrative ends somewhat abruptly. But what we do get in this mystifying, pre-breakthrough Hamaguchi work is engrossing, thanks to a captivating turn from a young Shōta Sometani – later of works by Sion Sono, Takashi Miike and Hamaguchi’s mentor, Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

Sometani plays Chihiro, an adolescent boy who goes to live with his older brother (Kiyohiko Shibukawa, also of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) following the death of his father. His relief from an otherwise lonely, sullen life is observed in a series of near-silent scenes wherein he and another young boy (Hoshi Ishida) rehearse a beguiling ritual: an interpretive dance in which they intertwine with each other’s half-naked bodies, but are forbidden from making physical contact. They later recount a cryptic tip while discussing the project at a café: “Don’t move on your own, let your partner move you.”

Such bewitching scenes of rehearsal are echoed in later works by Hamaguchi like Happy Hour and Drive My Car – which both feature side-plots relating to obscure creative practices, each dependent on mutual trust and concentration. But the intense, homoerotic undertones are rather more unique to this entry in the director’s canon – which makes it all the more memorable in spite of its brevity.