Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
August 24-30 at MoMA
It would be a disservice to readers not to mention it at all, so let’s get it out of the way: Happy Hour is five hours and 17 minutes long. Moreover, it is not an episodic experience like the silent serials or so many lengthy European projects that, through planning or incident, premiered on television. Happy Hour is simply a long film that feels no need to rush its story, letting scenes of mental exercise, friendly discussion, divorce and literary readings and Q&As play out patiently. “Novelistic” is a tempting, even apt label, so long as one also notes that Happy Hour is narrow and deep in scope, not a broad, sweeping epic.
It concerns the home, work and social lives of four friends in their 30s. Akari (Sachie Tanaka) is an assertive and direct nurse, a divorcee who trains an overly apologetic second-year resident at work and demands honesty from her friends; Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi) is friendly and somewhat complacent, trying to raise her teenage son but slowly drifting away from her husband; Fumi (Maiko Mihara), is reserved but principled and works for an artist/wellness instructor whom she brings together with one of the clients of her husband, an editor; the woman who brought everyone together is the calculating and independent Jun (Rira Kawamura). The reward for patience is the organic development of these characters, the kind that seems to happen because details will naturally emerge if given enough time—not much can be said about Fumi until the third hour—rather than because it was written to be that way and the story demands it.
With so much time, it is inevitable that the friends will quarrel, but they are quarrels that are resolved when each party meets for a group outing and has a moment to discuss it privately. While the microdynamics of friendships play out with a level of comfort and stability, the home lives of the women dissolve gradually. Fumi’s husband, Takuya, drives the women to the hot spring where they planned a getaway so he can meet with an author, and Fumi’s reticence among her friends and her turning away when the two groups cross paths by coincidence signal trouble. Sakurako’s husband will drive Jun home in one scene, and Jun’s questions suggest that their relationship might be going the way of her own, now stranded in divorce court. As viewers, we see the way a social life bleeds into a work life, for better and worse; we witness the additive effect continual small miscommunications can have on relationships; we hear differing (and often gendered) viewpoints on what form love should take.
As these events unfold, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi refuses to digress or to judge, putting us in the unique position of watching life happen in such a way that we accrue insight. Never does his story feel calculated or deterministic—a L’Avventura-like turn after the halfway mark and the intrusion of subplots reflect an attentiveness to reality that would be difficult to implement in a shorter film. That’s what makes Happy Hour such a delight. Two and even three hours is not enough time for life to happen—life is a long process that might even feel long, and its obstacles and pleasures are often unpredictable. Five hours and 17 unbroken minutes is long enough to replicate that spontaneity, and short enough to allow us to learn a little bit while it happens.