The word communication is uttered frequently in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s spellbinding Happy Hour, a film that devotes much of its epic length to showing how emotions are conveyed and dissembled, whether verbally or nonverbally. Running nearly five and a half hours, Hamaguchi’s movie foregrounds the quotidian, revealing the latent drama in the most seemingly mundane moments.
Set in Kobe, Japan, Happy Hour centers on a quartet of female friends in their late thirties. The foursome is first seen riding a funicular to a hilltop picnic spot, their smiles and laughter during their ascent signaling their rapport. Jun (Rira Kawamura) is the fulcrum of the group, having introduced Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), her pal of 25 years, to Fumi (Maiko Mihara) and Akari (Sachie Tanaka). When not focusing on the dynamics (and occasional fissures) among this coterie, Happy Hour concentrates on each member’s domestic and professional life in scenarios that introduce an expanding constellation of spouses, exes, in-laws, children, co-workers, crushes, rivals, and fleeting acquaintances. Like the protagonists, all of the minor characters, regardless of the screen time allotted them, are fleshed out with an abundance of piquant detail; no player in Happy Hour is insignificant or unmemorable.
Reportedly, Hamaguchi, who wrote Happy Hour with two others, developed the project through workshops with a cast of mostly first-time actors; the resulting alchemy leads to a superbly wrought ensemble performance. Though Hamaguchi’s is a film in which banal actions are imbued with grace — even the hanging up and removing of laundry from a patio clothesline kept me rapt — Happy Hour does have set pieces, showstoppers of a sort that play out almost in real time. The first of these sequences, occurring roughly half an hour in, involves a workshop with the highly unpromising title “Listen to Your Center,” held at the arts-and-events center where Fumi is a curator. For about 45 thoroughly absorbing minutes, we watch as the four friends and a dozen or so strangers engage in intimate exercises: standing forehead to forehead, placing an ear on another’s belly.
“It was nice to touch each other for no apparent reason,” Jun says afterward at a dinner honoring the seminar leader, Ukai (Shuhei Shibata), an ostensibly virtuous man later revealed to be a bit of a pickup artist. The observation — so moving in its simplicity and accuracy — is made by the character who suffers the most in Happy Hour; Jun’s marital crisis has ripple effects on her confidantes, prompting them to assess their own conjugal contentment. Funny (sometimes caustically so), rueful, and bracingly honest, Happy Hour is also a movie defined by an unshakeable belief that any encounter holds the promise of magic. As Jun says to a woman she’s just met on a bus: “There are so many wonderful people. It’s harder not to like somebody.”
Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
MoMA, August 24–30