Happy Hour

Four friends gather for a picnic, another of their regular get togethers, and they talk, as usual, about any and all things. There are no secrets among the 30-something women, who savor their time away from their daily lives, in “Happy Hour.”

Laura's Review: A-

Jun (Rira Kawamura), Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), Akari (Sachie Tanaka) and Fumi (Maiko Mihara), four fast friends in their late thirties, enjoy a picnic but not the foggy view of their home town Kobe. Perhaps it is a picture of our future, suggests one before all four make plans to attend Fumi's undersold workshop that coming Sunday and an overnight trip to Arima Hot Spring. While the first event will reveal the women in surprising ways, the second will result in the disappearance of Jun, the woman who connects them all, after she fails to win her petition in divorce court, an event which will reverberate through the lives of the remaining three in "Happy Hour." Cowriter/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's (whose first film in 2007 was a remake of "Solaris!") four-way Locarno Film Festival Best Actress winner was as noted for its five hour seventeen minute running time as its prize, a length which curtailed its theatrical potential. It may be difficult to conceive, but the film's length is actually a plus, long scenes running in what feels like real time allowing small details to take on big significance and personalities and perspective to develop. The film is like an immersive bath which we only think of getting out of when the water becomes uncomfortably cool, the joy of friendship replaced with individual hard truths in the film's later goings. We get brief glimpses of each woman's separate life. Jun and Sakurako are housewives whose husbands Kohei (Zahana Yoshitaka) and Yoshihiko (Tsugumi Kugai) are emotionally removed professionals, our most traditional view of Japanese urbanites. Fumi's work managing an arts space keeps her within the orbit of her book editor husband Takuya (Hiroyuki Miura) but their personal time appears consumed by work. Akari is a divorced nurse whose perfectionism is admired by Dr. Kurita but tough on the younger caregiver under her supervision. The workshop which takes up much of the first half of the film is a brilliant set piece, one which stresses Japanese reserve and introduces outside influences. Led by Ukai (Shuhei Shibata), an artist who came to prominence by standing beach debris on end by finding the pieces' centers of balance, the afternoon involves touching and communication. Fumi is pleased observing from the sidelines as participants express their surprise at how pleasurable physical touch is. Only one, Hinako (Hiromi Demura), claims to 'not get it,' a negative perspective that will take on additional weight when we learn just who she is much later in the film. As the session breaks up, Sakurako is surprised to be asked out by Kazama (Hajime Sakasho) as she stands at some vending machines. She turns him down, stating that she is with friends, but they find themselves reunited as the entire group goes out for drinks. Ukai questions people about their backgrounds, getting an impassioned speech from Akira about strains on the medical profession. Then Jun drops her bomb - she's getting divorced and has had a lover for about a year. This is the first major pivot point in the movie as we see that Fumi, but especially Akari, bristle at Jun's longer relationship with Sakurako, who found out Jun's news earlier in the day. The next morning, Jun, who's stayed overnight at Sakurako's, gets a ride from Sakurako's husband Yoshihiko and advises him on what a prize he has in her. The second major pivot occurs during their overnight trip. At one point, the four, clearly enjoying their time together, stop at a bridge when they spot Takuya, who had driven them all there as he would be there for work, walking with the younger Miss Nose (Ayaka Shibutani), his author. Their innocent greeting and its response is followed by the four's quiet reflection. Although we observe Jun's solo departure on a bus, three weeks later Sakurako, Araki and Fumi are gathered together by Kohei who is desperate to find her but none know her whereabouts. Hamaguchi offers great perspectives into the dynamics of friendship, marriage and the unknowability of others, shedding surprising light on the men in these women's lives in his final acts. We miss Jun's beatific presence in the film's second half (there is a wonderful moment when she departs on a ferry, crossing paths with Sakurako's teenaged son Daiki), the filmmaker following the remaining women separately as they all come to painful conclusions. Miss Nose comes into focus at a reading event hosted by a miserable Fumi, another powerful set piece where, of all people, Kohei opens up. Sakurako, who'd complained about her mother-in-law's presence, finds an ally. Akira tries on several men but finds out more about herself connecting with women. Cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa favors bright expanses both indoors and out, Kobe's architecture well defined. Umitarô Abe's string quartet and simple piano score is delicately emotive. What Hamaguchi and his cast have accomplished with "Happy Hour" will linger long in the memory, as satisfying as an epic work of classic literature. Grade:

Robin's Review: DNS