Not even a full 60 minutes have passed in director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s 317-minute Japanese ensemble drama Happy Hour when there’s a scene that functions as a synecdoche for the entire film. Four female friends in the dawn of adulthood—Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), Fumi (Maiko Mihara), Akari (Sachie Tanaka), and Jun (Rira Kawamura)—attend a “strange workshop” on nontraditional communication that plays out in its shambolic entirety as though the film were harnessing the hovering spirit of Jacques Rivette, segueing from intramural bodily exercises to subsequent group analysis just as in one of the marathon rehearsal sequences from Out 1.
The class’s Zen instructor, Ukai (Shuhei Shibata), guides his attendees through prolonged eye-contact sessions and shuffles around imaginary circles on the ground in hopes of encouraging them to channel “centers of balance,” which is his name for an intimate, compassionate communion between two people. The concept could double as the north star of this unassuming but deep-diving film, which probes the bonds that connect individuals, the question of why they’re so fragile, and of what enables them to snap or strengthen.
Also laid out in this lengthy scene is Hamaguchi’s patient, democratized approach, which scrutinizes episodes from these women’s lives at their own natural tempo regardless of the degree to which they align with the film’s ostensible storyline. Because of this generous elaboration of character, it’s not even until after this workshop sequence, over an hour into Happy Hour, that the inciting incident takes place: At a casual dinner afterward, talk of marriage and infidelity compels Jun to divulge details of her own upcoming divorce trial—news peppered by her unashamed admission of adultery committed against Kohei (Yoshitaka Zahana), her loveless husband. The information sends shockwaves through the group that ripple out gradually across the film’s ensuing hours, with each friend’s immediate reaction—moral disgust for Akari, skeptical indecision for Fumi, quiet empathy for Sakurako—evolving in time and ultimately spurring proactive life changes.
Hamaguchi arranges most sequences around a handful of static, roomy medium shots that subtly suggest emotional dynamics through camera and actor positioning; several scenes around a dining table demonstrate how much the director is able to express, how much latent energy he brings to the surface, merely through who’s in and out of the frame. In an excruciating trial scene brimming with the defense’s implicit sexism, Hamaguchi develops his shot choices around the axis of Jun’s head, keeping her central as the dehumanizing processes of the court play out in the distant background. The use of pillow shots and choices of placid interstitial music reveal Hamaguchi’s kinship to Yasujirō Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda, but the film’s formal DNA bears more traces of Eric Rohmer, who was similarly expert at orchestrating extensive dialogues with a minimum of overt directorial statement.
Hamaguchi’s most astute decision is to occasionally diverge from his established methods by shifting into 180-degree cuts along direct-address eye lines during moments of intimacy, emphasizing the intention behind Ukai’s teachings. The technique is introduced when the women enjoy a spa retreat to ease any frictions still lingering between them after Jun’s trial, with their concerted efforts to recalibrate their judgment toward their stressed comrade answered by Hamaguchi’s aesthetic shift. But just as platonic affection rouses visual closeness, undertows of male violence—be it through unfeeling intellectualism or actual sexual predation—usher the film toward more distancing aesthetic maneuvers. An indelible image, for instance, frames Kohei against a bright apartment window, which silhouettes his menacing figure, while a scene when Akari falls victim to a colleague’s aggressive advances is marked by a sudden intrusion of a suspense-building buzz—that is, until Hamaguchi reveals its source to be a whistling tea kettle nearby.
Reticence toward passively or actively violent men plays a key thematic role in a late sequence that mirrors the structure introduced in Happy Hour’s earlier workshop scene. A short-story reading is held at the same art space that hosted Ukai’s teachings, and in the Q&A that follows, Kohei appears to compassionately engage with the young female author’s personal literature. A subsequent dinner conversation, however, reveals that his empathy was feigned; in reality, he rejects the worldview expressed in the author’s words. Hamaguchi’s film is an impassioned retort to such moralizing. It expresses an earnest belief in the idea that accumulated life experience helps one circumnavigate such narrow-mindedness, and it does so by making viewers go through thick and thin with its principal characters—all of whom are imperfect, but keenly striving to eliminate baggage.