Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s new film touches upon all his strengths as a screenwriter and director, and screens this Wednesday, November 3, at MMoCA.
Header Image: In the film’s third short, “Once Again,” Natsuko (Urabe Fusako) stands frame left wearing a blue V-neck shirt and backpack. At Sendai Station (Miyagi), she intimately greets a somewhat surprised Nana (Kawai Aoba), who faces Natsuko in a white long-sleeved dress shirt.
The cinema year of 2021 would seem to belong to Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. With two new films getting the festival treatment—Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy Movie premiering in the spring, and Drive My Car cruising into Cannes over the summer—there’s been a lot of clamor for the Japanese writer-director who broke out in 2015 with the epic five-hour drama Happy Hour. Hamaguchi’s lighter and lovely pop romance follow-up, Asako I & II, screened locally at the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival. Since then, the aspiring auteur has been further honing his craft and guiding his interest in human relationships with a delightfully progressive and modern, but not quite postmodern, hand. In essence, Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy, which is seeing a Madison premiere on Wednesday, November 3, as part of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Spotlight Cinema series, picks up where Asako left off, humorously and poignantly ruminating on concepts of fate and chance (the Japanese title for the film is Coincidence And Imagination), but with a microcosmic literary twist in a two-hour triptych anthology.
While the cinema medium isn’t always kind to dialogue-heavy narratives, Hamaguchi’s meticulous screenwriting just persistently oozes intrigue. Whether it’s in the romantic tension of the first episode here, “Magic (Or Something Less Assuring),” the lustful envy seeping through second story, “Door Wide Open,” or the pensively stirring drama of the concluding “Once Again,” the scenic structuring of three intense tête-à-têtes is increasingly daring and optimistic. In each setup, Hamaguchi finds bittersweet bliss, shifting the scale that balances the inherent embarrassment in any companionship with the possibilities of profound understanding. Therefore, examined as three miniatures of a broader theme, Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy might just be the perfect primer for anyone who felt that Happy Hour was beckoning to them but were somewhat uneasy about committing over five hours to it out of curiosity. Confidently, this anthology reads like a Hamaguchi CV, a testament to his strengths as a writer and filmmaker in equal measure.
“Magic (Or Something Less Assuring)” may not be the most strikingly humorous of the three short films, but it does successfully subvert the love triangle trope. Its main character and model Meiko (Furukawa Kotone) confronts her ex-boyfriend Kazuaki (Nakajima Ayumu) after she infers that her friend Gumi (Hyunri)’s new “hottie” is her old flame. After Meiko surprises Kazuaki at his office, her dramatic monologue ends up spilling out like the speech of a grade schooler coming to terms with her anger; it’s strangely stilted, cathartic, and dotty all at once. Each short of the anthology toys with elements of fantasy, but “Magic (Or Something Less Assuring),” leans most overtly in that direction as its title suggests. Further honing the theatricality of Meiko’s manipulative diatribe to Kazuaki, the film distinctively augments their drama with a camera zoom that manipulates time, offering Meiko a chance to redo a café encounter between her, Kazuaki, and Gumi.
The following chapter, “Door Wide Open,” is arguably the most playful and yet unfortunate of the three, emerging as a commentary on a woman Nao (Mori Katsuki)’s recognition of her own folly and agency amidst the devious devices of men around her. As Nao’s younger boyfriend Sasaki (Kai Shouma) seethes with jealousy over their professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko) winning the Akutagawa Prize for literature, Sasaki seems to accidentally employ reverse psychology to convince Nao to seduce Segawa to create a career-cursing scandal. However, nothing would seem to be in cosmic order. Hamaguchi vividly conjures a happenstance suspended somewhere between predestination and chaos in one of the more memorably awkward teacher-student talks ever captured in a film (between Nao and Segawa). Their confused readings of intent, role-playing, and swift revelations foreshadow the final short in the triptych, which features some of the most tender and graceful scenes Hamaguchi has ever written.
Filmed during pandemic lockdown in spring of 2020, “Once Again” devises a scenario to explain the ghostly barren locations like Sendai Station railway junction in Miyagi. But beyond these indelible shots of deserted urban landscapes, this short focuses on Natsuko (Urabe Fusako), who momentarily attends her (presumably) 20th high school reunion only to feel like an outcast. That is, until the next day when she spots a long-lost friend Nana Aya (Kawai Aoba) opposite her on the Sandai Station escalator. Projecting her desires onto Nana, Natsuko eventually realizes that she’s not speaking to the person in her memory. But rather than turn forthcoming scenes into a confrontational bit of cringe comedy, Hamaguchi lets their mistaken rendezvous sentimentally play out, as he references his prior film Asako I & II most directly in their encounter but also Happy Hour in essentially imagining Natsuko and Nana as two strangers-as-old friends. Their sweetly funny scenes have the deepest impact of all and demonstrate a willingness of two outsiders to essentially role-play therapists for each other, in realizing that high school past does not define the adult present or future possibility. While it’d be stretch to collectively define Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy as a psychological drama, perhaps this particular segment is also a glimpse into Hamaguchi’s own future, richly building the psyches of women, facilitating most unorthodox mutual confessions.
Certainly, anyone casually glancing at this anthology film’s title may think it’s somehow putting a grandiose or psychedelic spin on a story associated with Merv Griffin’s long-running American game show. Rather, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is once again subverting literality and expectations, as he is consumed with the nuanced, interpersonal games that humans play in seeking validation and acceptance. In Beatrice Loayza’s Cinema Scope review, she likens Hamaguchi to a twenty-first century André Breton, obsessed with chance “appearances and outbursts of the repressed [that] make existence tragic, interesting, fluid.” While far from embracing the surrealism of the aforementioned author outright, Hamaguchi indeed never seeks an end. Akin to American auteur Richard Linklater, he strives for a feeling of continuation, in believing in eternal perseverance amid all the sudden curves that life may throw at his characters, and, by extension, us.