Why this might not seem so easy

Perhaps more than any other director working today, Japanese auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi probes and pulls at cinema’s narrative possibilities. In doing so, he has created a body of work that’s as varied as it is determined to explore how people relate to the truth.

Hamaguchi had a great year in 2021, with not one but two of his films – Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car – winning big at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival respectively. It’s a mark of the director’s versatility that the two films could scarcely be more different.

A cerebral director, Hamaguchi has long been beguiled by the life-changing power of frank conversation, giving his films a plainspokenness that belies the reflexivity and meta complexity of so much of his work. For Hamaguchi’s characters, honesty is liberation. But honesty also brings forth a terrifying fixity that his characters must negotiate – a negotiation that often begins off-screen, after the final credits have rolled.

Despite their recurring motifs, no two Hamaguchi films are alike, and yet each is Hamaguchi to its core. His achievement lies not in a single film, but in an oeuvre whose imagination and narrative restlessness offer something for everyone.

The best place to start – Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Winner of the Silver Bear in Berlin in 2021, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is Hamaguchi’s most accessible work, but it’s no less preoccupied with the director’s favoured themes. It’s also worth watching for another reason: it’s that rare anthology film whose constituent parts are equally and consistently compelling.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)

The first of the triptych charts a love triangle between a model named Meiko, her best friend Tsugumi, and Kazuaki, whom Tsugumi is seeing – and who happens to be Meiko’s ex. Almost immediately we encounter a Hamaguchi hallmark: one person opens up to another at length in a moving vehicle. If you don’t find this conversation compelling, it’s fair to say you won’t like Hamaguchi: arguably even more than with, say, Ingmar Bergman or Jean Eustache, Hamaguchi’s films revolve around lengthy, disarmingly direct conversations.

This 40-minute story has several twists, not least its reflexive ending, in which Meiko’s apparent power seems to be trumped by that of her author, Hamaguchi. It’s a playful, unshowy reminder of how powerful we might be at decisive junctures – and how powerless we are afterwards.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)

The film’s second segment, about a student whose vengeful boyfriend uses her to exact revenge on a professor who humiliated him, also hinges around a lengthy dialogue. Again, the power dynamic fluctuates; defences are cast aside, and assumptions remade; and the denouement – which plays on a fear we’ve all experienced in the age of digital communication – is a gut-wrencher.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)

We end with the most curious of the three female-centred segments. A young woman, Natsuko, attends a school reunion, where she feels distinctly out of place. On her way home she bumps into a classmate she recognises, who invites Natsuko to hers for a drink. Revelations and transformations gently ensue, and it ends with intelligently earned closure while somehow still leaving things intriguingly open-ended.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy may seem light-hearted, but it is far from trivial; the literal translation of its Hamaguchically-prosaic Japanese title, ‘Coincidence and Imagination’, is a fairer approximation of the film’s playfully philosophical approach. You’ll be engrossed throughout; you’ll ponder its characters and crossroads long afterward, and your heart will not fail to respond. What more could you want from a film?

What to watch next

Hamaguchi’s first mature work was Happy Hour (2015), whose five-and-a-quarter-hour duration – the director’s first major cinematic experiment with narrative to a get a relatively wide release – constitutes a radical act of emotional investigation and empathy. We spend these hours primarily with four thirtysomething women: one divorced, one divorcing, one in a seemingly loveless marriage, and the other in a seemingly harmonious one.

Happy Hour (2015)

The four central performances are extraordinary, though the actors (Sachie Tanaka, Hazuki Kikuchi, Maiko Mihara and Rira Kawamura) had never appeared in a feature film before. Early in the film is a half-hour scene set in one room, where the women attend a new-age workshop held by a charismatic guru. With its exploration of oneness and togetherness, trust and insecurity, balance and entropy, this remarkably calming, engrossing scene functions as a symbolic roadmap to the rest of the film. Even the guru, a side character, is revealed over the next five hours to not quite be what he seems. With its broad, generous canvas, the film acquaints us intimately with not just the protagonists but the people that most closely orbit them. No character is easily forgotten.

Asako I & II (2018)

Happy Hour is worth the investment. But if you’d like something shorter and more conventional, Asako I & II (2018) is an easy watch with a high-concept twist. The titular character falls in love with the mercurial, too-cool-for-school Baku, only for him to disappear unexpectedly some months into their relationship. Two years later, Asako encounters Ryohei, a salaryman in the sake trade who looks identical to Baku but behaves completely differently. Drawn to each other, they embark on a relationship that seems ideal – until an ideal gets in the way. Themes of emotional trauma, the disjuncture between real love and perfect love, and the temporary freedoms afforded by travel mark this out as a Hamaguchi joint, though its filmic grammar is more conventional than in much of his other work.

Drive My Car (2021)

Winner of three awards at Cannes, including best screenplay, Drive My Car (2021) might be the most layered film in a layered filmography. Yusuke (played by a magisterial Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor and director whose wife, Oto, despite appearing to love him dearly, cheats on him habitually. Her death occasions an odyssey of contemplation on the nature of love, as well as an extended, circuitous attempt by Yusuke to get to know Oto’s last paramour.

Tonally, Drive My Car could not be more different to the Beatles song that gives it its name, an irony the film inherits from the Haruki Murakami short story that inspired it. That short story struggles to tackle revelation and self-reckoning without being stultifyingly prosaic. But Hamaguchi takes the basic plot, adds embellishments – including his own preoccupation with theatre – and fashions a gossamer-winged (or should that be gossamer-wheeled?) meditation on grief, silence, art, growth and love. The theatrical scenes can feel a little long, especially for those who have little patience with Yusuke’s beloved Chekhov. But Hamaguchi is always patient with his characters, and the viewer’s patience is rewarded in kind.

Where not to start

As he has grown as a director, Hamaguchi has become increasingly skilled at translating emotion from theory into praxis, and his last four films have flowed atop powerful undercurrents of existential melancholy while realising his vision most satisfyingly. His early films see him finding his feet.

Passion (2008), completed as part of his university degree, is well acted, with decent dialogue, and there are grace notes to be found, but the film’s long-dark-night-of-the-soul atmosphere feels sophomoric, and a bizarre classroom-set interlude is a misstep.

The Depths (2010)

The Depths (2010), a Korean-Japanese co-production about three men in various stages of acceptance of their sexuality, sees Hamaguchi improve on his blocking, and a larger budget allows him more sophisticated lighting and camerawork, crucial to the film’s brooding atmosphere. Again, he directs the actors well, but his handling of queer relationships doesn’t feel convincing, and ultimately the film seems like more of a mood piece than a character study.

Intimacies (2012) charts the struggle to stage a play, followed by the stage play itself, and an epilogue. Given its four-hour length, it’s one for the acolytes, for fans of Jacques Rivette, or for those especially interested in the mechanics of student theatre.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is in cinemas from 11 February 2022.