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“My First Studio, Commercially Made Film”: Ryūsuke Hamaguchi on Solaris, Asako I & II and Japanese Film School

Masahiro Higashide and Erika Karata in Asako I & II

When Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour premiered in 2015, the 317-minute film raised a lot of questions, not least of which: who precisely was Hamaguchi, and what has he been doing for the last decade? There were some unkind trade reviews of his first feature films (Passion and The Depths) but not much else in English to draw upon, and his iMDB resume (including a full feature remake of Solaris!) raised more questions than it answered.

Metrograph’s recent retrospective provided some clarity. After his first two features, Hamaguchi collaborated on a trilogy of documentaries collecting testimonies from victims of 2011’s Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, an event which also provides a key pivot point in Hamaguchi’s latest film, Asako I & II. Like Happy Hour, it starts as a seemingly conventional film before mutating multiple times into something stranger and more devastating. Asako (Erika Karata) meets cute with Baku (Masahiro Higashide), a changeable young man who performs a variation on going around the corner for a pack of cigarettes and never coming back. Two and a half years, Asako meets his doppelgänger (also Higashide) and falls for him, but is her crush really for this considerably different and more responsible person’s own charms, or just as a replacement? The two start seeing each other, break things off, and are reunited after the earthquake (depicted—synecdochally, with a thriftiness that’s also extremely effective—through a theater’s lights suddenly going off, a loud rumble, and a cut back up to a chandelier crashing on stage). As the title (taken from Tomoka Shibasaki’s novel) indicates, there may be two Bakus but the real duality is Asako’s and what she learns about herself. As in Happy Hour and The Depths (a love triangle of sorts in which all three male protagonists are either bisexual or just closeted), the subject is not what happens when people lie to each other on purpose, but what happens when someone lies to themselves about who they are and what they want, creating unforeseen consequences for their relationships—a much more complicated and interesting proposition.

Unlike Happy HourAsako is relatively trim, coming in at just under two hours while packing in a considerable amount both thematically and formally—it’s the second major work from Hamaguchi, confirming he’s fully arrived, and worth the blurb-language designation of “one of the year’s best.” It’s also cut faster than Hamaguchi’s previous work, which is partly a budgetary function—after the breakout success of Happy Hour, this is his first commercial studio film. Hamaguchi was in New York for the opening weekend run of his film (which continues into next week at Metrograph—more playdates here), and I took advantage of the opportunity to fill in his background. My thanks to Amber Noé for translating.

Filmmaker: I have to ask about the Solaris remake.

Hamaguchi: I made that in 2007. Solaris was the first project that my professor, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, gave me in my first year as a grad student at the Tokyo University of Arts. That was only the second year that this Tokyo University of Arts program had been founded. I had a huge budget, 4 million yen or so. The first iteration of that project is normally to do a school horror film project. But for my iteration, Kurosawa gave us this project to adapt the original novel of Solaris. [He told us,] “I was really interested in the original novel. I thought maybe Tarkovsky did a good job with it, but Soderbergh didn’t really do a good job, so I wanted to see what you guys can do.” It was a 30-person class and we were all tasked to create this project together, performing different roles in the production. There was a competition for whose screenplay should be chosen, and mine was. The resulting 90-minute film was rather good, and critically well-acclaimed, but because we didn’t go through a rights process with the original novel, it couldn’t be shown publicly and we could only do internal screenings at school. I didn’t necessarily think of it as performance-based, but dialogue-based, and focused on the dialogue between the boy and the girl. I tried to film one line of dialogue that immediately results in the next in a direct, linear format, and realized that that had its limitations, so I tried to fix that in my next film, Passion.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about your path to becoming a director? I don’t know if that seemed like a real possibility growing up or if there’s a set path in Japan that’s widely understood.

Hamaguchi: Before I entered college, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about that, I was just purely a cinephile, conventionally in love with Hollywood films—Tarantino, Wong Kar-wai, things called mini theater films in Japan. But after I went to this film club in college and the cinephile culture just poured right in. I think the biggest inception for me to becoming a director was watching Cassavetes.

Filmmaker: Was Rivette important to you? Because he’s so interested in how actors rehearse, and you seem to come back a lot to performance and preparation.

Hamaguchi: I am not really necessarily interested in performance, per se, but in emotion. Of course I’ve seen the films of Rivette, but I thought Cassavetes’ films have more emotions with the performance. That’s what I was more interested in.

Filmmaker: Can you discuss your career path after graduating from the University of Tokyo?

Hamaguchi: I was an assistant director for commercial films. In Japan, it’s common for film production people to all be freelance workers and not adhere to a certain studio. I didn’t know how to get into the filmmaking industry—I knew that there were large TV production companies, but I didn’t know how else to get in touch with filmmaking other than to get into commercial filmmaking. One of my professors gave me a reference letter to one of the companies for a specific project. That was a complete failure. I couldn’t do the job well at all, and I couldn’t communicate well with my senior assistant directors. I didn’t know any of the lingo or the production language that was used on sets—I just wasn’t of use at all. I was on set for two films as assistant director, and after that, the director told me, “Don’t come to work.” But the director didn’t want to just leave me, so he referred me to a company that produces video packages for TV programs.That was actually a little bit more fun for me, because it took me to different places to do interviews. That lasted for about a while, but it wasn’t something I actually wanted to do.

Then I found out this new program—the film and new media program—was going to be founded at Tokyo University of the Arts, with Hiroshi Takahashi and Kiyoshi Kurosawa as teachers. I knew that this was the only way I could get into that filmmaking I actually wanted to do. I was not very good at assistant directing and realized I would never be able to become a director just from doing that. So, I needed to make independent films. I graduated in 2008 with the film Passion and thought that since it did kind of well, I could get into commercial filmmaking, but I couldn’t find a producer. One of the professors at Tokyo University of Arts, who was doing the producing course, is Kenzô Horikoshi. He founded one of the first minitheaters I was talking about, Eurospace. He’s actually a very pivotal figure, Mr. Horikoshi—in the ’90s, he founded Tokyo Film School and then went on to found this new film program at Tokyo University about producing. So, he was worried for me. At the time, there was an alliance between the Korean Film School and the Tokyo University of Arts, and the producing track was trying to create a project. Horikoshi assigned me to that project [The Depths], which was co-funded by both of the schools but would be shot in Japan with a Korean cast. The budget was about twice what I had for Solaris.

The inception for the Tōhoku track was Horikoshi again asked me if I wanted to come to the region to shoot some documentary film footage after the disaster.There was some organization’s project to record the aftermath, and the university was helping with that. Horikoshi just told me to shoot footage, not necessarily to shoot a film. I had been thinking of going to the region after the disaster—not necessarily in the form of filmmaking, just as a volunteer—but since the opportunity arose, I really wanted to go. At the time Sakai Ko was also assigned to this project, so we shot it together. The product of us going down from Iwate to Fukushima was The Sound of Waves. Horikoshi was actually content with that—”You guys made a film, that was fine”—but we weren’t satisfied with it. Horikoshi was like, the university doesn’t have funds for this, but we wanted to stay and shoot more, so we did. We moved to Sendai, which is in the middle of this Tōhoku region, and continued to shoot interviews with the victims and created Voices from the Waves, which was ultimately funded through grants. Around the same time, the Sendai cultural organization commissioned us to record the full tales of the region. That’s how Storytellers came about.

Filmmaker: In Asako, they drive from the city down to that region. I don’t know if that was in the book, but it’s directly related to the work you were doing in your documentaries.

Hamaguchi: It’s not in the book. The original is set in between 1999 and 2008, and my film is set between 2008 and 2016. This is my first studio, commercially made film; the Tōhoku aspect was introduced by a different script writer. It’s difficult in Japan to make a commercial film with an original story, as it is here, so I needed a story to adapt. I was actually the one that was pitched this idea, and the script writer, Tanaka Sachiko, justified the importance of this theme and how relevant it was. So I didn’t actually have to justify this with anyone, I just had to think about to be considerate of the actual victims in the Tōhoku region.

Filmmaker: The cut to darkness in the theater, and then having the chandelier drop after the lights come up, is a very effective solution.

Hamaguchi: That was part of Tanaka Sachiko’s script. She proposed that as a good budget-friendly way to depict the earthquake.

Filmmaker: The scenes with all the people streaming down the bridges after the earthquake is the most people you’ve ever worked with at one time in a frame.

Hamaguchi: Even though it’s an anomaly, it wasn’t a challenge for me. When I only have a very small budget, I will work with only two people. But if I’m on a commercial set, I want to test how far the limit is and use as many resources as possible.

Filmmaker: One moment that really messed me up in Happy Hour is the moment when they’re in the club and Ukai pushes Jun. It’s such a violent moment. I was so startled when I saw it because I interpreted it as aggression. My friend proposed that actually he’s trying to reach her on a different level. It  feels like in your work, there are a lot of moments when people fall down—something violent hits their body and hits them emotionally in the same way.

Hamaguchi: I’m not really thinking about it that way. When I’m working on a low budget film, the only tools that I have for storytelling are literally just the bodies of the actor. So, you can only have them standing, or sitting, or lying down. Those are my visual language tools. So in that visual language, the most extreme dynamic movement you can do is have an actor standing and then falling down. I keep that for the most extreme dramatic moments.

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