Gûzen to sôzô
starring Kotone Furukawa, Ayumu Nakajima, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Katsuki Mori, Fusako Urabe, Aoba Kawai
written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
by Walter Chaw Ryusuke Hamaguchi listens well. His films may be indicated by the denseness of their dialogue, their patience in allowing their characters to speak it, and his trust in his actors to do unbroken takes and in his audience to go along for the ride, but what enchants about them is how carefully they hear what their characters are saying, and how they invite us to do the same. At some point during each of Hamaguchi's films, I've found myself leaning in--not because the mix is too low, but because I'm socially conditioned to lean towards a speaker when they're saying something that's at once difficult for them to say and imperative that they say it. I'm giving these characters eye contact and attention. Hamaguchi's movies are a form of communion--that is to say, a connection that touches on profundity. Given their intimacy and wisdom, they hold within them the capacity to rip my guts out. Which they do, remorselessly and sweetly. Does that describe the concept of "winsome"? In "Magic," the first of the three short films that comprise Hamaguchi's Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, beautiful Tsugumi (Hyunri), in the back of a long cab ride with her friend Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), describes a platonic first date in which she and her partner "caress" each other with their words. Not "talk dirty," she clarifies--getting to know the other person by telling the truth when lies are expected. Through Tsugumi, Hamaguchi is talking about his process.
This opening segment follows how this young man Tsugumi has met, Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima), is still hung up on some old flame who broke his heart two years ago. "Too long," says Meiko, and Tsugumi agrees, but they both think it's terribly romantic anyhow. That span of time connects Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy to Drive My Car, Hamaguchi's other film releasing this year, and I wonder if this series of short subjects served a palette-cleansing function for the sustained emotional work of the other: pressure-release valves or sparks of inspiration needing a place to go but not quite fecund enough for a feature-length treatment. Meiko has thoughts on Tsugumi's new beau, and, in a moment of crisis, she has a choice to make about whether or not to tell her friend. Say something true and she may ruin her friendship; say nothing and she may ruin herself. It's a beautiful piece with beautiful performances. When Hamaguchi splits his conclusion so we can see the consequences of both of Meiko's possible actions, it's uncommonly poignant. It doesn't make a difference what Meiko does, you see, because the burden of being a friend is occasionally fatal to a friendship. Tell a lie and you could save your friendship for a little while but destroy yourself; tell the truth and you will inevitably destroy your friendship and yourself. Sometimes, there are no positive outcomes. Sometimes, life is merely a series of disappointments and delayed heartbreak.
In the second segment, "Door Wide Open," literature student Sasaki (Kai Shouma) sprawls prostrate on the floor before his professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko), begging him not to fail him even though he might deserve it. Segawa stands firm. Later, Sasaki, lamenting the choices that led him to this place but still holding his teacher responsible for his current, listless state, convinces his older lover Nao (Mori Katsuki) to "honeypot" the aging professor, capturing the encounter on her phone in the days following Segawa's euphoria at winning a coveted literary prize for his erotic novel. The erstwhile seduction occupies the bulk of this section, with Nao repeatedly testing Segawa's policy of keeping his office door wide open: shutting it to make her move only to have Segawa open it again. Segawa is off in his affect, however, not reacting in any expected way to Nao's advances and coming to life only when he learns that she's been recording him and has captured herself reading a particularly racy segment of his award-winning novel. "I could never have dreamed that someone with as beautiful a voice as yours would ever have read my work out loud." He asks her if he can have a copy of the file, and she agrees so long as he promises that, at least once, he'll masturbate to it. Sex is about power, and power makes people weird. The glory of "Door Wide Open" is that it's never clear who has the upper hand and when, or why, and it never becomes more clear, though Nao's actions years later when she and Sasaki have a chance meeting on the bus suggest that with a swapping of roles, and a stolen kiss, she's regained some of her power while he's lost some of his.
"Once Again," the closing segment, involves a chance meeting between former classmates Nana (Kawai Aoba) and Moka (Urabe Fusako), catching up in an excited flurry of platitudes and invitations to tea after spotting each other on escalators going in opposite directions. Following their fifteen-minute walk back to Nana's place it's revealed that the memories of their time together, and their attendant regrets, are more vivid and real to them than anything in their current lives. Moka remembers Nana as the first person she ever loved; Nana remembers Moka as the girl she met in the band room on off-periods with whom she would play the piano and talk about what would become of them when they were as old and tired as they are now. They agree to provide mutual closure by being the conversational partner the other had fantasized about through their life's choices. Moka confesses that she never could love anyone else, not really; Nana confesses that although she has a husband and two kids, she's lost her passion for everything and can feel time stalking her like a predator in a deep wood. During their brief interlude, they find a way to bury the past so that they might be able to move forward finally. What kills me is the revelation that we are not what we used to be--and we were never what others needed us to be in the first place.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy seems at first to be an anthology without a theme, but what Hamaguchi's working out here is the very nature of how we build our identity around the choices we make, what we think of ourselves, and, perhaps above all, what others expect of us. Is Meiko the wild, mercurial force of nature who hurts the people she loves? Though Kazuaki thinks so, Tsugumi doesn't: the one a potential lover or rival for a friend's attention, the other her best friend and confidante. So which is she? It doesn't matter what Meiko does, really, because this fracture in how the people closest to her perceive her will, in the end, shatter the bonds that connect them. And what is Nao to her lover? To her lover's tormentor, who proves himself to understand her more than her lover ever could? How do her actions, her deceit and then her decision to come clean about it, inform who she is? Nao tells Segawa that she doesn't know herself, and he disagrees. In her promiscuity, he sees a self-confidence that is rare, even threatening, to men not similarly conversant in the means through which to express their sexual desires. It's a problem his book appears to address: the man who apologizes after ejaculation. As she reads it aloud in an attempt to seduce the author with his own words, she comes to know herself through him. And everything changes for both of them.
It's the final segment that brings it all together, though, reminding me immediately of an extended passage from Douglas Adams's So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish when Arthur Dent, after living lifetimes across multiple realities and experiencing the destruction of Earth (twice?) as well as the end of the universe (just the once), finds himself with his one true love, Fenchurch. He tells her about the time he sat down at a table with a newspaper and a package of biscuits across from a businessman while waiting for a train. Adams is a good listener, too, much like Hamaguchi, and where his The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "trilogy" is commonly accepted as a masterpiece of science-fiction and a brilliant example of social satire, quantum philosophy, or theatre of the absurd, what it isn't immediately thought of as is an unusually moving bit of relational humanism. The last thing I expected upon a recent reread was to tear up at the resolution to Arthur's trials. In the tale Arthur tells his true love, he struggles for an appropriate reaction to the outrage of a stranger eating from his packet of treats--expressing in detail the various agonies he's cycling through without expressing anything outwardly--only to discover at the end of the ordeal that it's he who has been eating the stranger's biscuits.
Related as an amusing anecdote at his own expense, Arthur's story builds to the punchline that the torture he believes this character is inflicting on him is, in fact, something he is inflicting on a total stranger. "Once Again" is an exercise in sonder, a deflation of insularity that, via the ritual of reaching out to someone (a stranger literal or essentially) in whom they can invest the fullness of their regret, breaks these characters free of the solipsism that is suffocating joy from their lives. It's what we do when we find a therapist we like, but better because the receptacle for our arrest is also its source. The piece begins with a misunderstanding and ends with a recovered memory that brings both of them, Nana and Moka, to ecstatic, cathartic tears. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy says that no meeting is a chance meeting and that no decision comes to life and dies in a vacuum--that everything that happens to us is a puzzle-piece of who we are, and that other people are important because, without them, any knowledge of ourselves is incomplete. We are only whole with the help of everyone else, and we can only be healed once we reconcile who we believe ourselves to be in our hearts with the misconceptions everyone else holds of us in theirs. Maybe they're not misconceptions at all, just a different perspective, possibly a better one, on what you mean to be when you're trying your best. Hamaguchi isn't saying that everything will be okay--far from it. He's saying that you have a choice to live authentically or not, because here's pain, so much of it, waiting for you whichever path you choose.