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Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and The Cinema of Listening

by Gabriel Carneiro

          Drive my car (2021) follows, among others, the process of staging the play Uncle Vanya, by Russian playwright Anton Tchécov. Much of the film revolves around the backstage, the rehearsals, and the purposes of the staging, often seeking a correlation between Tchécov's text and the situation experienced by the protagonists, actor and theater director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his driver Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), who are experiencing grief and need to find some way to move on. However, Drive my car is also a film about the dilemmas of communication, a frequent theme in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's filmography. 

        Drive my car burbles this instance on two fronts. On the one hand, there is the whole method proposed by Kafuku, who stages his montages in a multilingual manner, in which each actor speaks a different language and, even without understanding what is being said, must act as if they understand. He has been working for years with this process and for years with Uncle Vanya, often playing the protagonist. The movie tells us about this in a long 40-minute prologue that situates us in his life and culminates in the death of his wife, with whom he had a complex relationship. Drive my car, however, focuses more on the events of two years later, when Kafuku takes a job as an artist-in-residence in Hiroshima and that is when we see in detail his methodology put into practice.

      For the staging in Hiroshima, Kafuku calls on, among others, actors from Japan, China, the Philippines, and South Korea. Each actor speaks a different language, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog. One of the actresses, a mute, communicates in Korean sign language. To be able to dialogue on stage, more than rehearsing, they first need to read and memorize their text, and second, and much more important, to listen. That is why Kafuku - mimicking the very process developed by Hamaguchi over the years - repeats to exhaustion reading tables, in which he encourages the actors only to read the text many times and without trying to impose an emotion on it. They have to learn to listen to their colleagues and assimilate the voices, the sounds of the words, their inflections, the rhythm. This seems to be the main tone of Hamaguchi's cinema: how, in order to communicate, we need to know how to listen.

         The filmmaker has always been interested in filming the most trivial human relationships and the crisis of conventional love relationships. Since his first film, Like nothing happened (2003), shot amateurishly in super8, we see friends and couples meeting, talking, trying to understand each other. Passion (2008), his graduation feature, inspired by John Cassavetes, is about the love relationships of a group of friends approaching 30. In Passion, however, Hamaguchi had not yet discovered listening as the foundation of communication. In one of the first scenes of the film, for example, we see several people at a restaurant table. They are there to celebrate the 29th birthday of one of the characters. During the conversation she tells him that she is getting married to her boyfriend, which generates a commotion - from people celebrating the fact to those who are jealous. As is often the case in Hamaguchi's films, the characters talk a lot and there is almost no room for silence. In filming the scene, the filmmaker opts for a functional and almost frenetic decoupage. Each character is filmed in close-up. Before they start talking, the camera cuts to the character in question. We are always watching them speak, rarely watching them listen, as if the interest is always in the speech, in the action, and never in the reaction.

        The importance of listening begins to become clearer to the filmmaker when he makes the documentary Nami no oto (2012) alongside Kô Sakai. The original project was to capture footage of the Tōhoku region after the 2011 natural disaster. However, Hamaguchi and Sakai decided to make a film themselves, and to do so they interviewed several victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The feature basically consists of people telling their stories. Instead of recording interviews, they filmed them as conversations. Two or more people dialogue about the tragedy, but also talk about life. The directors opted for long shots, in which they show all the interlocutors, and for a shot and reverse shot editing, as is usual in fiction, in which the camera alternates between one and the other. At certain moments, the duo goes further and takes the point of view of one of the interlocutors. We then see one of the people speaking directly to the camera - she, and therefore we, become the other end of the dialogue, the one who listens. By doing this, and by choosing not to include cover shots, more than breaking a pattern of documentary aesthetics, they highlight the importance of what is being said and who is saying it. The directors constantly draw our attention to those people, to pay attention to them, that their stories and their experiences matter. Hamaguchi and Sakai have also made three more related documentaries in which they delve into the sensory and aesthetic experience: Nami no koe: Shinchimachi (2013), Nami no koe: Kesennum (2013), and Storytellers (2013).

          The Nami no oto experience profoundly impacts Hamaguchi's cinema, not only in terms of content - both Happy hour (2015) and Asako I & II (2018) feature characters directly sensitized by the events of March 11, 2011, for example - but also in form. Hamaguchi's cinema becomes essentially a cinema of listening, more concerned with showing his characters absorbing or reacting to what is being said, rather than speaking. Listening becomes more important. Speech takes center stage in specific scenes, formally denoting its relevance.

          Let's go back to Drive my car. There are two key scenes there to understand this duality - this being the second instance mentioned earlier. For Kafuku, driving his car is part of the process. When the institution that hires him forces him to have someone else drive his car, he is very upset. During the crossings, he and the driver hardly speak to each other. In the first scene in question, after they have dinner at the producer’s and one of the actresses' house, in which Kafuku confesses that he really likes the way Watari drives, pointing out there almost a mastery of craftsmanship, they have a talk. The conversation begins trivially, but gradually deepens. He tells her about the tape he listens to on every trip, in which his wife says Uncle Vanya's lines for him to practice. She, in turn, tells about how she learned to drive and about her mother, also deceased. The whole scene takes place in the car. She in the front driving, he in the back. The configuration of the space makes a frontal dialogue impossible and also points to a hierarchy. Hamaguchi alternates close-ups of him and her, often giving more space to the characters listening. Although they are finally communicating, the film separates them by framing. At the end of the scene, we see a joint shot, the two of them in frame, as if a harmony is finally created between them. The shot ends with her looking into the rearview mirror, both of them, at that moment, can look at each other and share something more than words. 

        In the second scene, near the end of the film, they are again in the car, but the spatial configuration has changed. Kafuku is no longer in the back seat, but next to Watari. The relationship is horizontalized. The scene begins and ends with the two of them in the frame. They start, therefore, from the same place; there seems to be an established relationship between the characters that did not exist before. As in the previous scene, we see a conversation, in which they talk in more detail about grief and the loss of loved ones and the difficulty of overcoming this. The staging of the dialogue changes. The camera frames the characters frontally and they speak as if to us. And it lingers on them as they speak and less on their reactions. There, as in documentaries, we are guided to really pay attention to what they say, to the feelings exposed as they communicate, almost as if we finally see their truth.

Communication beyond words

         The idea of listening in Hamaguchi's cinema also takes on metonymic contours. It is not simply the biological function of hearing, but everything that listening can encompass in the expanded sense of communication. This is why the character who does not speak and communicates through signs is so emblematic in Drive my car. To grasp what she expresses, we need a set of attentive and focused senses. The communication in Hamaguchi belongs to the whole body.

         Happy hour, the 5h17' film that called attention for the director's work at the festival circuit, was born from an acting and improvisation workshop for non-professionals that took place for six months in Kobe, in weekly meetings whose central theme was precisely "listening". Initially, at the end, a film was to be made in one month with the 17 participants. The workshop, however, was so fruitful that the process took eight months and yielded the final long duration, so that it could express everything that was experienced there. If Happy hour and the previous Shinmitsusa (2012, 'Intimacies' in literal translation), also a result of a class, shaped the Hamaguchian method of directing actors, the modulations of communication already appear in The depths (2010), his third feature film, a partnership between the Tokyo University of the Arts and the South Korean Film School.

        Just as in Drive my car, in The depths there are linguistic mismatches, between Japanese and Korean characters - and actors - especially in the protagonist trio, where only one of them speaks both languages. In his absence, the other two characters need to find ways of understanding, which includes mime, but is especially anchored in gestures, touches, and facial expressions. In the media Bukimi na mono no hada ni sawaru (2013, 'Touching strange skin' in literal translation), two schoolboys rehearse a contemporary dance number that consists in moving through the space, one inch away from each other, mimicking the same movement, without, however, touching each other. The steps are not rehearsed and movement is free. Both need to find a syntony that makes it possible to foresee the next movement and adapt to it.

        In Happy hour, this question takes on new contours. The communication dilemmas permeate all instances of the film. In one long sequence, we see a workshop given by Kei Ukai (Shuhei Shibata). A volunteer in Tōhoku after the earthquake and tsunami, he began, in his spare time, to balance objects and debris on only one end. The act caught the attention of institutions and organizations as an art installation, which eluded his purpose. It allowed him, however, to use the given space for other proposals. The workshop he offers is esoteric in nature: through a series of exercises, he wants to give students the tools to find their own inner balance and balance with others, so that they can listen to their core. In practice, what Ukai does is to explore unconventional ways of communication, especially in Japanese society, which is so averse to touch. There are four exercises: two people (then more, up to ten), with their backs to each other, must try to stand up without using their hands for support; two people (then more) must find a central line of balance between them and move in a circle without losing reference; a pair must literally listen to each other's strangers, hear the sounds of their organs, with their heads pressed against their bellies; and finally, they must lean their foreheads together, mentalize an image or a simple word, in order to transmit this thought to the other. All the exercises, in one way or another, seek a synchrony in the encounters, a form of sharing that does not need words, words, or intelligibility.

        The four leads of Happy hour are present in the workshop and each of them deals with their own communication problems in their lives. Their love relationships, for example, run into the difficulties of adjusting to a life as a couple in a patriarchal society. Housewife Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), for example, is burdened by the complete administration of her family, who blame her for any diatribes, such as the unexpected pregnancy of her teenage son's girlfriend. Sakurako is invisibilized by her husband and son and is unable to maintain a minimum of dialogue in the household, constantly refuted. 

        The situation is even more serious for Jun (Rira Kawamura) who, after eight years of unhappy marriage, wants a divorce. Her husband does not want one, saying that things will change. Since the decision is not consensual, they both need to go to court, and for the divorce to be granted, a disruption event is required, which does not exist in this case. At the trial, Jun explains that there was never any dialogue between them, that they rarely spoke to each other, and that her husband showed no interest in her. At the trial, the husband's lawyer alludes to the fact that they should seek communication rather than divorce, and that the husband had recently tried. While Jun is talking, Hamaguchi often films the scene in close-ups: Jun, her husband and his lawyer; Jun and her friends in the audience, present as emotional support. The focus is rarely on Jun. She speaks in the foreground, out of focus, and we observe her husband, his lawyer, and her friends listening. The action is quite undramatic, as is often the case in the director's cinema, and there are almost imperceptible changes in gestures and impressions. We learn by the duration, by the time the filmmaker devotes to their bodies on the scene. There are specific combinations: Jun and her husband denote the contrast between what is spoken and what is heard, by both parties; between Jun and her friends there is only complicity, Jun speaks, they listen and are dismayed. The whole situation is a bit awkward. Jun speaks softly, rhythmically, hardly raising his countenance. Just as he would do in Drive my car, Hamaguchi already does in Happy Hour. The camera centers on Jun, in the foreground, with her friends in the background, seated in a way that makes up a mosaic in which we can see each one of them. In the center and in the focus Jun speaks the harshest and most heartbreaking words. With a downcast face, she lifts her head and looks directly at us: "I was killed by my husband. The statement is a metaphor, but it answers for her state of mind. Because of her husband's indifference to her constant efforts to make the marriage work, she felt that her best parts were being murdered. The phrase of effect takes on especially dramatic contours in the staging, where minimal gestures denote intent and attitude. More than words, Hamaguchi tells us, communication, dialogue, understanding the other, listening, hearing, is in the inflections of the body.

          In Drive my car, the act of driving is key to an encounter - and encounters make it possible to continue, despite all the suffering.

April, 2023

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