Courtesy of Janus Films

June 3, 2024

FATTAL | Hamaguchi: Un-Understandability, Hypotheticals and the Rebellion of Impulse

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I’ve been having this recurring dream. I’ll spare some of the details but it involves a clone — of me — a burst of frustration, an expletive and a thrown phone. A momentary, impulsive reflex followed by an anxious awakening. Specifically, I think the clone has become something of a stream-of-consciousness trademark for me: All last fall I found myself recounting and inviting hypotheticals about clones and doppelgangers. What would you do… if suddenly… a clone? It’s a fun way to kill time, and theoretically to learn about other people: How does your brain react to the idea? At the beginning of this year, I watched Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II while diving into his filmography — he seemed to have recreated a clone hypothetical cinematically, and in doing so may have informed the subtext of my recurring dream. Hamaguchi, quite likely the great auteur of the last decade, must have a similar obsession with doppelgangers. 

In Asako, the titular woman traverses two relationships with men who exactly resemble one another, finding one in the wake of the loss of the other, and then reencountering the first to make for a love-triangle of replicas. Besides the bitter joke of the film’s core literalization (we all might as well be near-identical replacements of former and future lovers and friends), Hamaguchi manages to combine a contradictory sense of divine narrative providence (of fate) with a simultaneous air of improvisation. His films progress from scene to scene with Kubrickian perfection and wholly original chaos. That’s why it feels like a dream or hypothetical: You can always ask questions, choose your own adventure or push slightly one way or the other, but at the end of the day, it’s your friend’s storytelling or your subconscious that decides where it goes. They dictate as deity, but they are deeply fallible (that is improvisatory) in their style.  

In Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour, the five hour runtime gives the film a chance to reach a first act boiling point, followed by a subsequent three and a half hours of post boil bubble and simmer — but first, we find a friend group of married and once married women to have one cheater and another cheated. For the uninvolved, the “happily” married women reflect the same dynamic in miniature. Again, there is reflection with a sense of perfection, but an undergirding frustration that amounts to chaos. Here, the sense of fate is less direct, but characters remain bound by the circumstances of existing friendships and relationships (a rigid fear of loss and change) and by legal and economic structures that minimize the paths forward. They too are in a choose-your-own adventure hypothetical of mirrors and clones. 

In this year’s Evil Does Not Exist, Hamaguchi turns his attention to the lack of autonomy that subtly binds his earlier characters. A small town confronting the injustice of an impending and problematic glamping project goes up against company middlemen who are themselves powerless to stop the construction. Those with power have relinquished it, and now the powerless must feel around the borderlines of their own marginal autonomy to see how far they can get. And as the film’s lead Takumi identifies, both sides are again doppelgangers: The community is itself entirely made up of transplants; they resemble the middlemen in that way. When the plot goes on, and makes clear that the transplantation is not facetious on either side, the film, despite an uncharacteristic story and setting begins to resemble Hamaguchi’s preoccupations. 

The doppelgangers and mirrors of these films give the cinematic landscape a sense of universal replaceability. Characters, though still fully realized, exist in a context where their experiences are not distinct and their relationships are not “special.” For every expression of love or friendship, every attempt to draw out uniqueness, there is either a mirroring counterexample or a progression from dream to nightmare. Characters are bound by narratives that exploit the forces of societal binding devices, economic incentives and disincentives, psychological needs and a pervading sense of fate that infuses all of their interactions. They are flattened into a tapestry of universal experience. 

But I’m also drawn to a scene in the third act of Happy Hour. As two friends attempt to dissuade their third friend’s ex*-husband from chasing after her (she has run away, unable to legally secure a divorce), citing that it isn’t what she would want, a bystander to the conversation jumps in. She chastises the friends for attempting to verbalize someone else’s thoughts (what right do you have to speak for her). The ex-husband, though perhaps psychologically unsound, speaks only for himself. If, as presented above, Hamaguchi’s characters are forced into perpetual reflections of one another, the point is moot — understanding (and speaking for) makes sense. But it’s more complicated than that. 

Admittedly, Hamaguchi does write characters that are dreadfully comprehensible. Through most of his runtimes there is a sense of tangible narrative directionality. But, inevitably, his third acts tend to unwind with cathartic (or often anti-cathartic) turns of impulse. Compared to the relatively mannered nature of the rest of each film, the audience is caught off guard by this apparent rejection of the film’s delineated structure. 

It’s because Hamaguchi’s characters are trapped. But, the characters don’t accept their position as helpless subjects to storytelling — the “twists” of Hamaguchi films are rebellions of impulse by the characters. They become un-understandable through the recognition that to be understood is to be dictated within the bounds of rigid society, here reflected through the three-act film structure. 

The conflict between the neatly ordered mirrors and the seemingly uninformed decisions contained within is the key to Hamaguchi’s brilliance. He presents an ordered, felt world, asking you to empathize with his characters, and then pushing them into decisions that render them un-empathetic (not necessarily bad, but hard to understand). When his characters then grapple with or explain their impulsive actions, we observe a complicated sense of disruption — the film overwhelms with a sense of regret, but the characters themselves do not. They neither make sense of their actions nor apologize for them. 

I think back to my dream. After I throw the phone, I typically wake up, as though it was a nightmare. In a cold sweat, it feels odd. My anger was righteous, the force of my disruption deliberate. I don’t regret, nor do I mourn the consequences. But I remain sad about them… upset that I couldn’t find a better way. Bound by the rigid restrictions of dream logic, I had no choice but to resort to impulsiveness. I broke out, I rebelled through un-understandability; now awake, I’m forced to confront a conscious sense of autonomy, in some ways greater, in some ways more restrained.

Max Fattal is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They* can be reached at [email protected].

Let’s Unpack That is an arts column that traverses autocriticism and borderline psychotic hyperfixation through the lenses of pseudo-intellectualism and film analysis. It runs occasionally throughout the year.