Is there a trace of irony in this title? Overall, things are not terribly happy (but sometimes quite funny) in this extended look into the lives of four Japanese women, and the hour extends to five, with another 17 minutes thrown in for good measure. It’s really more of a miniseries than a movie, but it takes splendid advantage of its elongated form to allow scenes to play out in a leisurely, real-time fashion that in a more conventional movie would be chopped off at the elbow.
The movie introduces its quartet of protagonists on a holiday outing together, sharing the lunches they have brought and watching the rain. They’re all the same age, thirty-seven. The central figure of the group is Jun (Rira Kawamura), married (unhappily, we soon learn) to a biologist. She’s been friends since middle school with Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), who lives with her husband, a harried bureaucrat, along with his mother and their teenage son. The other two, brought together by Jun, are Fumi (Maiko Mihara), who runs arts programs, and Akari (Sachie Tanaka), a hospital nurse. Akari is the only single one of the group, and she’s a tough, committed professional in a job where she’s well aware that a slip-up can cost lives.
What distinguishes this weaving together of tales, developed by writerdirector Ryûsuke Hamaguchi in a series of improvisational workshops, is the time it takes. The approach is epitomized in a self-exploration session given by a New Age guru, in which a small group of participants — pulled together by Fumi and including her three friends — are encouraged to “find your center” through exercises in trust and intimacy. The workshop plays out in its entirety, and once you accept that fact, the effect is liberating and mesmerizing.
At their opening get-together, the four make plans for a spa vacation in a few months, which, deep into the movie, comes to pass as another long set piece, during which they have fun but also examine the lives in which they find themselves at a vague midpoint. The first to upset the applecart is Jun, who announces that she’s having an affair and is going to divorce her husband. But all four find themselves in situations that are fluid, or uncertain. Ground that seemed solid suddenly shifts, circumstances that have been bearable begin to chafe. Lives can change in a moment, even if that moment takes a while to develop.
That divorce-court case is another sequence that plays out longer than we’re used to spending on a movie scene, and like the others, is worth every minute. But it’s not just the big moments that take their time. Everything here is on its own clock, and it is that very patience and cinematic confidence that gives Happy Hour its magic.
The group: clockwise, from left: Sachie Tanaka, Maiko Mihara, Hazuki Kikuchi, and Rira Kawamura