When it premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in 2015, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour revived interest in Japanese art house cinema among those who had mostly given up on it since the dawn of the 1990s. A long, intimate portrait of the current state of interpersonal relations in Japan, it struck a nerve by delving into matters that couldn’t be conventionally articulated. Hamaguchi, who is now hot stuff due to the award-winning Haruki Murakami adaptation, Drive My Car, co-wrote Happy Hour with Tadashi Nohara, a noted scenarist (he also collaborated with Hamaguchi and director Kiyoshi Kurosawa on Wife of a Spy) who is finally making his directoral debut with Third Time Lucky.
Comparisons to Happy Hour are inevitable, and not just because Third Time Lucky is also set in Kobe and features many of the same actors. It’s a domestic drama with interwoven plot threads involving connubial relationships. The central character, Haru (Rira Kawamura), is a divorced woman living with a divorced doctor (Yasunobu Tanabe) whose own daughter has recently moved to Canada to attend university. Haru has no children of her own, and feels abandoned after the move. When the doctor confesses to an affair, she leaves him and, feeling desperate, “adopts” a young homeless man (Tomo Kawamura) she stumbles upon who says he has no memory of who he is or where he’s from. She calls him Naruto, which was the name she chose for the baby she miscarried almost ten years earlier.
Her adoption of Naruto disturbs her extended family, including her mother, with whom she now lives; her brother, Takeshi (Katsuyuki Kobayashi), an aspiring rapper; and Takeshi’s emotionally unstable wife, Mikako (Hiromi Demura). None of these family units stay together for long, and the development of the story has to do with the various pieces recombining to create new relationships. However, Nohara doesn’t present it as a tidy whole. He understands that relationships are messy by definition, and much of the motivations behind the characters’ actions are not clear. Haru, for instance, spends an inordinate amount of time trying to explain her strange affinity for Naruto, whose own provenance isn’t made entirely clear either, despite an opening scene that would seem to explain a lot. Later, when a man enters the picture claiming to be his father, the viewer wonders if Naruto is really suffering from amnesia at all, but in any case by this point Haru doesn’t care. More than a substitute son (which he is too old to be, anyway), Naruto is a project, and one her friends and relatives resent. Nohara seems to be saying that what is a family if it doesn’t require a great deal of emotional investment?
There’s no doubt that Nohara can write very affecting scenes. The most potent involves Takeshi confronting Mikako’s illness as it has impacted their married life, and she rebuffs his professions of love by essentially saying that he will never understand her. The indelible truth of the argument as it applies to their specific circumstances is devastating, but Nohara doesn’t always seem keen on developing it, and we’re often left with powerful moments that never connect with one another, as if messy relationships are inherently impossible to convey. He may actually be too ambitious for his own good.
In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).
Third Time Lucky home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2021 NEOPA Inc.