Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi may be known for his deep explorations of women in love, but he never set out to specifically chronicle female intimacy.
The filmmaker made his name with 2015’s epic five-hour-long “Happy Hour,” which follows the friendships and lives of four middle-class women in their thirties, followed by the unconventional love story “Asako I & II,” which competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018.
He has returned to similar territory in a new fashion in his latest work, “A Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” which premiered in competition at this year’s Berlinale. The film once again returns to the subject of female relationships, but this time in a series of three tight, unrelated shorts tied together by the theme of “coincidence.”
“It’s not my intention to portray only women; I’m interested in men, too. It just happens,” he laughed.
His mission, as he describes it, is simply to “portray what he sees in real life.” But the reaction of foreign viewers to “Happy Hour” made him realize that perhaps the complexities of real life in Japan could be best portrayed through the lens of the female experience.
“I was just trying to show women’s personalities, reactions and emotions, and so was surprised by how overseas viewers developed opinions about Japanese society” through that film, he explained. “I realized that when I portrayed women, social conflicts would naturally appear and become more obvious. This didn’t happen when I portrayed men.”
Hamaguchi declines, however, to call himself a feminist — not because he doesn’t agree with the stance, but because he feels he’s not taking enough direct action to merit the label. “I think I’m not doing enough and that I don’t know enough to call myself a feminist, but I certainly hope to do more,” he said.
He started planning production for “Wheel of Fortune” back in 2019, and was luckily able to shoot the first two shorts that year before the pandemic. He managed to complete the third after Japan ended its state of emergency last summer.
He had written all three scripts before the COVID-19 outbreak, but the unprecedented event nonetheless inspired him to add some light sci-fi elements to his last short. As people quarantined and conducted more and more of their lives online, he imagined what it would be like to be “locked down but without access to that virtual reality,” he explained.
For the last short, he envisioned a near-future world in which a computer virus has infected all digital communications and wiped out the web.
“I didn’t want to lose the true essence of the story that I wrote before, but I also had to adjust some elements according to the current circumstances” once the pandemic became “impossible to ignore,” he said.
In all the shorts about human connection, it became even more important to him that the characters have physical relationships to each other, and to depict them hugging and touching.
Despite the pandemic, he hopes to proceed apace with his next project, which will be four more shorts in the same vein on the theme of “coincidence and imagination.”
Hamaguchi said he has long been interested in exploring how to play with film structure by combining sequences of shorts into a longer work. He tried to give the three sections of “Wheel of Fortune” a sense of progression by creating situations that are increasingly unrealistic.
What draws him to shorts is their incompleteness, and their ability to give viewers a tantalizing slice of life.
“You can create a sudden ending in short stories,” he said. “Characters in a short story appear more realistic, because you only glimpse a small facet of them. This seems normal because in fact we don’t know other people’s lives that well — we only ever peek at other people’s lives.
“When you show just this glimpse, it actually seems very realistic.”
Plus, shorts are also a practical way of turning lemons into lemonade in a year of continued pandemic uncertainty.
“When you shoot a long film, there’s a pressure to not make a mistake. There’s less risk in filming short stories,” he said. “I’m actually learning a lot by making these shorts, so it’s become an important way for me to improve my own skills.”