Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

The Metrograph Interview: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

May 14 2019

When it comes to dating, some people have a type. Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour) takes this concept to an absurd extent in his latest film Asako I & II, which, despite its title, actually features just one Asako (Erika Karata), who ends up dating two identical-looking men back to back: Baku and Ryohei (both played by Masahiro Higashide). The romantic drama, adapted from a novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, gender-flips cinema’s classic female doppelganger device, leaving its heroine to act out irrationally. Karata plays this role beautifully with the numbness of heartbreak. While getting more serious with her steady boyfriend Ryohei, she conceals the torment brought on by her mysteriously, abruptly terminated relationship with Baku.

With Asako I & II opening at Metrograph on May 17 after a corresponding retrospective of his earlier films, Hamaguchi spoke to us about his ambitious new project and what he learned from his former teacher Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

Kristen Yoonsoo Kim: With this film and with Happy Hour, you capture the quiet, inner turmoils of Japanese women. Could you speak on that and how you gained that perspective? Are there women in your life who guided or inspired you?

Ryusuke Hamaguchi: I’m grateful that you feel the inner turmoils of my characters. No particular woman has been a model for these portrayals. In principle, I don’t begin conceiving characters by sex. When I write my screenplays and direct my actors, I’m in dialogue with each character (or actor) individually. Over the course of this dialogue, they gradually fall into a cornered state in which the character cannot easily put into words or actions their emotions. This doesn’t mean they don’t have emotions. I believe that it is in these states that the characters experience inner turmoil. I know that there are other more extreme expressions of emotion, and these sometimes carry believable reality.

My use of the above type of forced repression of emotion in my films is purely due to my taste. I know that this is self-limiting. But I can never fully believe in the so-called expression of emotion that is usually exaggerated in film. Seeing it on the screen, as an audience member, I feel a chasm between myself and the film. Only when there is constant silence or stillness, or at least an expression of something existing in the absence of it being directly addressed, can I feel one with the film. I’m merely trying to be faithful to this sensation in my own filmmaking.

On the other hand, I don’t want to deny the emotional expressions of my actors. This is because I think the ability to feel and discover something through the character is the actor’s biggest motivation to stand in front of the camera. I think standing in front of the camera is a socially and psychologically extremely dangerous act, and I think those who brave this danger rightfully deserve something in return. If I cannot provide them with an opportunity to discover their own true emotions, then surely they won’t find a reason to stand in front of the camera.

KYK: There’s a deceptive blankness to Erika Karata’s performance that I really loved. I think it could be misconstrued as a lack of emotion, but it astutely portrayed the numbness of heartbreak.

RH: Sometimes I happen to read reviews that describe Erika Karata’s character Asako as “expressionless” and “robotic,” and every time I do, I can’t believe my eyes. No one else can portray Asako the way she did. If there is anything that gives this film power and believability, I think it is the way she carries herself and her voice. She doesn’t create readable expressions because there is no need to. She is a very sharp actress that understands that that which you do not feel doesn’t need to be expressed in front of the camera, and in fact shouldn’t be. She didn’t make readable expressions because she understands and respects the character of Asako more than anyone else. From her first reading of the script, she had the deepest understanding of the character. Because she was sure of this, she didn’t need to do a single extraneous thing. No average actor achieves this.

“Not doing anything extraneous” doesn’t mean not feeling or expressing anything. She simply only expresses that which she herself truly feels. If anyone felt that her expression of emotions was questionable, then on a second viewing, they might like to pay close attention to her “voice.” There, they will find surprisingly rich folds of emotion and truth. Her acting is, I believe, ideal. There, I’ve said it loud and clear. If anyone has “inner turmoil,” she has it.

KYK: Please tell me more about their iconic cat!

RH: The cat was placed on set to bring a factor of “coincidence.” Cats, unlike dogs, cannot easily be given acting directions. I basically told the trainer that as long as the cat is there, anything it does will do. I hoped that it would wander on the set freely, as cats usually tend to do. And in this situation, there were a few times that the cat was “there” in perfect ways. Sometimes we swiftly moved the camera to capture that coincidence moment. These coincidences livened the film and added charm to it, I feel.

I wrote the cat into the script to suggest the length of time that Asako and Ryohei spent together, but also to prevent the moving of things in an overly systematic way on my first commercial film set. Coincidence can destroy plans, or at least delay their progression. This is exactly what I needed. When things are going as planned, it’s safe to say that the thing being made is turning out uninteresting. Shoots dedicated to filming the cat were staffed by a smaller crew and noises were minimized to prevent perturbing the cat. At one point, I told the assistant director that I wished the feelings of the human actors were cared for to this extent.

KYK: Asako I & II has such a refreshing, interesting take on the usually female doppelganger trope (as seen in movies like Persona, Vertigo, All About Eve). What was it about the duality of the male character that interested you?

RH: The novel ultimately suggests that Baku and Ryohei may not be so much identical in appearance as much as they simply seem so in Asako’s subjective imagination. Departing from this ambiguous ending in the novel, I chose to make the two characters unmistakably doppelgangers. From the first time I read the novel, I thought that it would make a really interesting film. But that thought was almost inseparable from my need to have Baku and Ryohei have the same face from start to finish. Otherwise it wouldn’t be interesting, at least cinematically. To do a literal translation into film, the story would maintain its cerebral quality (like the films of Buñuel), but I actually think that films should induce primitive, barbaric emotions from the audience. In order to achieve this, Baku and Ryohei needed to have the same face, and Ryohei’s character needed to learn of this fact. In the original novel, the two never meet, and it’s actually Baku’s character that is fleshed out more. Giving Ryohei’s character more depictive real estate in the film lets the audience take on his perspective, and it’s in this perspective that this love story becomes more of a horror.

Considering the changes that I made, maybe that’s what I truly wanted to create. Vertigo of course came to mind when I first read the novel. As I was shooting this film, however, I realized that in Vertigo those with the same face are in fact the same person—a rational reality. However, Asako I & II is a film that argues for a case where those with the same face are nevertheless two different people—a more absurd reality. In this sense the two films are completely dissimilar. And I, in love with this absurdity, sought to bring it out in its full capacity.

KYK: I loved how their first kiss was comically cinematic (with the fireworks). It was like you were introducing it as a romantic comedy, only to turn that expectation upside down. Did you mean to be coy about the genre of this film?

RH: Genre film has its own unique “speed.” It justifies a speed in which the audience’s “expectation” is delivered to its destination in the shortest route possible. What I wanted to achieve this time is precisely this “speed.” In particular, I believed that this speed was appropriate for Baku’s character. That was simply a desire of mine that I selfishly wanted to satisfy in a way that’s never been done before in this genre.

Genre films predict what the audience wants, and make a “promise” of sorts to deliver that (albeit, in an interesting and unpredictable way). However, when this “promise” is extracted from the speed of genre films, the result is bizarre and grotesque. I think this dazed state of estrangement, the feeling of inaccessibility and irrelevance, falls under the umbrella of the experience of film. What’s interesting about this genre of film is that, in the filmmaking process, one’s own desires are sidestepped in order to fulfill others’ desires. Film directors who fulfill this bi-fold desire (in other words, pleasing the audience and fulfilling their own desires), are also called “artisans.”

To put it in words, Asako I & II is my first genre film. I was given the right and duty to fulfill others’ desires for the first time. However, I feel that I did not achieve an elegance that warrants being called an “artisan.” This is because I began by camouflaging my desires with those of others, but this film’s ending crushes those desires. Those who come to see this film expecting a love romance will probably feel disturbed and dumbfounded. In fact, I received a strong negative reaction from the Japanese audience. I don’t feel completely that I couldn’t have done it better. But this was the only way I could do it.

KYK: I know there are language differences in how Baku/Ryohei talk. How did you direct Masahiro Higashide in both roles? After just having seen him in the Kiyoshi Kurosawa films, I love the continuation of his alien-like quality.

RH: Baku uses the Tokyo-style standard language, and Ryohei uses Kansai dialect. The standard language and the Kansai dialect have completely different nuances in Japanese. The standard language has a typical “Japaneseness” and gives off a high-brow impression, but also feels self-disciplined and cold like a stranger. On the other hand, Kansai-Osaka dialect is one of the most open and friendly of Japanese dialects, and has a musical rhythm (by the way, Asako also speaks Kansai-Osaka dialect, which is contrary to the nature of her character, which one would associate with the standard language, thus creating an unbalance).

Masahiro Higashide came to me before the shooting to discuss how to act his two characters differently. He said, “The nature of what Baku and Ryohei say are so different, so just by saying their lines honestly, their different nuances will come across. Ryohei’s hair and makeup is also not similar to that of Baku’s in the beginning. So, I don’t think there needs to be an intentional change in the acting that much.” At least for a Japanese-speaking audience, it’s obvious that Higashide is playing two different characters. Intentionally “acting differently” when the differences are self-evident would come across as exaggerated, and would hinder the audience’s imagination and understanding. It’s actually the job of the audience, not the actor, to differentiate the two characters, and we shouldn’t disturb that process. With this understanding in mind, Higashide performed well. Even I am surprised by how different the characters of Baku and Ryohei appear to be. Higashide was always devoted to the work, and made efforts to support Karata, who had less experience. Asako’s expression was naturally brought out by Higashide’s approach to the two characters. He is a wonderful actor wielding a natural gift for elegance, enigma and honesty.

I once heard a rumor that Kurosawa jokingly said, “Hamaguchi should be ashamed for meddling with the actor that I am most interested in right now,” which I was pleased to hear. But as a disclaimer, because I cast Higashide, this film took five years to complete. So I’m actually the one that should be envious of Kurosawa for showing Higashide’s brilliant charisma in Creepy (2016) and Foreboding (2017) to the world before me.

KYK: Speaking of Kurosawa, you were his student, yes? What was it like having him as your teacher and what is the most memorable thing you took away from that experience?

RH: Right, director Kurosawa was my teacher when I was in grad school. To learn under such a worldly director for two years was an unspeakable joy for me. The things I’ve learned from him are countless, but one memorable thing he carved into my understanding was, “The camera is a machine that records reality.” Many may say that this is obvious, and it was not the first time I had encountered this idea either. But between watching his films and participating in his seminars and lectures, I became painfully aware of the fact that the ability to capture reality is the camera’s—and film’s—most basic power. Simultaneously, I became aware of how mismatched that power is with telling stories of fiction, much worse with “acting.” This revealed reality works against fiction. Then, what should one do, and how should one borrow the power of the camera to create fiction? This question prompted my journey in film direction.

KYK: With a retrospective of your work at Metrograph, what do you hope non-Japanese viewers will pick up on?

RH: I have always been making films on a low-budget. This harsh situation is reflected to a certain degree in my past works. But there is not a single film that I was forced to make. Depending on the situation, there were many aspects which I needed to compromise in order to continue making film, but I used that limitation to create the most interesting film possible. That’s what I’ve been working towards. Seeing my previous works, you can notice some motifs that I clearly recycle, and you can almost tangibly grasp my progression in discovering and forging my own way. Chronologically, there is a gradual progression. Any one film becomes the precursor to the next. And yet, my recent works are not necessarily better than my previous works. Each film has its flaws, and yet each has something that I could only capture in that moment. Looking back is always embarrassing, but I think my past works have elements that I should reassess. Regarding films prior to Happy Hour in particular, I’m not confident that you’ll be able to enjoy each film experience in and of itself. But by viewing two or three, and the more films you see, the more you will discover. That, I promise. I think these works are from the era of my apprenticeship, which was, while always harsh, also always a happy era for me.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kristen Yoonsoo Kim is a South Korea-born, New York-based film critic whose writing has appeared in The Village Voice, GQ, Pitchfork, and elsewhere.