Though the women of Happy Hour, which screens at Northwest Film Forum in two parts, haven't quite hit middle age, the film has more in common with Jacques Rivette's 773-minute Out 1 than HBO's Sex and the City, as Hamaguchi prioritizes close observation over fast-moving plotlines. Each woman longs for more than surface-level stability and deeper connections with their partners and with each other. The better we get to know them, the more Hamaguchi justifies the film's length as the women struggle against the patriarchy and politesse baked into Japanese society.
Three of the women are married and one is divorced. During the weekend retreat that opens the film, Akari (Sachie Tanaka), a nurse without a filter, declares, "The future for 37-year-old women is bright." Counters Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), a soft-spoken homemaker, "But it's dismal out there." Sakurako's marriage is more functional than fulfilling, and her teenage son is going through a sulky phase. Fumi (Maiko Mihara), an arts curator, appears to be happily married, but her editor husband's working relationship with a 25-year-old writer makes her uncomfortable. After eight unhappy years, Jun (Rira Kawamura) is in the midst of a divorce. As she tells the judge about her husband: "Violence is not the only form of abuse." After a trip to a hot springs, three of the women return to Kobe, expecting Jun to arrive later. Instead, she disappears.
Though they worry about their friend, life goes on (toward the end, we get some indication as to her whereabouts). There are pregnancies, abortions, sprained ankles, and one-night stands. Hamaguchi's documentary-like approach is so matter-of-fact that none of this plays like a soap opera, and the four first-time actors belie their inexperience with fully committed performances, supported by compelling actors, like Yoshitaka Zahana as Jun's molecular-biologist husband Kohei, who admits, "Women are always a mystery to me."
Where another director would speed through some of these developments, Hamaguchi spends 19 minutes on a short-story reading (not counting the 13-minute Q&A, which is actually more enlightening) and 31 minutes on a trust-building workshop. Much as in the films of Mike Leigh, the actors contributed to the script through a long rehearsal process. At the conclusion of the workshop, Sakurako notes, "It's rare when others are willing to listen to you in real life," a possible reference to the husband and son who take her for granted, but also an insight into the filmmaker's intentions. By spending so much time with these ordinary women, we see them fully in all their thorny complications.