Ryosuke Hashiguchi is one of the few gay filmmakers in Japan to have had a measure of popular success making films with gay themes. His third film, “Hush” (2002), about a gay couple whose life changes when one of them is drafted into becoming a father by a desperate woman, was an indie hit, as well as a festival-circuit favorite.
He is, however, not the most prolific of directors — he has made only four features since debuting in 1992 with “Hatachi no Binetsu (A Slight Touch of Fever),” a minimalist drama about gay hustlers that screened at the Berlin Film Festival.
His fourth, “Gururi no Koto (All Around Us),” not only arrives after a six-year gap, but its main characters are a straight couple with no gay family members, friends or associates in sight.
Unfolding from 1993 to 2001 — with the significant dates shown in subtitles — “Gururi” presents an ambitious weave of private and public events that illustrate not only the ups and downs of a marriage and a psyche, but the (mostly negative) changes in Japanese society. Meanwhile, Shogo Ueno, who was also Hashiguchi’s cinematographer on his last three films, captures a visual beauty, from the natural to artistic, that illuminates moods while dazzling the eye.
The film is the best thing that Hashiguchi has done, but its underlying concerns — including the fragility of relationships and the basic need of human beings for connection — run through all four of his films, as does his puckish sense of humor, his willingness to trash convention and his basic sympathy with his characters, likable or no. He is more interested in understanding them than in moralizing about them, though he is also a close observer of their worst behavior.
“(In my new film), I wanted to depict people who are already connected with each other — a married couple who have been together for 10 years,” Hashiguchi explains in a recent interview at the Shibuya office of his distributor, Bitters End. He speaks softly and fluently in Japanese, but with a nervous intensity, as he tries to make his points as clearly as possible for his foreign interviewer.
“All my films are about connections like that. Also, in its structure, ‘Gururi no Koto’ is no different from ‘Hatachi no Binetsu,’ which depicted the gay world of (Shinjuku’s) 2-chome district and how one boy alternates his existence there with life at college. ‘Gururi’ also depicts how one man alternates between his married life and his work as a courtroom artist. The points of view are similar — one man looking at two worlds as an observer. I like that sort of protagonist.”
His couple, Shoko (Tae Kimura) and Kanao (Lily Franky), begin the film in 1993 on the comically quirky side of the scale. Shoko, the slightly ditzy editor at a small publishing house, worries that Kanao, who runs a small shoe-repair shop, is cheating on her — which he is, routinely seducing female customers with his disarming smile and geeky charm. Still, they have their three-times-a-week love-making sessions, carefully marked by Shoko on the calendar. Then Kanao lands a higher-paying job as a courtroom artist for a TV station and Shoko becomes pregnant. Happiness beckons, though Shoko’s family, including her self-centered, slatternly mother (Mitsuko Baisho), her loud, crass businessman brother (Susumi Terajima) and the brother’s coarse-grained wife (Tamae Ando), remain skeptical of Kanao, whom they regard as little more than a bum.
Cut to 1994. Kanao is still sketching in the courtroom — and becoming accepted by his seniors, including a grizzled reporter (Akira Emoro), who gives Kanao the benefit of his hard-won wisdom. Shoko, however, has been devastated by the death of their infant daughter. By turns irritable, hysterical, tearful and withdrawn, she is falling into a deep depression — and Kanao doesn’t know how to stop her.
Her condition seems to reflect a wider sickness in the society that Kanao witnesses in court, from psychotic child-killers to amoral corporate crooks. But it is also quite personal and catastrophically real. Her relatives are mostly clueless or unsympathetic; Kanao becomes her only lifeline to sanity.
Hashiguchi also suffered from depression that deepened after the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I thought of suicide every day — I felt that the atmosphere of the world changed after 9/11,” he says. “At the time, I realized that depression and terrorism were very similar. When you are depressed, all the hangups and anxieties that you thought you’d overcome come rushing back at you. You feel as if you’re being swallowed by all the pain and hatred. Terrorism is the same. Whenever something big like (9/11) happens, all the dormant problems in the world, like racial conflicts, come pouring out.”
For Hashiguchi, those problems first hit home when he saw a news segment about three Japanese who had been taken hostage in the Iraq War and, following their release, were returning home.
“They were met by a smiling woman with a placard that read, ‘You asked for it,’ ” Hashiguchi recalls. “I was shocked. How could she laugh at people who had been hurt like that? I felt that the Japanese had changed.”
The turning point, he believes, was the economic bubble era of the 1980s. “It irreversibly changed the value system of the Japanese people,” he explains. “All adults talked of was ‘money, money.’ The bubble burst in 1990, around the time that Tsutomu Miyazaki was arrested for kidnapping, killing and eating little girls, changing Japanese criminal history. It was also around this time that Masako (Owada) married into the Imperial family. As I watched such a glowing personality suffer and sicken more and more each year, I felt that Japanese people were collectively growing mentally sicker as well. I wanted to go back to that (turning) point and also communicate my own experience of depression.”
This may sound grim, but illustrator Lily Franky, whose memoir about his relationship with his terminally ill mother was made into the 2007 hit film “Tokyo Tower — Okan to Bolu to Tokidoki Oton (Tokyo Tower — Mom and Me and Sometimes Dad),” brightens the film as Kanao. Instead of trying to compete with the professional actors around him, some of whom have been polishing their shtick for decades, Franky plays himself — a real-life artist with a keen eye and radar sensitivity to his surroundings, and with a natural nice-guy presence. He may have been an off-beat casting choice for Hashiguchi, but he was the right one.
“At first (Kanao) was a happy-go-lucky character, so I thought a comedian could play him, but couldn’t think of anybody specific,” Hashiguchi comments. “I wanted somebody fresh for the part. Then I happened to read Lily’s partly autobiographical book, ‘Tokyo Tower,’ and felt, ‘Here is Kanao.’ How Lily feels about people and the world is similar to how Kanao feels. Casting him was a gamble, though. If it turned out to be a failure, there was nothing I could do about it. I had to trust my destiny to our partnership.”
Meanwhile, Tae Kimura, a veteran actress appearing in her first starring role, goes deep into her troubled character, holding back nothing, while keeping the performance from becoming over-ripe or monotonous. She shows us that there are several shades of black.
“It’s a difficult part,” says Hashiguchi. “She had the experience and acting chops, but you can’t portray (Shoko) through acting technique alone. You have to open your heart and throw yourself into the character. So I worried about that. But I felt that I had a heart-to-heart connection with (Kimura and Franky) from the start. I could support them when the going got tough. It’s hard to open up and throw yourself totally into a role but the two of them did it. They really became Kanao and Shoko.”
In the film’s third act, colors begin to appear more prominently, particularly in the work of Kanao and Shoko, who takes up art as therapy. Kanao’s drawings and Shoko’s paintings play an important role in the film, illuminating not only the world around the artists, in all its horror and beauty, but their inner states. They are also an expression of hope — and human connection.
Again, there is a parallel with Hashiguchi’s own experience. “When I came out of depression I noticed colors a lot,” he says. “When you’re depressed, the world looks gray; but when you get better, colors like red jump out at you. I felt that the world had regained its color. So when Shoko gets better she notices the red hue of tomatoes and other colors. Emotion comes back to her little by little. There’s more of a spring in her step. That’s how it worked for me too — it was a gradual process. I tried to show that in the film.”
“Gururi no Koto” is out now.