Ryusuke Hamaguchi admits that he worried about his film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy: ‘I was actually scared that maybe I was writing the same story three times.’ We don’t have to take him literally – the stories are not that similar and he knows what he’s doing – but it’s an interesting thought. In each story, as in Hamaguchi’s recent Drive My Car (2021), which was nominated for four Oscars, there are characters who don’t know what to do with knowledge they can’t share, or that they have chosen not to share. Two phrases from the Murakami short story on which Drive My Car is based take us a long way into Hamaguchi’s world: ‘The question never ventured, the answer never proffered’.
Hamaguchi says he doesn’t fully understand the English title of the new film but likes it anyway because it evokes ‘two worlds’. This is perhaps the best way to make sense of the Japanese title’s more literal meaning: chance and imagination. What happens when the two worlds meet? And what happens to the knowledge that was in hiding, repressed or just in waiting? The first story – all three are written by Hamaguchi – is called ‘Magic (or Something Less Reassuring)’. It begins at the end of a fashion shoot on the streets of what looks like Tokyo. Everyone is happy with the results and the two women in the group, the model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) and the makeup artist Tsugumi (Hyunri) share a taxi home. Much of the following action isn’t action at all, but a conversation filmed with very few, very slight changes of angle. We see the two women sitting on the back seat, and the lighted city receding behind them. Tsugumi does most of the talking, happily telling Meiko about a man she recently met and spent several hours with, evoking their magical connection. Meiko keeps commenting and laughs a lot; and at some point in the journey, although we don’t learn this till later, realises that the man is her former partner, whom she left two years ago. One of the reasons she was able to identify him was that he told Tsugumi so much about his ex.
Meiko doesn’t let on to her friend, but as soon as the taxi drops Tsugumi off, she asks to be taken to an office in another part of town, where she confronts her old partner. He is clearly too obsessed with Meiko to be with anyone else, and she is too angry with him for their own relationship to revive. The film then moves to another day and brings the three players together, offering different versions of what might happen next. The versions all revolve around how much Meiko is prepared to say. The most striking visual effect, apart from the long enclosure in the moving car, is the moment when Meiko pauses on the street to take a photograph of a building site, a frame that makes her look like the memorialist of a vast city under construction. The surroundings feel much more metaphor than setting.
Knowledge in the second story, ‘Door Wide Open’, is manufactured and misdirected, accidentally producing a sort of bleak justice, or a justice for cynics. This is part of what Hamaguchi means when, thinking of his title, he refers to ‘the simple random fact of a coincidence and the idea that maybe it’s something more’. Sasaki (Shouma Kai), a university student, is on his knees, bowing before his teacher, begging him to change his grade and enable him to take the job he has been offered. The teacher refuses. Later Sasaki decides that Nao (Katsuki Mori), the woman he is sleeping with, may be able to seduce the teacher into compromising behaviour. (Sasaki uses the phrase ‘honey trap’, an idiom I didn’t know existed in Japan, but then we do live in a globalised world.) Nao lures the teacher at least into compromising speech, which she records, but discovers that she likes him and resolves not to complete Sasaki’s vengeance. She sends the dangerous recording to the teacher himself. Or she means to, but she’s in a hurry and types the wrong email address, with the result that the indiscretion becomes public, the teacher is sacked and Nao’s husband divorces her. We learn this when she meets Sasaki on the bus a few years later. Everything has turned out well for him, and at the last moment it looks as if the angry Nao may want to get together with him again. Victory counts in the world of realists.
The tour de force in the film is the last story, ‘Once Again’, which makes extraordinary play with chance and the imagination. It opens with Moka (Fusako Urabe) attending a reunion at the school she left twenty years ago. No one really remembers anyone, although a couple of people pretend that they do. Moka leaves almost immediately and walks back towards her hotel – the reunion is in Sendai and she is visiting from Tokyo. Riding an escalator from the street to a bridge she thinks she recognises a woman, Nana (Aoba Kawai), who is going down. Nana sees something in Moka’s look, and as soon as she reaches street level takes the up flight to greet her. They think that they must be old schoolmates, although Moka is the more sure.
They adjourn to Nana’s nearby house and begin an awkward, perturbed conversation, full of muffled emotions that can’t find names for themselves. Moka asks Nana if she’s happy and Nana says she hasn’t thought about it. Moka says, ‘You shouldn’t have to think about it.’ After some hesitation Nana says she is happy, ‘objectively speaking’, but we know what this means. And then the truth, the painful asymmetry, becomes clear. On the escalator Nana thought Moka had to be ‘someone I knew’. Moka by contrast thought Nana was an old lover, no longer securely recognisable. When she learns that Nana is really someone else, that the two of them didn’t even go to the same school, she rushes off in shock and pain, prevented from leaving the house only by the arrival of a postman.
Then something wonderful happens. Nana asks if she can play the role of the woman Moka took her to be, and together they explore the past and its missed chances. The story seems to end there, and Nana accompanies Moka back to the escalator where they met. They say goodbye, but not before Nana recounts an old experience parallel to Moka’s, an almost shared relation with a girl whose name she can’t now remember. Again, the story seems to end, and the women go their different ways. Suddenly Nana turns and chases after Moka: she has remembered the name. It’s not much but it signals a whole new relation to the past, which is what the women’s strange interaction has all been about. The limits of knowledge are a form of knowledge, and one of Hamaguchi’s (and Murakami’s) recurring suggestions gets an outing too: sometimes we only access the real by acting.
The direction, and the delivery, especially in the last story, confirm the plausibility, even the naturalness of this idea. Everyone seems nervous and tentative enough to be just who they are and no one else. But then we recognise that this impression is itself a delicately arranged fiction, and another conviction arises: all the characters are putting on a play for themselves in their heads, long before they start to think of any performance in the presence of others.
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