So many people come to Japanese film through such violent films as Kinji Fukasaku's "Battle Royale" and Takashi Miike's "Audition" and "Ichi the Killer". If you were to ask a random selection of film fans what they think of when they hear "contemporary Japanese cinema" most would name check these titles and their infinitely ingenious ways of depicting man's inhumanity to man. There couldn't be a film that is further from "Battle Royale" and "Ichi the Killer" than Ryusuke Hamaguchi's debut feature "Passion", or at least on the surface it bears no resemblance to these hyper-violent spectacles, but if you look past the polite faces and domestic interiors of this quiet relationship drama you'll find just as much, if not more, cruelty than anything Fukasaku or Miike could or can muster, albeit cruelty of the emotional variety. "Passion" should, and hopefully will, become just as well known in the coming years as these other more flashy explorations of violence as it is easily one of the best Japanese films I've had the pleasure of seeing in the past decade.
"Passion" begins with very little passion. Math teacher Kaho (Aoba Kawai) and her boyfriend Tomoya (Ryuta Okamoto), a handsome academic are going to a dinner to celebrate Kaho's 29th birthday. At the restaurant they meet their friends Kenichiro (Nao Okabe) and his girlfriend Sanae and Takeshi (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) and his pregnant wife Marie. It's all smiles and cake, a little bit of trepidation about nearing the Big 3-0, but mostly it's the kind of pleasant night out that we've all shared at one time or another with our close friends... that is until Kaho and Tomoya make an announcement. The two plan to marry and the reactions of those around the table are the first indication that things aren't entirely right with this group. While Takeshi and his wife seem happy for their friends the colour drains out of Kenichiro's face when he hears the news. His girlfriend breaks into tears and leaves the tabel, but the most interesting reactions come from Kaho and Tomoya themselves. Neither seem convinced of or comforatable with their decision to be man and wife. The emotional tremors following their announcement give way to more merrymaking though and soon Tomoya, Takeshi and Kenichiro head out for some male-bonding while their wives and girlfriends head home. They end up at the apartment of Kenichiro's msitress Takako (Fusako Urabe) and her roommate Hana. It seems that there's not just Kenichiro's affair with Takako at play here as Tomoya was once involved with her as well and Takeshi's idea of himself as a happy husband and expectant father are shaken when he meets the bohemian Hana.
What appears to be the set up to a fine domestic drama, one of the many that was released in 2008 (Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata", Ryosuke Hashiguchi's "All Around Us" and Hirokazu Koreeda's "Still Walking" being the best known of these) takes a dark psychological turn after Tomoya, Takeshi, and Kenichiro stumble home after their night out. Hamaguchi cuts to a scene of Kaho standing in front of her class of junior high school students. One space is empty and a vase of flowers sits on its desktop. It turns out that a student has committed suicide after suffering from prolonged bullying. Kaho goes on an extended lecture about "violence" that occurs between people, but she's not just talking about punching, kicking and general bodily injury. While her example of raising her hand to one of her students and nearly slapping him across the face is shocking it's "People are not transparent. We can't see through them." She explains that it's the opaqueness of people, their hidden intentions and feelings, that are the root cause of violence. Does her student think his teacher will slap him? He says he doesn't, but how can he be sure when he it is impossible to be inside the head of this "other" and see what their true intentions are?
Kaho's lecture to her students is delivered by actress Aoba Kawai in fascinatingly brittle and nearly panicked way, and once Hamaguchi takes us back to her life and the lives of Tomoya, Kenichiro, Takeshi and Takako all the unspoken tensions, the hidden desires, the petty grievances and the cruel slips in fidelity all become magnified. It's revealed that Kenichiro has loved Kaho for years, but his feelings have never been reciprocated, and that Takako dreams that Kenichiro could lover her the way she does him. Takeshi's meeting with Hana makes him question just how good a husband, father and person he really is. As for Tomoya, well, is this handsome, socially distinguished man capable of loving Kaho or anyone at all? Hamaguchi, who also wrote the screenplay for "Passion", expertly weaves these webs of love and deceit together and ends up creating a film unlike any coming out of Japan at the moment.
While there is cruelty and violence around every corner in "Passion" it isn't, as I mentioned at the top, the kind that has been celebrated in bloody displays in the films of Fukasaku, Miike or Takeshi Kitano and Shinya Tsukamoto. It seems Hamaguchi isn't concerned with the visual pyrotechnics and arterial spray utilized by these filmmakers, but instead hearkens back to the masters of social tragedy like Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse. I could easily see the scene where Kaho and Kenichiro quietly walk along the waterfront at dawn as coming directly from a Naruse film of the late 50's. But there's an added sting mixed in with all these classic elements. Any fan of the films of John Cassavetes, a filmmaker who Hamaguchi has called one of his cinematic heroes in interviews, and most especially Mike Nichols screen adaptation of Patrick Marber's vicious stage play "Closer" will easily be able to draw comparisons with "Passion". One need only watch as Tomoya, Takeshi and Takako indulge in one hour of pure honesty to see the near Roman Coliseum level of emotional savagery that Cassavetes and Nichols brought to their films.
There are times when the conversations go on a bit too long during "Passion", times when the camera stares a hole through his characters a few seconds longer than maybe it should, although the long unbroken wide angle landscape that slowly morph into intimate close-ups are indeed something to see. If you consider that this was the graduating film by writer/ director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who graduated from Tokyo's School of the Arts in 2008, then these technical and narrative missteps end up being minor quibbles in what is a genuinely remarkable film. I can only hope that despite the fact that it is already a couple of years old at this point that "Passion" gets some form of North American exposure (festival screenings, DVD release) as it's as this emotionally violent tale is as close to a classic Japanese film as has been released in the past few years.