Blue Hour (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2019]

Sunada (Kaho) is a director of television commercials – just past thirty-years-old, drinking a little too much, and hiding an unenthused lover from a happy but sexless husband. Once the pressures of a sexist industry and celebrity egos grow too much for her, Sunada’s best friend Kiyoura (Shim Eun-kyung) drags her on a road trip to rural Ibaraki to meet Sunada’s parents and reunite with her ailing grandmother.

Writer/director Yuko Hakota makes a confident debut with this comedy-drama in which a woman resents having to grow up but hides from her childhood at the same time. It is an easily relatable, small-scale work: high on charm, and trading fluidly between moments of strong comedy and soft melancholy. As a feature director, Yuko comes out of the gate, so to speak, with an astounding level of patience. There is no urge to impress or over-loading of technique or pace, as might be demonstrated by another debut filmmaker. Instead, there is simply an immediate trust in the audience to engage and follow the characters.

There is much in Sunada’s life to which the audience will likely relate. She is dissatisfied with her job and the sexist powerbrokers that keep her from advancing. Her marriage has trailed downhill into a sexless routine, and an ill-conceived affair has delivered disappointment. She fixates on getting older, as most 30-year-olds do. Even when dragged to visit her elderly grandmother – who has just recovered from a serious illness – it is with reluctance and no small amount of regret.

Kaho plays Sunada very well. It is a nuanced take on a largely inactive role: things happen to Sunada, rather than Sunada bringing events into fruition herself. She reacts but does not instigate. It is a difficult role to make engaging, and Kaho succeeds wonderfully. Her rapport with the more energetic and whimsical Kiyoura is naturally charming and this interplay between Shim and Kaho is one of the film’s strongest elements. For her own part, Shim brings a huge amount of energy to the more manic and playful Kiyoura, generating many of the best comic moments.

There is a somewhat quirky edge to the film. The music, while sparsely used, has a self-conscious sense of absurdity to it. There is an odd and slightly distracting use of non-diegetic sound effects from time to time. It is a striking technique because the characters within this slightly exaggerated environment are carefully underplayed. The restrained performances allow the more eccentric characters to flourish in a pleasing rather than jarring manner. Sunada’s brother is justunsettling enough to succeed on screen with his inappropriate jokes just skimming the surface of discomfort rather than diving in. Her father’s newfound obsession with samurai weapons and armour is again written precisely on a line between reality and absurdity.

There are some real highlights here. A quiet scene between Sunada and her bed-ridden grandmother abandons the humour to present a simple, emotive drama between two women. A night out to a local bar delivers well in both genres, emphasizing the difference between Sunada’s Tokyo home and her parents’ more rural environment. Yuko directs the film with a very strong sense of place, and Ryuto Kondo’s photography goes for matter-of-fact visuals rather than any sort of artful pretention. The famous ‘blue hour’, between night and dawn, plays out primarily in flashback – pointing to a hopefulness the young Sunada had that she cannot quite tap into any more. Underlying the jokes and gags is a deep pessimism about growing older as a woman in Japan.

An unexpected narrative turn in the film’s final moments throws much of the film’s events into disarray, leaving things on a slightly muddled note. In a way, it demands the viewer watch Blue Hour for a second time, simply to decipher the last two minutes. It does feel misjudged, but at the same time does not feel entirely out of place. Overall it is a deliberately low-key work, and succeeds all the more effectively because of it. It is keenly observed, beautifully presented, and effectively played. This is warm, comforting cinema.

Blue Hour is showing at JAPAN CUTS 2019 on July 28.