Strange Encounters

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Communication breaks down in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Of all the latent social problems brought to the surface by the pandemic and by the forced isolation that so many experienced in 2020 and into 2021, the challenges of communication may not appear to be the most urgent or even the most interesting. Perhaps that is simply because the question of how to make ourselves understood is largely deemed fundamentally unsolvable, even in ‘normal’ times. 

During lockdown, however, it seemed as though all the layers which usually constitute normal day-to-day communication slowly but surely fell away. Small talk disintegrated as the impulse to reassure interlocutors became obsolete, even obscene. Atmosphere and body language, missing from video conversations, were often replaced with a paralysing self-awareness. Attempts at sarcasm in written text were too risky. And with little to report about our lives, even the very content of our conversations became impoverished. As we stared at one another (and at our own reflections) in awkward near silence, our need for connection was totally exposed, its primal nature finally visible to the naked eye. 

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, winner of the Silver Bear prize at this year’s online Berlin Film Festival, was shot before the pandemic, but takes that very same onion of communication and connection and gradually peels away its layers across three stories that are distinct, but whose order marks a clear progression. 

In the first, entitled “Magic (Or Something Less Reassuring)”, young twenty-something fashion model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) struggles with complicated emotions about the new blossoming relationship between her slightly older friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) and a man whom Meiko soon realises is her own former lover, Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima). 

Though Meiko was the one to terminate their relationship, and despite the fact that she even cheated on Kazuaki while they were together, she is nevertheless full of rage at the news. The facts are against her, yet she takes particular offence at Kazuaki’s telling of their story, in which he casts her as a cruel heartbreaker who has made him apprehensive about all potential future relationships. But Meiko does not show her true feelings to her friend Tsugumi. In the opening scene, as the two women at the back of a cab discuss Tsugumi’s romantic date during a long take of disarming ease and realism, the young model is nothing but a kind and supporting friend. It is only once she gets out of the cab that her anger suddenly begins to show, in what constitutes a surprising, funny and slightly alarming twist. 

As we follow Meiko, who immediately decides to pay Kazuaki an impromptu late night visit at his office, it appears the film is taking a much more melodramatic turn than was suggested by the calm and reasoned conversation that opened it. But when the young woman confronts Kazuaki, it becomes clear that she is the only one living in a soap opera of passion and betrayal. Although Hamaguchi’s camera stays by her side throughout the vignette, Meiko’s anger remains confusing to the end, while her aggressive behaviour towards her ex-boyfriend and her desperate, incoherent attempts to shift the blame for their failed relationship are borderline hysterical. Later on, upon seeing the young couple in a cafe, she is seen cruelly jeopardising their young romance.

Hamaguchi presents a character who cannot be rationally understood, in part due to the short format of the vignette, and because her backstory is only alluded to. But as the episode concludes, the director foregrounds the discrepancy between Meiko’s big words of anger, disappointment, frustration and hate, and her actions: that last sequence in which the young girl irremediably sabotages the blossoming romance turns out to be only a fantasy. In reality, Meiko ignores the young couple and walks away. This rift between language and reality is what finally offers an angle from which to understand Meiko: could it be that she did not mean all the nasty things she said? And did she even know what she meant? Like most people her age, Meiko is impulsive and does not (yet) have the patience or the tools to sit down and understand what she really wants, let alone how to connect to another person. Her older friend Tsugumi, by contrast, spoke of her date with Kazuaki with the kind of grace and composure that only comes with patience and experience. 

Hamaguchi’s subtle emphasis on the split between what his character says and what she does is thrilling not just because he presents it as a twist in the story. Most importantly, it goes against mainstream rules of filmmaking and character development, where protagonists know what they want and what they believe in. As such, it underscores the instability of language, the difficulty in putting complex emotions into words. This gap recalls the cinema of Éric Rohmer, where characters’ own certainties about themselves and the world are always ultimately undermined; it also echoes the theme of the more recently, very aptly titled and Rohmer-inspired film The Things We Say, The Things We Do from French filmmaker Emmanuel Mouret.  

In Rohmer’s films, the arrogance and sense of superiority that pushes his (often male) characters to inevitably make fools of themselves is a handicap that comes with age. Hamaguchi, by contrast, seems to attribute it to the innocence of youth, and appears more positive about the virtues of getting older. Meiko does a bit of growing up herself in this first vignette, when she finally decides not to act on her anger and walks away without a word. As Hamaguchi’s characters become older with each subsequent episode, they also become wiser. 

In the middle segment, entitled “Door Wide Open,” a young student called Sasaki (Shouma Kai) mirrors Meiko’s immature and highly emotional behaviour when he visits the office of his professor, Mr Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), to very literally beg him for a higher grade, prostrating himself at his teacher’s feet. The unflinching professor does not just refuse: in line with a policy he has put in place in response to sexual abuse allegations at the school, he also makes sure to leave his office door wide open, making Sasaki’s humiliation very public. This shame leads the young man to convince his older friend-with-benefit, Nao (Katsuki Mori), to honeytrap the professor. 

To try and flatter Mr Sagawa, Nao pays him a visit at his office and reads to him what she describes as her favourite passage from his latest highly successful novel — an erotic scene in a book that could not otherwise be described as hentai at all (a character in fact remarks that the presence of this scene in the novel is a sophisticated nod to traditional Japanese literature). The idea is to record what Nao’s bitter lover Sasaki is sure will be a highly inappropriate reaction from the professor. 

Like Meiko during her confrontation with her ex-boyfriend, Nao’s weapons of choice are words. But very much unlike her, she presumes to have more knowledge of their power, and sets out to put it to its most perverse use: Mr Segawa’s humiliation and the ruin of his career will be all the more mortifying for being caused by his very own writings. 

But things do not go as planned. To Nao’s great surprise, Mr Segawa and the young woman forge a real connection through his text, and she agrees to record herself reading the entire book for him. Throughout the scene, the professor barely looks at Nao, his eyes staying fixed on the table in front of him as he speaks to her in a controlled, monotonous voice, deliberately choosing his words. His care and honesty in expressing himself are miles away from both Sasaki’s sarcastic and derisive tone, and Nao’s cynical way with words, and the effect of Mr Sagawa’s on the young woman is powerful. Their conversation isn’t so much charged with erotic intensity from the professor’s erotic writing, as it is with the thrill and suspense in watching a thoughtful exchange that could at any moment fall into more convenient insincerity or bland politeness. 

Hamaguchi’s story therefore subtly undermines the image of Mr Sagawa (and, one could argue, literature professors in general) as dusty and dirty old men publishing smut under the guise of sophisticated literature. Conversely, it also highlights the role of a professor not just in making his students read the key texts, but also in showing them the very power of words, the beauty they can bring and the bridges they can build. Whether this practically miraculous exchange between professor and student is understood as one of the fantasies from the film’s title, or as a “real-world” rebuke to a perceived contemporary disdain for challenging literature, the events which unfold off-screen following the two characters’ encounter appear to root the story in reality. 

Back home with her husband and child, Nao mistakenly emails her recording of her reading the erotic passage to the university, rather than to Mr Sagawa; when the film finds her again five years later, it appears that both Nao’s career and that of the professor were ruined by what looked to outsiders like an improper relationship between teacher and student. As in Sasaki’s original plan, Mr Sagawa’s words were taken out of context, and finally turned against him — but also against Nao, in a cruel form of poetic justice. Hamaguchi directly opposes the respectful and creative relationship between Nao and Mr Sagawa’s, and a vindictive, incurious climate which apparently can only ever imagine the worst. 

This may seem like a rather reactionary angle for Hamaguchi to take on this current era of greater accountability. On closer inspection, however, his real target appears to be the new normalised puritanism sneaking its way back into mainstream culture under the guise of equality, twisting words and facts to fit prudish purposes (see the online “debates” about what should and should not be allowed in Pride parades, and Marvel’s reaction to Taika Waititi’s non-monogamous behaviour, to cite just a few recent examples). After all, Nao isn’t a minor — she is a married mother in her early thirties — and both parties could have easily explained the truth, had they been asked at all. 

Leaving the confines of the private realm that formed the canvas of the first vignette, Hamaguchi in this second chapter explores the intersection between the private and the public world — one that is too fast and too paranoid to allow for the patience necessary to forge real connections. It is a bitter story damning of our modern society and in particular of our use of social media, a tool whose democratising power can also flatten out all nuance, details and particularities, and encourage the worst mob mentality. 

Hamaguchi’s choice to set his third story in a near future where people have stopped using the Internet entirely therefore feels both pointed and apt. It is also a breath of fresh air after the bitterness of the first two stories. This wistful fantasy is set in a much slower world where, without all kinds of more-or-less accurate knowledge at their fingertips, everyone has been forced to accept that they simply cannot know everything. “Any Day Now” centres on Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) and Aya (Aoba Kawai), two women in their late thirties / early forties who cross paths at a train station and mistake each other for childhood acquaintances. When they finally realise their error, Natsuko has already been at Aya’s house drinking tea for quite some time, but rather than being scared or even embarrassed, the two women almost shrug it off. 

Could the absence of the Internet in this imagined future have forced people to allow for more mistakes? To accept a certain part of mystery? It seems that, as initially happened between Nao and Mr Sagawa in the second story, the absence of outsider witnesses to judge the two strangers helps them transform this awkward moment into something beautiful and heartfelt. Each woman agrees to continue to act as a stand-in for the long lost friend of the other, embracing this strange opportunity to get off their chests things they’d always regretted not telling their childhood acquaintances. Although Hamaguchi never states this explicitly, it is hard to imagine that these two strangers would do this at all or have such a calm reaction to their situation if they could simply Google their real pals, find their email addresses and reconnect with them. 

Hamaguchi’s premise — a case of mutual mistaken identity — is charming and quirky, but it is also a remarkably simple, compact and powerful set-up through which to explore the constructive power of communication. In their conversation, the two women are not simply exchanging words with one another, saying what is already on their mind to another person. As each patiently gives the stranger time to pick her words, she also helps her dig further into what exactly she is feeling and what she would like to tell her long lost friend. Through their exchange, each woman comes to better understand her own thoughts and emotions, and manages to put better words on them. Hamaguchi’s film culminates in a moving, humanistic vision of a world where communication and connection have the power to clarify, soothe and heal.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy can be enjoyed as a lighthearted film about chance encounters, with a serene visual style and masterfully crafted dialogue that are quite simply delightful to behold. But Hamaguchi’s triptych is also a profound, passionate and quietly searing film on the obstacles to communication. Each chapter elegantly uncovers those stumbling blocks inherent to human nature and which we can learn to overcome as we grow older — the challenge in even knowing our feelings and desires, in conveying them, and in building real connections — but also those that are caused by outside factors, chief amongst them the Internet. 

By the end of the film, Hamaguchi has done away with the impatience and inchoate communication style of youth which troubled Meiko in the first story, with the misunderstandings-prone Internet public that caused the ruin of Nao and Mr Sagawa in the second, and finally, with the need for people to even know each other in order to communicate with and understand one another. Natsuko and Aya’s desire for connection in the third story is so strong that they mistake total strangers for people from their past. When their error is revealed, that need is completely exposed. But with no reason to panic — none of the short tempers of the young, no Internet audience to expose and shame them — they are free to explore that need together, patiently and without judging it, to get at its root without trouble. This final chapter is an offering and a proposal, an evocative vision of a society where words are not used to attack, control or judge, but to communicate truthfully and nurture real connection. 

Elena Lazic

Elena is the founder and editor of Animus.