When friends gather at a restaurant—a glimpse at the sign above the entrance, El Secreto, not-so-subtly foreshadowing what’s about to occur inside— to celebrate Kaho’s (Aoba Kawai) birthday, the jovial gathering spirals into an evening fraught with questions and confusion when Kaho and her boyfriend Tomoya (Ryuta Okamoto) make an announcement that ought to have been cause for another celebration: their engagement. But their sudden and matter-of-fact announcement results not in cheers and congratulations, but an awkward pause followed by clumsy efforts to process the information; one of their friends, Kenichiro (Nao Okabe), chokes out a cringey joke about marrying Kaho himself after she and Tomoya inevitably fall out. It’s apparent from this one small interaction what is revealed explicitly later in the film, that Kenichiro has been in love with Kaho for a long time. And it’s this early scene that so incisively points to the themes and subjects that would continue to dominate writer and director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s filmography, namely the complexities of relationships with all their yearnings, resentments, and betrayals.
There’s been renewed international interest in Hamaguchi’s work followed his two widely acclaimed 2021 features: the anthology Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and awards season darling (including winner of the Academy Award for Best International Feature) Drive My Car. His second film, Passion, was made in 2008 as his thesis project while studying at the Tokyo University School of the Arts, but it is only just now being released in U.S. theaters for the first time. And while Passion is a perfectly fine relationship drama on its own, it’s particularly interesting to view it with prior knowledge of Hamaguchi’s recent masterpieces (the aforementioned two films, 2018’s Asako I and II, and the sprawling 2015 drama Happy Hour). Virtually all of the seeds of his future films are planted in Passion, both structurally and narratively, as it circles a group of late-20/early-30-somethings with great tenderness and quiet empathy, even when they are behaving at their most selfish and despicable.
The aftermath of Kaho and Tomoya’s surprise announcement calls into question not only the core of their relationship (Tomoya is comfortable with Kaho but isn’t head over heels in love with her, and Kaho is generally uncertain about the direction of her life and career), but the relationships of their surrounding friends. Their spunky friend Takako (Fusako Urabe) loves Kenichiro, but he loved Kaho. Tomoya loves Takako, and it’s to her apartment he ventures after the birthday party along with Takeshi (Kiyohiko Shibukawa). Despite being married and with his first child on the way, Takeshi becomes almost immediately enraptured by Takako’s novelist cousin who is staying with her. These tangled relationships are complex to follow, but Hamaguchi displays his ability to juggle multiple characters and storylines with a clear eye here. As the friend group comes together and falls apart, uncomfortable truths are laid bare by their struggles to straddle the line between youthful exuberance and maturing into the adults society expects them to be. As with some of the characters in subsequent Hamaguchi films, some of them are painfully honest; perhaps the most severe example of this is when Kaho and Tomoya meet with Kaho’s mother, who sees straight through her son-in-law to the real feelings he holds in his heart. When he asks a question that perhaps he doesn’t really want to know the answer to, she cuts right to the quick: “I guess I don’t like you.”
Passion also serves as the blueprint for Hamaguchi’s style, which he would continue to hone in future films (he has also worked with many of the actors in this film again). He frequently opts for long takes and dialogue-heavy scenes, leaving the camera on his characters for long stretches of time while they hash things out. This allows energetic conversations to build in intensity, and the weight of lengthy pauses to be deeply felt. The digital, handheld camerawork (likely the result of a small budget more than anything else) isn’t especially appealing, but there are times where the staging of certain shots overcomes that shortcoming. His most impressive unbroken sequence is one toward the end of the film in which two characters gradually walk toward the camera, the industrial surroundings providing an off-kilter backdrop to their conversation (the one truly swooningly romantic one in the entire movie) as noisy trucks pass by behind them.
But the most Hamaguchi-esque touch is an interlude that appears incongruous to the rest of the film, but in a way actually holds the conceit of the plot within it. In this scene, Kaho—a teacher—has a conversation with her students about another student who committed suicide. The action moves around the classroom from student to student as they each reveal the ways they bullied their classmate who died. This segment may not hold a direct correlation to the drama unfolding within Kaho’s friend group, but it thoughtfully unpacks feelings of violence, betrayal, regret, and forgiveness, and the relationship those emotions all have with each other. It’s that same turbulent tangle of emotions that governs Passion’s adult characters, holding devastating secrets close to their chests, hurling them at one another with an almost violent force, and seeking closure and forgiveness.
Passion will screen at the Webster University Film Series May 17 and 18, and is currently playing in select theaters across the U.S. Runtime: 115 minutes.