Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"A melancholy look at love and the various ways in which people understand their connections to others."

From the moment that Kaho (Aobe Kawai) and Tomoya (Ryute Okomoto) announce their engagement to their friends in a restaurant, it’s clear that it isn’t going to work out as planned. Kaho’s shy glow of excitement just isn’t reciprocated by her fiancé. When the women go home after the meal, he joins friends Takeshi (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) and Kenichiro (Nao Okabe) to visit the latter’s girlfriend, Takako (Fusako Orabe), whose cat has just died and who is keen to spend the evening drinking and talking.

The men’s attitude towards Takako is disquieting throughout, if not exactly unusual. Because she lives alone and is happy to have sex without commitment, Takeshi disapproves of her, going so far as to put the security of her living situation at risk. Kenichiro finds her a convenient distraction from his not very secret feelings for Kaho. Tomoya wants to save her, by way of convincing himself and trying to convince her that she’s in love with Kenichiro, that her lifestyle is destroying her and that she needs to find true love with somebody who deserves her. In the process, he begins to imagine himself in that role.

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Whilst this situation gradually brings the men into conflict and makes them question their friendship – agreeing, as they do so, that single women are a problem because they complicate matters between friends – Kaho is embarking on a different sort of journey. The recent suicide of a child in the class she teaches has left her shaken, and a chilling scene in which she is confronted with the reason why it happened makes her situation at the school almost unbearable. Unable to successfully communicate with Tomoya about it, she embarks on a solitary exploration of the mechanics of power and violence which also functions as a metaphor for political discussions in Japan around the issue of rearmament.

With careful shot and costume choices, director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi emphasises Kaho’s physical fragility, upping the stakes for both Tomoya and Kenichiro whilst also hinting at the emotional strain she’s under and the courage she shows in carrying on, sticking to her principles. Honesty is instinctive for her, whereas the men force it out of one another by means of a game. Takako is somewhere in the middle, problematising gender stereotypes, making the men uncomfortable simply by being comfortable with herself. Her worldliness and practicality highlight the difficulties of Kaho’s purity and the men’s different kinds of reliance on received wisdom.

Hamaguchi’s first professional film (following a student remake of Solaris), Passion exhibits the poise and willingness to take risks which have distinguished his career, revealing their full potential in Oscar-winner Drive My Car and the astonishing Asako I & II. Whilst it’s still a little rough around the edges and time has not been kind to the print, it’s a real treat for fans and still a cut above most of the cinematic output of the period. He does rely to an extent on the youth of his characters to create situations which won’t provide so much mystery or intrigue for older viewers, but there are still moments of existential wonder. Furthermore, the characters are beautifully drawn and he handles the actors with confidence and maturity.

A melancholy look at love and the various ways in which people understand their connections to others, Passion has a neutral colour palette which serves as backdrop to vivid emotional impressions. It’s a stunning work for a filmmaker at the start of his career, and well worth revisiting now.

Reviewed on: 14 Apr 2023
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Unfaithfulness dogs a couple on the verge of marriage.

Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Writer: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Starring: Aoba Kawai, Nao Okabe, Ryuta Okamoto, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Fusako Urabe

Year: 2008

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: Japan


SSFF 2015

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