I’ll Be Your Mirror: Disability in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Films

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Written by Emerson Goo

When the COVID-19 pandemic (which health justice activists have been calling a “mass disabling event”) waylaid plans to film Drive My Car in Busan, South Korea, Ryusuke Hamaguchi was initially unenthusiastic about his producer’s suggestion to instead shoot in Hiroshima. In Esprit, he explains his worry that it was too heavy-handed a location, both because of the city’s history and his own. Understanding why requires us to rewind to March 2011, when another social and environmental crisis brought into relief the major themes of his work, notably a focus on disability and its relationship to storytelling, performance, and the power and politics of listening.

In the months following the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake, media outlets likened the Japanese government’s expedient response to Hiroshima’s miraculous rebirth after WWII. Meanwhile, filmmakers were seeding an artistic counter-response, documenting the individual voices buried under a homogenized, national narrative of reconstruction. As part of the Sendai Mediatheque’s Center for Remembering 3.11, Hamaguchi directed a documentary trilogy with Ko Sakai about survivors of the disaster, a project that helped him find the pulse of his career. Early features like Passion (2008) and The Depths (2010) charted dysfunctional relationships, but 3/11 located that dysfunction in much more corporeal anxieties: the fragility and mutability of existence, and the persistence of bodily disorder in a country eager to sweep away the wreckage.  

Storytellers (2013) concludes Hamaguchi and Sakai’s trilogy, following folklorist Kazuko Ono as she collects folk tales from elders across the hard-hit Tohoku region. Unlike the interviews recorded in the previous films, The Sound of Waves (2011) and Voices from the Waves (2013), the folk tales appear irrelevant to the disaster, detailing oddities like mice pounding mochi, shadow people, or singing buttocks. The film’s title (which could describe all of Hamaguchi’s post-3/11 films) clues us into its intentions. The focus isn’t on the stories, but the people telling them: how their regional flourishes and inflections trace the contours of a life, and the lands and waters they grew up around. As scholar Ran Ma argues, the elders shed their narrow status as disaster “victims” by performing their folk tales for the camera, heralding a world where the continuity of human existence is renewed by, and contingent on, a vernacular knowledge of nature. Contrast this with the forbidding coastlines of Asako I & II (2018), where massive concrete seawalls cut off the ocean, signaling the disorientation of its titular character. Storytellers powerfully reminds us that we receive these stories from other people, other bodies we must sit with and deeply listen to.

Despite being spry interlocutors, the elders claim their memory isn’t what it used to be. For Hamaguchi, the storyteller is never a fully abled or capable subject. Whether through the direct inclusion of disabled characters, as in Asako I & II and Drive My Car, or through metaphors of body horror, as in Touching the Skin of Eeriness (2013), disability destabilizes the precarious boundaries that cleave the self from others. Why has its importance in his films been scarcely discussed? Disability has always been socially invisible, but even more so in literature and film, where it’s often reduced to an isolated marker of tragedy, abnormality, or lack. Historian Paul Longmore writes that images of impairment have abounded on screen, but are rarely related to wider, systemic phenomena. Disability doesn’t get to participate in culture, only deviate from it.  

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