This 1961 melodrama from Japan unfortunately doesn’t seem widely known, which is a great shame because it also happens to be one of the most gruelling films ever made for its own sort, for I’ve only been left shaking as it sunk into my mind from only as much as one viewing. I’m still not even sure where to begin if I want to even cover what this movie does right, because I haven’t been so taken in from such an experience and yet I think returning back to watching will prove itself an incredibly difficult task. But as I was sitting there watching Happiness of Us Alone, I was convinced this was something that I so badly needed – and I wouldn’t have found it had another friend of mine not brought it to my attention earlier.
Happiness of Us Alone is a drama centered around two people living within a postwar Japan. This film’s opening image is that of an airstrike on a small town and I knew from there that the film wasn’t anymore going to be anything like I would have suspected. But therein sets what I also find to be especially stunning about Zenzô Matsuyama’s film – it seems to be structured like a melodrama but from the opening scene alone we already see something traumatic. The central story of Happiness of Us Alone focuses on a deaf man and woman, played by Keiju Kobayashi and Hideko Takamine, respectively. They meet at a school reunion within the shellshocked community. But only having heard this in regards to its premise prior, I was skeptical of a shallow sort of melodrama – only to have been proven wrong.
This melodrama is never afraid to go incredibly bleak, considering its own subject matter – but it also isn’t afraid to reach for the opposite end of the spectrum. This is a film that celebrates life, even amidst the suffering from trauma especially given the film’s setting. We are watching a couple who are at a point in their life where they feel that everything has been taken from them, but in their time together what they discover is not pain. They are deaf, and yet Zenzô Matsuyama never looks down upon this aspect of their life – he still sees them as human beings trying to seek the best with what they have. This is a film that celebrates the joys of living, even for those who are so evidently isolated from those around them amplified all the more with their lack of speech. And that there may very well be the most beautiful thing about Happiness of Us Alone, it isn’t wholly miserable to the point it just feels evidently manipulative – it still feels so earnest and optimistic, in a manner akin to Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru.
But what stings most about watching this is the psychological depth of this experience, it feels so resonant and maybe even a tad too resonant. Even from acts of kindness consequence still follows, and it’s something I know I find difficult to endure. It was difficult enough watching this and thinking about how society would treat this couple because of their disabilities. This thought hit far too close to home and even greater was the impact knowing it was the children taking advantage of the deafness of the parents as well as the dumbness of the father, because it was hard enough trying to navigate my way through high school unable to properly communicate my feelings because of the fact that I have been isolated from others, who were not willing to look past it about myself. Perhaps it may be a stretch too grand that I pull up, but watching Happiness of Us Alone I had only kept those memories in my mind as I watch the couple suffer all the more. We aren’t isolated because we want it, we suffer from it. And this film just went down to the bones of how this isolation breaks us apart even more, which had me broken apart on the spot.
It hurts because I just know this is all so ordinary in our lives. And maybe we don’t want it to be, but the fact that Matsuyama was ever so kind to have empathy for this difficult lifestyle is where I feel it hurts even more. But the fact that Happiness of Us Alone is a film about seeking hope despite these difficulties we face in our lives on the regular is perhaps what makes the resonance feel all the more earned. I can talk more about why this film works formally despite evidently being a product of its own time, because the performances from the two leads emote too beautifully even for words to describe, despite rarely, if ever talking. And as everything is told so simply, it almost feels like watching a Yasujiro Ozu film. For many reasons, I’m thankful that I got around to watching this movie, because I know I need to see it again. It just felt like something I needed on the spot more than anything else, especially with where my own life has led up to.
Directed by Zenzô Matsuyama
Screenplay by Zenzô Matsuyama
Produced by Sanezumi Fujimoto, Kenichirô Tsunoda
Starring Hideko Takamine, Keiju Kobayashi
Release Year: 1961
Running Time: 130 minutes