What We Don't Know
An Interview with Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
By Jordan Cronk

NYFF 2021:
Drive My Car
Dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan, Sideshow and Janus Films

With the 2021 premieres of Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has joined the ranks of the world’s great filmmakers. Following the five-hour ensemble drama Happy Hour (2015), the 42-year-old Hamaguchi made the leap to the Cannes competition with Asako I & II (2018), an adaptation of a fantastical romance novel by Tomoka Shibasaki that applied the director’s preoccupations with performance and identity to a fable-like tale of chance and duality. Discrete but complementary, Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy—the former an all-but-preordained winner of the Best Screenplay award in Cannes, the latter a deserved recipient of the Jury Prize in Berlin—retain elements of Hamaguchi’s prior work but together speak to the filmmaker’s ability to work in different modes and adopt various styles while maintaining a focus on themes of fate and duplicity.

While Wheel of Fortune’s triptych approach to its original narrative lends it the feel of a novella or omnibus, Drive My Car follows Asako as Hamaguchi’s second major literary adaptation (not counting an early film school remake of Solaris, though it’s easy enough to see how Stanisław Lem may have influenced the director’s worldview). Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, the 179-minute Drive My Car expands considerably on Murakami’s economic 30-page parable about a widowed actor who hires a female driver to be his chauffeur after his license is revoked. In Hamaguchi and co-screenwriter Takamasa Oe’s telling, the Tokyo-based actor, Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), is preparing a stage adaptation of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima after the death of his wife, a screenwriter named Oto (Reika Kirishima). When he arrives, he’s assigned a driver, Misaki (Toko Miura), who dutifully takes on the role despite Yusuke’s cold demeanor and preference to rehearse to cassette recordings of his late wife reading lines from the play rather than converse.

Where the original text fills in its backstory via flashbacks, the film presents this information linearly. In what amounts to a 40-minute prologue, Hamaguchi methodically lays out the factors of Yusuke and Oto’s rocky relationship: their four-year-old daughter has died, and Oto, the more creatively and financially successful of the two, is sleeping with a younger man (Masaki Okada), also an actor, a situation Yusuke inadvertently witnesses but chooses to keep quiet about. (A stunning opening monologue by Oto in which she describes an erotic dream immediately establishes a power imbalance that Yusuke is woefully ill-equipped to reconcile.) When Oto, too, dies in unexpected fashion, the narrative shifts from Tokyo to Yusuke’s travails in Hiroshima, and in turn from the domestic intrigue of Murakami’s setup to a Chekhovian milieu of disillusionment and moral ambivalence. Much of the middle portion of the film is given over to extended scenes of Yusuke and his cast, which includes his wife’s former lover, rehearsing and performing Uncle Vanya; here, as in Asako and Happy Hour—the latter a film that grew out of an actual acting workshop—language, role playing, and repetition become totems of a social order thrown subtly off its axis.

As much as Drive My Car centers on the emotional state of its male protagonist, it’s equally concerned with the inner life of its female characters, particularly Misaki, who eventually becomes Yusuke’s primary foil as the two spend large portions of the film’s third act driving across snow-covered central Japan engaged in lengthy, existential conversations about love, loss, and the fateful events that have brought them together. Working for the first time with cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya, Hamaguchi shoots these car scenes with unassuming compositional command and a meticulous sense for both the rhythms of the road and the quiet energy of his actors, who can communicate as much with a glance or gesture as they do with their dialogue. Not unlike what South Korean director Lee Chang-dong accomplished with Burning (2018), Hamaguchi has taken a relatively slender Murakami text and expanded its allegorical conceits into a highly cinematic, enigmatic reflection on longing and the need for human connection. To hear him tell it, it’s all part and parcel of an ongoing investigation into the performative nature of our day-to-day existence.

Reverse Shot: What initially drew you to Murakami’s story? With Asako I & II you mentioned that the source material had visually intriguing elements in it that you wanted to explore. Were you interested in Murakami’s story for similar reasons, or were you drawn to it for more thematic reasons?

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi: Both. Certainly visually, for the mere fact that much of the story takes place in a moving car—that interested me. Whether it’s Wenders or Kiarostami, movies that take place in cars, with things moving around outside the windows, are very attractive to me. Thematically, I was interested in a core question at the center of the story: what is acting? This is a question I’ve long been interested in, so that made it easier for me to approach the story as a whole.

RS: Can you tell me a bit about Murakami’s status as an author in Japan, your relationship with his work, and how you’ve conceived of him as a writer over the years?

Hamaguchi: There’s no question that Murakami is a very famous author in Japan. Writing pure literature end selling millions of books—there’s no one to really compare him with in Japan. He’s such an outstanding author. I started to read Murakami in my early twenties. Norwegian Wood was already available when I was in grade school, but I didn’t discover it until later. There’s this strength to Murakami’s work that compels you to keep reading—once you start, you can’t stop. And that is even more true with his long novels like Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—these are strong, compelling stories. But for some reason several years ago I stopped reading Murakami’s work, before a friend at some point suggested I read this short story of his called Drive My Car. From the first time I read it, for the reasons I mentioned, I thought it could make a good movie.

RS: How did you come to work with your co-screenwriter Takamasa Oe?

Hamaguchi: I’ve known of Takamasa Oe for years. I was already aware of him probably ten years ago. He’s very famous in independent moviemaking in Japan. A lot of my friends really like him and would tell me how great he is. He had also already worked with one of my producers, and it was my producer who suggested we work together on this film. What’s interesting about Oe is that he knows a lot about theater—he has a lot of experience and knowledge of the field, which I do not have. So, he was a good complement for me and for our pairing. He has a unique strength in writing itself. And while he probably only contributed about 1% to the final script, it was he who suggested a few key scenes, including the opening sequence of Oto telling the story about her dream, which is transposed almost as-is from the original story. This is where he really contributed, in more of a capacity of suggestions than anything else. Much of our collaboration involved him reading the script and giving very helpful feedback. This is something that a producer can also do, but producers tend to look at the film from an audience standpoint. Oe gave me feedback from a story point of view, about things like structure and pacing. I’m not sure if he works like this often, but the dynamic really worked for me.

RS: Regarding the structure, can you talk about the expansions to the story: not only the opening act, but the decision to tell the story chronologically where the book is told in the past tense, as well as the other, original scenes that don’t appear in the story?

Hamaguchi: A movie is different from a novel in the sense that it’s quite natural for an author to tell a story in the past tense, through devices like flashbacks. Whereas in a movie, for me, it always comes off as explanatory and lacks a certain liveliness. That’s why I tend to avoid flashbacks and focus on the present tense. I try to trigger in viewers the feeling that comes from flashbacks in other ways. Also, the fact that Yusuke is a character that doesn’t really reveal a lot of himself—he doesn’t show much emotion, but the audience still needs to understand this deep sorrow that he has. In order to understand that without having him act out his emotions, I had to go deeper into his relationship with his wife, which happens up to the point that he loses her. That’s why the first part of the film goes on for 40 minutes—it’s for the audience to better understand.

As for what I deleted from the story, I couldn’t just make visuals out of Murakami’s words, as great as they are. That wouldn’t make a great movie. When you adapt a book into a movie it’s more about transcribing the emotions you felt when you first read the text. I think what could be interesting for the viewer in this case is to read the short story to see for themselves the disparity between the works. For me it’s more about grasping a core emotion and expanding it while staying true to the spirit of the source.

RS: Tell me a bit about the visual look of the film, and in particular the car scenes and how you conceived of these sequences with your cinematographer. You mentioned Kiarostami before in regard to the driving sequences, but a lot of the rest of the film brought to mind Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who I know mentored you. I also couldn’t help but notice some similarities between the driving scenes in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car.

Hamaguchi: Before I answer your question let me mention one thing: for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy the camera was directed by Yukiko Iioka, and for Drive My Car it was Hidetoshi Shinomiya. They are both incredible cinematographers. They are both able to very precisely shoot scenes even when the actors are freely moving—they make a lot of these moments possible. I think visually you can see some commonalities between Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car, because for me Wheel of Fortune was something of a preparatory work for Drive My Car. I knew that I’d be shooting a lot of car scenes for Drive My Car, so when I made Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy I set out to experiment with car scenes, which you can see in the first chapter. I used this experience to see what was possible and what was not possible.

As for Kurosawa, he did teach me much of what I know, but I also know I need to differentiate myself from him. Our essence is very different, so our films will naturally stand apart, but I still make a concerted effort to differentiate my work from his. So, for example, when Kurosawa films a car scene he will typically use a green screen—the car isn’t really moving. For me, among other things, it was important that the cars in these films really be moving around, so it could help the actors and give them one less thing to pretend about.

RS: Can you talk about Chekhovs influence on the film? Obviously, Uncle Vanya is a plot device in the film, but did Chekhov influence other aspects of the storytelling?

Hamaguchi: Chekhov being this present in the final film is not something I originally planned on. But perhaps that’s appropriate as Chekhov’s text draws out whatever truths you hold within. Including the scenes of the actors saying these lines, and acting these lines, helps I think to better understand them as characters. While I was reading Uncle Vanya I was encouraged to put more and more of Chekhov’s words into the film. What really struck me in his story is the question of how we find hope. The answer he offers is by working. Chekhov’s characters all have this deep despair, and they know they won’t get rid of this despair while they are living. Even Sonya, a very young character, understands this. They know that the only way to overcome this is to work and work together with other people.

In the film, there’s Yusuke, whose whole story is about how he can recover as an actor and get through his pain; and Misaki, the driver, who is trying to take control of the wheel of her life, so to speak. The question became: how do they overcome all this pain? That for me is how the film intertwines with Chekhov, and why he ended up being such a presence in the film.

RS: I’m curious if you feel if your work adapting novels has influenced your other movies at all? Both Happy Hour and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, for example, feel very novelistic, despite being original works. Do you think of your films at all in relation to literature?

Hamaguchi: Many people have said to me that my films have a literary quality. But I don’t think I completely agree with that. Maybe people say that because the films have a lot of dialogue, I don’t know. Words are just one type of stimuli you can give actors to see how they’ll react. At no point am I trying to express a literary quality in my movies, or even in the dialogues. When I wrote a letter to Murakami explaining how I planned to adapt and develop the plot of the book, I told him that the text itself just couldn’t become a movie, as such, and that his words for me would be used in relation to my actors. I told him that the words would be used to trigger emotions and situations among the actors and nothing more. I think when my work converges with literature it’s a remnant of that relationship between the words and the performers, where you have this expression of the soul that can perhaps be traced back to literature. But other than that, I think my process is completely different.