Having released two feature films in 2021, Ryusuke Hamaguchi was already having a good year before his latest, Drive My Car, started racking up year-end awards and nominations. The film is also a genuine hit, playing to sold-out screenings in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. All of that has now made Hamaguchi, one of the most exciting directors to come out of Japan in the past decade (his two previous features, 2015’s Happy Hour and 2018’s Asako I & II, were among the best films of their respective years), something of an art-house household name. With good reason, too. Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, Drive My Car (which also appeared on the year-end top-ten lists of all three of Vulture’s film critics) is a mesmerizing, heartbreaking, occasionally hilarious drama about Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima, who also has awards buzz), an actor-director who, after the sudden death of his wife, travels to Hiroshima to direct an avant-garde adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The film focuses on Kafuku’s relationship with his driver, Misaki (a transcendent Tōko Miura), and with a young actor named Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), who just happened to be having an affair with Kafuku’s wife before she died. In mood and subject matter, the film also bears some similarities to Hamaguchi’s other feature released this year, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which is a series of three offbeat stories revolving around the strange ways that relationships mutate and endure. I spoke to Hamaguchi recently about both films, the liberties he took with Murakami’s original, the abstract beauty of driving at night, and more.
Haruki Murakami is a monumental literary figure, and adaptations of his work have been very uneven. What made you want to tackle this story in Drive My Car?
A very direct answer would just be to say that the producer suggested it. But he originally suggested a different story, which I found too difficult to adapt. (I’m not going to tell you what story it was.) However, “Drive My Car” had appeared in a magazine about eight years ago. I’d read it back then, and felt maybe that’s one I could do. So I suggested this back to him. I was drawn to it because it dealt with themes quite familiar to me: the use of a transportation device as a setting, and the idea of performance.
The short story “Drive My Car” is structured differently from your film. How did you decide to make its story more linear?
The best thing about the short story is the characters, Kafuku and Misaki. So I needed to figure out the most natural way for that relationship to develop. Additionally, within the story, there is Takatsuki’s character and his dialogue. I actually pulled some of his words from the short story into the film. I also knew that I needed to inflate the story to make a feature. And Murakami’s world is quite unique, so I couldn’t just pull from anywhere. At that time, there was a short-story collection out called Men Without Women, which “Drive My Car” is a part of. I felt that because they all shared this common theme of “men without women,” I could perhaps pull from other stories within that collection. So I chose two stories, “Scheherazade” and “Kino,” and I created one story out of these three.
In the original story, the loss of the wife is something that has happened in the past. By making that marriage essentially the first act of the movie, you make her death a kind of narrative rupture, almost like Janet Leigh’s death in Psycho. We think we’re seeing one type of movie and then, 40 minutes in, it becomes a completely different type of movie.
I think one of the biggest reasons here is the difference between film and literature. I don’t really like the mechanics of a flashback. I also didn’t think that flashbacks would work for this story in particular. But I was thinking, How can I make the audience have a sense of flashback while watching the film? Kafuku as a character does not talk much in the film, especially after the death of his wife, Oto. He’s lost the person that he can reveal his private self to. The audience can understand that massive loss, and how much sadness and pain that Kafuku is carrying later in the film, by seeing those first 40 minutes with Oto. You really understand Kafuku and his loneliness without him actually speaking so much.
Your other film this year, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, made up of three short stories, also came out in the U.S. not too long ago, so it’s hard not to think of these movies as companion pieces. One theme that does seem to run through your movies is the way that our past relationships continue to haunt us. To what extent did the two films inform each other?
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car really do echo each other in a lot of ways. The production period actually overlapped between the two films. I had shot the first and second stories of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy before the pandemic. We started shooting Drive My Car in March of 2020, right as the pandemic hit, and we had to go on an eight-month halt in production. During that period, we shot the third story of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. After the emergency decree was lifted, we finished the second half of Drive My Car, which is the part set in Hiroshima. Also, I had initially thought of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy in part to prepare for the feature that I was going to work on. I wanted to get used to thinking about these similar themes. I knew I wanted to work with a car driving at night, how to express sexual relationships onscreen, and also of course the theme of performance.
What is it about a car driving at night that appeals to you?
Driving at night is very different from driving in the day. There’s something very abstract about it. The details of the city start to become more blurry, the details of the environment and what’s outside go out of focus, so what you start to see is darkness and light. That abstractness is something I was drawn to. I also think that words said at night are different from words said during the day. Daily life is farther away, and you draw out something different from the characters — their inner selves. Conversations during nighttime drives often end up being deeper conversations.
It’s interesting to hear you say the majority of Drive My Car was shot after the pandemic started. There’s a brief scene at the end, set where we see the characters masked, and a viewer might assume that was the one part shot post-COVID. Why include the pandemic at that point, after avoiding it for the previous parts of the film? And did your conception of the picture change at all as a result of the pandemic?
I came upon two reasons to have the characters masked at the end. One, it allows us to show that time has passed, that we are now in a very different period from what we just saw onscreen. Also, I felt this could bring the scene closer to our own world, to our own realities, especially at the end.
The pandemic very much affected the conception of the film. All the scenes in Hiroshima were originally going to be shot in Busan, South Korea. But we were no longer able to travel abroad, so we considered other options. We thought about what Japanese city would be a good place to host a theater festival. When Hiroshima came up as an option, I realized that “Hiroshima” as a noun, as a word, carries a lot of heft. So I really had to think about whether that would be the right choice. But once we went out there and saw all these locations, I saw just how wonderful the nature is there, how wonderful the city is. I started to feel that actually the history of the city itself perhaps can be connected to the theme of the story. There’s a huge scar — this huge pain that Hiroshima the city has gone through — and yet it has reconstructed itself in such a beautiful way. So, Hiroshima ended up clarifying that theme in the film even better.
As I understand, Kafuku’s style of working with actors in the film, how he makes them repeatedly rehearse all their lines with absolutely zero emotion, is very similar to your own approach. Can you tell me a little bit about your process?
I don’t actually have experience in directing theater, and didn’t really know how to go about depicting that. So I researched and interviewed a lot of people who direct and work in theater. After doing this research, I still felt that I didn’t quite understand how to go about depicting that world. So I thought, You know what, I’m just going to bring in my own process into the movie. When we’re preparing, I do have my actors read the dialogue over and over multiple times without emotion. That is so that the actors can install the words into their bodies, so it can seep into their bodies. I believe that allows for the actors to be more emotive when they’re in front of the camera, and freer to move, because all the words have soaked into them. So the process that you see in the film is not theater acting; in my mind, it’s actually film acting that we’re seeing here. In the end, everything will be captured in front of the camera anyway, so I just brought in my own film process.
How did you develop this process?
The idea actually comes from a short film about Jean Renoir and his directing. I sort of mimicked him and pulled that approach into my own. I had wanted to try it out for quite a while, but it wasn’t until Happy Hour that I gave it a shot. That was a big moment for me. Because I was working with people who had no prior acting experience, and I had to think about how I could get them to be able to act. These nonprofessionals weren’t necessarily there because they wanted to be in a film; they were there because they had an intellectual curiosity toward acting. That made them very appealing to me, but I also had to think about how they could stand in front of the camera eventually without fear. That’s when I first tried out this process.
Your films tend to be quite long. Drive My Car is three hours, but Happy Hour is over five hours. Do you know how long a film will be when you start making it?
I’ve made a lot of long films. For Intimacies, which I made about ten years ago, I knew that I was going to make a long film; I went into the production saying that it would be long. The same goes for when I was making documentaries. For Happy Hour, the length was kind of an accident. I had originally thought it would be a two-hour film. However, I later realized that if I cut it down to two hours, it would be a lie, because it wouldn’t have expressed the time that I spent with these subjects. We had about eight months to shoot. We decided to shoot as much as we could and then decide in the edit what to cut. But once we were in the editing room, the things we shot were so strong that I felt that I needed to keep it in. If I took away anything, the strength of the whole piece would be lost. Regarding Drive My Car, I figured it would be about two and a half hours long. While I was on location, I could tell it would get longer. It ended up being longer than expected.
The three episodes of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, as I understand it, are part of a project of seven short films. Why those three? And what is the status of the other short films?
Those first three stories that I chose, I see as an entrance into this series of seven. The first story to me is very understandable; it’s a simple story about a love triangle. The second story has a darker, sexual element to it. The third story, I felt that people could watch it and feel good coming out of it. With that experience, people might want to watch the later stories when they come out. But as I mentioned earlier, this idea of working with short films was to help me prepare for a feature film. I want to make it a cycle between short films and feature films. I do have four seeds of stories, but it will really depend on what my next feature will be. The short stories will ultimately meet the needs of that film.
Tell me about the decision to make Chekhov more of a presence in Drive My Car. His work so often inspires these “meta” approaches, like with Vanya on 42nd Street or The Last Metro, or Tarkovsky’s Mirror. It seems to prompt this kind of self-reflection.
I’m embarrassed to say I actually don’t remember those films that you mention. Uncle Vanya was already in the original short story, but I was also very interested in Chekhov at the time, so it felt very serendipitous. I went back and reread Uncle Vanya and really saw a correlation between Kafuku as a character and Uncle Vanya. Some of Vanya’s dialogue can directly be used to talk about what Kafuku himself is going through. As I had mentioned earlier, I was really thinking about how to express Kafuku’s emotions, even though he’s not speaking so much himself. So Uncle Vanya was really helpful. At the same time, I feel that a lot of Murakami’s stories have two parallel worlds happening at the same time. There are often two characters who feel like they might actually be the same character, and they end up sort of translating between themselves. So Uncle Vanya allowed me to do the same thing within this film.
What made you want to become a filmmaker?
Ultimately, it comes down to one person: John Cassavetes. When I saw Husbands, I had just just turned 20 or so. Seeing that really was a determining experience for me. It showed me how there could be so much emotion lying underneath daily life, and that film could really capture those emotions. In my opinion, nobody else has done that so clearly. That said, I do feel that American people and Japanese people don’t necessarily act the same way. I don’t have the same impulses as Cassavetes, so I am still able to figure out what my own process is.