Drive My Car Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi Likes Things to Be a Little Mysterious
While the 2022 Oscar nominations were being announced, Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi was on a flight to Germany to serve as part of this year’s competition jury at the Berlin International Film Festival. “When I landed, I had dozens of messages on my phone. I knew something must have happened,” he tells TIME. Four Academy Award nominations were the proof of that something. My C is for Youar, Hamaguchi’s aching and immersive rumination on love, grief, and the means in which life and art traverse as loss morphs into acceptance. He was in a shock when he realized his three-hour slow-burn—loosely adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe—received nods not only in the anticipated Best International Feature category, but in the Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay categories as well. “My emotions couldn’t catch up with reality.”
It’s a fitting description for Hamaguchi, given how his characters in Drive My Car process their respective realities in a similar fashion—reconciling the present with their complex, evolving emotions. Yusuke, a distinguished theatre director (Hidetoshi Nishijima), creates an extraordinary production. Uncle VanyaAfter the unexpected death of his wife, Kafuku is now living in peace two years later. Kafuku develops close relationships with Misaki (Toko Miura), his quiet observer driver, and Koshi Takatsuki(Masaki Okada), who is a young star thought to have been in an affair with his wife. The mysteries of Drive My Car placidly trickle in, Anton Chekhov’s masterwork interconnects with Hamaguchi’s in revealing ways.
Hamaguchi spoke to us about how to preserve mystery and adapt Murakami’s work, creating dialogue that values listening, as well his views on infidelity.
It is an intimate and special experience to drive with someone. A moving container allows for trust between individuals and encourages honesty. This was a way to get into the story?
Physical closeness between the characters was definitely important. We did make one change to the source material: it was not a convertible. As you said, I was able to feel a safe environment. [would]Bring out the intimacy. That physical intimacy is the key to revealing relationships. What is it? [mental]It is also revealed what state they live in. You can take, for example: [Kafuku]Mentally, it was quite the distance from [his wife Oto]. [But]He and Misaki actually had a very close mental relationship, as is evident by their [physical proximity]. [At first]They were physically close to one another, even though they had been closed off. [association]It was eventually revealed that the two were very close.
Even though you obviously expanded and made quite a number of changes to it, you were able to preserve the short story’s aura of mystery. Your co-writer and you discussed how to approach this adaptation.
After many readings of the short story, we knew what it was. [it] couldn’t simply be adapted into a film. That’s something you can say about most Murakami novels. We didn’t think about the details when changing things. Instead, we made sure we read every word of each story. Naturally, it became part of our lives. [came]Through in our writing.
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We were very proud of our commitment to the preservation of mysteries. You can take, [did]Takatsuki the young actor actually slept with [Kafuku’s] wife? In the story, it’s not completely clear. The movie makes it seem almost 100 per cent clear. But, not nearly. The solution was difficult. [to our adaptation]. Was it? [bring in]The worldviews of Murakami stories are reflected in our story and we added elements that were appropriate. Drive My Car story. We began to see the film progress. [treated]As something that is happening right now and growing as it goes. When we run into a roadblock, I could still use the elements from the original story as they were already part of my life.
I would like to add mystery as an additional point. There is something mysterious that influences the dialogue you create, and not only in Drive My CarBut also your other films. Character interactions often feel like an immersion journey that takes them to an unknown destination..
The structure of my stories are defined when I’m writing. While I am aware that my characters must go in one direction, writing helps me to better understand them and to get to know them. Sometimes, they are surprising me. It’s almost like I’m listening in on someone else’s conversation. I don’t know exactly where it’s going to take me. I know that I can’t force lines to push the story. It can cause lines to be far removed from the genuine emotion of the characters.
I’m glad you mentioned listening, something I also wanted to bring up: your dialogues emphasize the importance of the art of listening. The characters in your story are clearly tuned to each other.
It is important for me that my characters have deep listening skills because that’s what I love in real-life. That’s why the main characters are such good listeners. They really experience other people’s lines. Without the benefit of being listened too, [you’re] vulnerable. It’s also hard for the actors to portray these characters without that. Listening is the key to creating this interaction domino effect.
It was wonderful to see that different languages were used in staging. Uncle Vanya. Because of the universal language of art, the difference between the spoken languages didn’t matter as much. This is how you arrived at this conclusion and decided that sign languages should also be part of the mix.
We’ve been speaking about listening. My listening has been a huge part of my life. [focuses on]Understanding the voice is important, [things also]Communicated using our body language A person’s mental health [can be]They are very clear in their physical expressions. In daily life, that’s something that we can all absorb from each other. Once you start acting, everything changes. [the actors]It was almost as if their words were speaking more loudly than they knew. It was almost as if I was speaking all these languages. [the meaning]expressions through the body. The sign language is another step towards that goal, I believe. It’s a more direct form of communication in terms of body movement and expression. And it’s a beautiful medium of communication.
The film shows part of the Uncle VanyaThe rehearsal process involves sitting down at a table, reading the material aloud and not feeling emotions. This sounds similar to how you rehearse together with your actors. I’m wondering what this process enables.
To tie it to the listening aspect that we’ve been speaking about: within the voice and the body language, there’s all this information that’s being communicated. Practice is a good way to learn. [repetitively]It does not contain emotion and establishes a baseline for understanding the words. Und [because]You’ve probably heard these lines so many times that you can predict what your partner will say at any given moment. So you’re able to just act while feeling what your body actually feels. What happens then is that subtle emotions and changes in emotions become observable to the actors because they’ve seen it without any emotion at all.
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In the end, acting is lying. The reason that it seems like there’s a lot of subtle acting in this film is a part of this. Meaning, if the actors were to act in a way that’s not real, not true to their being and body, then their partners and other people on set will see that. If an action is too strong emotionally, they’ll know. So it’s really about creating a baseline of honest communication between the actors, this heightened listening, which I think is very difficult in improv. But in a sense, what they’re doing is like emotional improv [because] they’ve [already]These lines were easy to remember.
You staged Sonya’s end monologue beautifully in Uncle Vanya, Vanya can place her behind Vanya. Her movements were fluid and effortless. It was also a great juxtaposition to hear a powerful moment through silence sign language. This made the experience even more special.
I was able to see these things gradually. It was decided: [in Uncle Vanya]I would use sign language to communicate with others. So I didn’t really think about [the juxtaposition]It was an idea. This was the only conclusion that could be reached. [For staging]To make the most of this moment, and to allow the audience to experience it best, having her there behind him was the right decision. [in the sign language] clearly. Kafuku might not be feeling the emotion as strongly, which I worried about. But Nishijima told me that signing directly in front of him was extremely efficient. Sometimes, she even signed with his entire body. This brought out his physical alertness, which made him act more alive. This was highly effective.
I took away a lot from both the film and the story about the unknowability of human beings. And I loved Misaki’s accepting way of looking at it. When Kafuku referred to his late wife’s hidden darkness as his blind spot, she suggested that he accept her as completely authentic and truthful, even when she sought other men. It’s a radical way of looking at identity, marriage and infidelity.
One person cannot know everyone. This is normal psychology. It is still our desire to learn, even though we sometimes feel that we already know. We stack. [our]Experiences with someone you want to get to know [them]. In terms of that unknowability: we learn how much we can’t know only through getting to know someone little by little. This film’s characters did this, I believe. For instance, Takatsuki’s story actually brings about more mystery when he tells [it]. We can’t know exactly what happened, but through [absorbing]Each day, we learn more about what everyone shares. These are the things we dig into [different]There are parts to people. We must accept them as they are. [who they]Fully embodied, alive or dead.
In terms of the word infidelity, I don’t really think about relationships that way. There are many attractive people in the world and it is easy to be attracted. It’s up to the individual to decide how far to take a connection with someone. I think that it’s impossible to define a relationship, which is a very important aspect that I tried to portray in this film.
This Q&A was simultaneously translated by Hamaguchi’s interpreter.