On the Road: Ryusuke Hamaguchi on "Drive My Car"

The Japanese director talks about his Haruki Murakami adaptation, winner of the Best Script award in Cannes.
Leonardo Goi

All through our chat, Ryusuke Hamaguchi stares at me as if to make sure I get all that he’s saying. The Japanese director understands English well, but doesn’t feel comfortable speaking it; in the Cannes hotel we met at, an interpreter sits between us, and I cannot help but think there’s a curious parallel between the translation barriers we’re wrestling with and his monumental, luminous Drive My Car. Monumental in size, luminous in touch. Clocking at three hours, it is based on a short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami, which English speakers can find in the anthology Men without Women. In the film, Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theatre actor and director, travels to Hiroshima to stage Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Two years have passed since the death of his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima, also seen in Tran Anh Hung’s 2010 film adaptation of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood), a TV screenwriter who would routinely fall into a writing trance after sex. “She’d grasp a thread of a story from the edge of orgasm,” Yusuke remembers, and in a sensuous 40-minute preamble, Hamaguchi outlines their creative-carnal relationship before complicating it once Yusuke catches Oto in bed with Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a younger actor whom the director will later cast in the lead role of Chekhov’s play.

Yusuke has made a name for himself through multilingual productions, which leave his cast to speak in their native tongues and audiences to follow via subtitles screened in real time. The actors themselves don’t understand each other, but that matters little. Language barriers—in Yusuke’s Uncle Vanya as much as Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car—aren’t obstacles so much as catalysts to wring out an emotional truth. The film itself is about many things—about loneliness, personal loss, language, and memory—but perhaps the most cardinal is the belief in art’s redemptive powers, the idea that art can act as a universal idiom to unearth and process one’s traumas. This accounts for the strange exhilaration the characters succumb to while dealing with Uncle Vanya. At one point, Yusuke admits he finds Chekhov terrifying for the very same effect he hopes the text will elicit in his actors: “when you say his lines, he drags out the real you.”

A sprawling road-trip, Drive My Car unfolds for large chunks inside Yusuke’s crimson Saab 900, which the man seems to regard less as a vehicle than a protective chrysalis. It’s here that he listens to the recordings of his late wife reading out parts in Uncle Vanya—leaving him to fill the gaps in the title role. But once in Hiroshima, he’s forced to leave the wheel to a chauffeur the festival’s hired to drive him around for the whole sojourn. The driver, Misaki (Tôko Miura), is a taciturn twenty-something who’s grappling with a family tragedy of her own. And so Drive My Car swells into a late-night confessional; alone in the car, the two strangers strike a bond rooted in a history of shared sorrows. It’s a film of fulminating and harrowing exchanges, enlivened by Nishijima and Miura’s implosive performances--a tale about making peace with your past, and the role you ought to play.

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to start by asking about your adaptation of Murakami’s short story. When did you realize there was something there that clicked, something that made you think the text could be turned into a film?

RYUSUKE HAMAGUCHI: First of all, turning literature into cinema is always a forced process—you’re always going to wrestle with some kind of impossibility there. Adding visuals to the words you’ve read, that’s not a movie adaptation for me. In order for it to work, you first have to find the core emotion that you felt [in the text], and then expand it into a film. When I first wrote to Haruki Murakami to tell him what kind of adaptation I was trying to make, one of the things I emphasized was that I wouldn’t be able to use the dialogues and exchanges as he wrote them. Because real-life people, well, they just don’t talk like that.

I also told him that there was one scene in the story I was really attracted to: the moment when one of the actors in the play, Takatsuki, says that you cannot look at someone and see what they’re made of—if you want to do that you need to start with yourself. Perhaps there’s nothing exceptional about these words in and of themselves. But in the film, if you listen carefully to the young man’s voice you’ll realize that he is telling the truth, or what he thinks is the truth. And that idea, that you can tell whether a person is lying or not just by listening to their voice, is something I myself had experienced, time and again. Maybe that’s why it’s the only line I took from Murakami’s text, verbatim, so that I could share with the audience this beautiful moment, where an actor’s voice belies the truth.

NOTEBOOK: Far be it from me to criticize Murakami, but I think there are times when his female characters tend to slip into the manic pixie girl trope. Your Misaki most certainly doesn’t, which I found very refreshing, and in line with the three-dimensional, full-rounded women you’ve written before. How did you go about crafting Misaki?

HAMAGUCHI: Well, I’m happy to hear you say all that, but I’m not entirely sure how I should react to it. I think that this isn’t something that applies to women only though. Everyone harbors their mysteries—you can’t guess what a person is like just by looking at them. When it comes to my actors, I always try to add some mystery to their characters, so that they can come across as full-fledged, complex figures. Man or woman, the process remains the same. But it’s true that when I write about women I cannot ignore the fact that they live in a world that makes life a little more difficult for them than for men. Men are often prioritized in society, and I think that’s all the more true in Japan. So when I write a female character I cannot lie about this extra burden they have to carry, all the effort they put into powering through everyday situations. I cannot simplify that. And maybe that’s what comes out. As for Misaki, again I felt as though I needed to add a little bit more mystery to her character, so that she could feel more authentic. But I think doing so is also an actor’s job, in the end. They have to put something about themselves into their characters, and express it on screen. If Misaki was able to come to life so beautifully, it’s because Tôko Miura was able to transfer something of herself into the part, and bring that to life onscreen. It all comes down to our wonderful casting.

NOTEBOOK: On that note, I was wondering if you could tell me how you went about casting Miura and Nishijima. When did you know they were the actors you were looking for?

HAMAGUCHI: Hidetoshi Nishijima is an actor I’ve always wanted to work with. He’s been in a lot of movies I was watching when I was in my twenties, especially by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Nobuhiro Suwa. He’s not going to do more than he’s asked, and that’s one of his greatest qualities. He just has this incredible screen presence, this power—all it takes is for him to just be there. In Japan you don’t really have actors like him. Most of them will come to you with this image of what their character should look like, and they’ll try to play around it. In a way, I thought that Nishijima’s more understated—almost “passive,” if you will—acting style would suit the character of Yusuke, and more broadly, the type of characters Haruki Murakami writes. It was an obvious casting choice. I offered him the role; he agreed, and that was that.

As for Tôko Miura, when I began thinking about who could play Misaki I realized I didn’t have many obvious choices among the actresses that are somewhat prominent in Japan’s scene right now. I met Tôko Miura when I was casting for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and I immediately noticed how intelligent and perceptive she is. She came with all these rich real-life experiences, and she was able to convey them in a way that felt authentic, and genuine. She’s so intelligent she can quickly grasp the core of any situation she’s in. And this core-grasping skill was something that resonated very well with Misaki. There was only one problem: she didn’t have a driver’s license! So I told our producers to cast her right away just so that she’d have enough time to take her lessons.

NOTEBOOK: There’s a moment halfway through the film when Yusuke tells us about his refusal to star in Chekov’s plays. He says that he’s scared, because “when you say his lines, he drags out the real you.” This is a bit of a personal question, but I was wondering if you ever felt the same way—if you ever came across a work of art that left you just as paralyzed, and terrified.

HAMAGUCHI: [Pauses] When I was twenty I saw Husbands, by John Cassavetes. The film follows these three forty-something men who just lost a beloved friend. To honor his memory, they decide to spend three days just messing around: partying, drinking, hooking up with women. I was only twenty, way too young to know anything about life, but for some reason watching those people on the screen, I felt as if their lives were more real and vivid than my own. As if the film itself was just this very condensed vision of what life is. Husbands is one of the films that made me want to become a director, and make my own things. Except of course making movies like Cassavetes’s is extremely difficult, and there are times I find myself just wanting to drop it altogether. But I know that if I didn’t aim for that ideal there really wouldn’t be any point in me making movies at all. Whether or not I can reach it, I still need to strive for it.

NOTEBOOK: I was hoping you could tell me more about your background in improvisational theatre, and how that’s influenced your filmmaking. I know you relied on improv workshops while working on Happy Hour

HAMAGUCHI: That’s right, we did. But in the end, I’d say that only 10% of Happy Hour is actually improvised. The rest is all scripted, and actors are playing off a script. What I stressed in those workshops was that people needed to listen to each other. I would ask them to interview someone they found intriguing, to interview one another. Because when you really do listen, then you’re able to express emotions even as you receive and process information. I think that improvisation takes place by and large in the way you choose to express your feelings. So when I say that everything is scripted in my films I mean that the lines are written, but the emotions that flow out of them are not, and this is the most improvisational part I rely on. That’s also why perhaps I tend to ask my actors to do a lot of script reading beforehand, so that they can really get familiar with the text. I do not ask them to think about emotions in these early readings—it’s only when we get to film that they will. But since by then they will already be familiar with the script, chances are they’ll experience a kind of revelation upon finally uttering those lines in front of the camera, a sort of “ah, this was it!” moment where things suddenly click, and everything makes sense. That’s when the emotions will come out. And that’s what filmmaking is, to me: being there, with my camera ready, to capture these emotions as they finally come to life.

NOTEBOOK: Drive My Car is not your first book adaptation, and I remember reading that the texts you end up working with are often recommended to you by friends—unless you stumble upon them yourself. What does a story need to have for you to think it can be turned into a film?

HAMAGUCHI: Oh, there really is no general truth or rule of thumb here. I can read loads of books and find nothing that speaks to me, nothing that can be adapted. Bear in mind that Murakami himself is very difficult to adapt. But as I was reading Drive My Car, I suddenly found something that clicked, something that could be done. But if I knew when or how those epiphanies come about—those moments when you understand there’s something that can work—if only I knew where my inspiration comes from, then none of this would be so difficult [chuckles].

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