Saab Story: Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Driving Emotions

Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yūsuke and Toko Miura as Misaki in Drive My Car.
Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yūsuke and Toko Miura as Misaki in Drive My Car.

A conversation with filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi about emotional tidal waves, unique relationships, conversational car rides, and Cassavetes. 

It would be fair to say that Ryusuke Hamaguchi is having a moment, with two films out this year (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Drive My Car) and a co-writing credit on a third. It would be fairer to say that this ‘moment’ has lasted for many years, and more people are just now catching up.

The writer-director has been making films since the early 2000s, but it was 2015’s Happy Hour—a five-plus-hour epic about four women rethinking their relationships as one undergoes divorce proceedings—that brought him to international attention. As audiences worldwide caught onto Hamaguchi’s gentle, profoundly resonant approach, his ascension began in earnest. Happy Hour was followed by Asako I & II in 2018, and then a series of events converged to officially dub 2021 the Year of Hamaguchi.

The filmmaker has a co-writing credit on this year’s Wife of a Spy, from director Kiyoshi Kurosawa—one of Hamaguchi’s biggest inspirations—and his films as a director are landing on a number of 2021 best-of lists, including our own, where one is currently placed in the top five, the other in the top twenty, and both are rated above four stars out of five.

Kotone Furukawa and Ayumu Nakajima in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.
Kotone Furukawa and Ayumu Nakajima in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像) picked up the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival before its release in the US in October. In three short stories, the film explores the unique relationships of women in very different circumstances, all captured with the delicate tenderness that Hamaguchi has become known for.

The same can be said of his other 2021 offering, Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー), a film that has earned even higher acclaim than the already lofty marks set by Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. Adapted from the short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami, from his collection Men Without Women, Drive My Car follows renowned stage actor and director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), as he attempts to pick up the pieces two years after the death of his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima).

Accepting an offer to direct a production of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, Yusuke travels to Hiroshima, where he is assigned a driver named Misaki (Toko Miura). The young woman chauffeurs him around in his cherished red Saab 900, the car he shared many fond memories with his wife in, and in which he rehearses his lines. A relationship filled with quiet tension at first, Yusuke and Misaki slowly form a bond that allows them to reveal more and more of themselves to one another, eventually finding commonality in the things they’re afraid to let out, and let go of.

Reika Kirishima and Hidetoshi Nishijima in Drive My Car. 
Reika Kirishima and Hidetoshi Nishijima in Drive My Car

Premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Drive My Car earned Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe the festival’s Best Screenplay award, and has picked up other prizes since, including the Best International Feature laudit at the Gotham Awards and Best Film of the Year from the New York Film Critics Circle. It is Japan’s entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the 94th Academy Awards.

The day after his victory at the Gotham Awards, Hamaguchi, with translator Stacy Smith, spoke via Zoom with Letterboxd senior editor Mitchell Beaupre to discuss the ways in which Drive My Car gets to the heart of its characters, and how he is able to translate that emotion to his audience.

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura on the road in Drive My Car.
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura on the road in Drive My Car.

Congratulations on your win at the Gotham Awards! Did you do any celebrating after the ceremony?
Ryusuke Hamaguchi: Actually, I didn’t arrive in New York yesterday until about 4pm. After receiving my award, I just went to sleep. [Laughs.]

Probably a smart decision.
I was extremely happy, though, of course.

You started your speech by mentioning Haruki Murakami, whose short story you based Drive My Car on. You’ve noted before how you find a kinship in his work and the themes he tackles. Could you tell me more about this?
I first encountered Haruki Murukami when I was in my twenties, and he was always a writer I really liked. A friend recommended Drive My Car to me in 2013, and I read it in a magazine before it became part of the short-story collection. It became my favorite of all his works due to the relationship between Yusuke and Misaki, which I found incredibly interesting. The story also resonated with themes I had focused on in my work up to that point—both the idea of performance, and also conversations within cars and other moving vehicles. I felt that would be a good fit for a movie of mine.

You’ve certainly returned to this setting of an automobile as a place for conversational scenes throughout your work. What do you feel it is about cars that allows people to open up and have these deeper conversations with one another?
If we think about a car in terms of the space that the vehicle provides, this is something that really goes along with film as a motion picture, because you have the movement of the car. Fundamentally, I think this is what the appeal is for me. As you said, I have many different scenes that I’ve created with these conversations inside moving vehicles. It really is a good way to show the dynamism of interaction. My filmmaking is very compatible with this idea, but in reality when we look at conversations in cars, this is something that actually takes place a lot.

I think there’s a reason why we can have these deep conversations, maybe for the first time, when we’re in these cars. As the car is moving, we end up revealing things we wouldn’t reveal in other situations. One reason, I think, is that when the car is moving you have the stimuli from the landscape, the scenery passing by. The passengers are also facing the same direction. They’re not looking at each other, so in a way they’re forced to look inwards as they’re talking. I think this leads to a deeper conversation. It’s really a space that is conducive to that.

The treasured, titular Saab.
The treasured, titular Saab.

The car is where this relationship between Yusuke and Misaki is nourished. You’ve described them as being two people who don’t reveal a lot of themselves at first, but slowly start to build that connection and come out more. How did you want to develop their relationship over the course of the film?
As I said, this was my favorite part of the original work. In terms of both characters, they really only reveal what’s essential at first. In fact, in the source material, it actually depicts them as not saying anything to each other for a full month after they first meet. So basically, they’re not talkers. It’s only over time that they realize they don’t dislike each other, and that they have some sort of compatibility.

Now, while that time passage of a month can work on the page, that doesn’t really transfer over to a film. That would be quite difficult, so instead I opted to depict the gradual opening up that takes place between them. This is something that I didn’t want to be dictated by the film itself, though. I really wanted the guide to be their emotional state, their psychological state, and their behavior. I think that’s how the film ended up being three hours.

Something I really admire about your films is that while you take emotions to these powerful places, your approach is very gentle. It’s an almost meditative experience watching your work. Do you find that a more patient approach allows you to reach the gravitas you’re seeking in a particularly impactful way, as opposed to maybe a more melodramatic style?
The emotional aspect of my films is, for me, the most important element. Thinking about being a filmmaker as my life’s work, I was really inspired by John Cassavetes. Within his films there’s a lot of emotions—this is something that’s strongly valued, and in his films there’s a very direct expression of emotion. His depiction of emotion is what made me want to become a filmmaker, but something that separates me from Cassavetes is the fact that he’s American, and I’m Japanese.

Within Japan, presenting emotion on film in the same way as Cassavetes wouldn’t be the most realistic depiction, because we as a populace are not as revealing with our emotions. It’s just not in our nature. That’s true both for Japan, and also for myself, because I’m an introverted person. So, I thought about this, and about how I would achieve this emotional revealing in a realistic way for my films. As a result, I thought that it would have to be something that is depicted slowly, little by little.

The performance aspect that I incorporated in this film was a big help in regard to that. As we have all of these different characters, it doesn’t matter what their nationality is, what countries they’re from. They are able to express things in their own way, which becomes the base of their performance. This allowed for the Japanese performers, who were not necessarily extroverted, to express their emotions in a plausible way.

Hidetoshi Nishijima prepares his director’s notes for his Uncle Vanya cast.
Hidetoshi Nishijima prepares his director’s notes for his Uncle Vanya cast.

That multi-lingual aspect of Yusuke’s productions is very interesting, with his actors speaking in a myriad of languages, including Korean sign language. It forces the actors to remove that language barrier and interact with their bodies, their expressions, and create a more visceral relationship with one another.
In regard to the language barrier, and how to overcome it, there are some things that will just not be conveyed. That’s fine, but you have to find a different focus in that case. That different focus would be the voice, or you could say the sound. There’s a lot of information that’s included about a person that you can get from their voice—their emotional state, all kinds of different things. If you properly listen to someone’s voice, there’s many things that you can understand. The voice is a clue to how the performance should be carried out.

Is that something that carries over into the unique rehearsal process that we see in the film? Yusuke employs a similar rehearsal process to your own, which you picked up from Jean Renoir, where the actors read the lines with no emotions.
Yes, this is something that I do in real life as well, to remove emotion from the reading around the table. This forces you to focus on the sound and the voice. When you think about the sound and the words, these are things that you are able to gradually understand, and it enables the performance.

The next step is incorporating the emotions, moving us past this stage where no emotions are involved. This is actually a line that Kafuku says in the film—he says that the full meaning of the text, or of the line, finally comes when you do the performance, and that’s when the emotion comes into it and can come out freely. That’s the difference from the line reading to the actual performance. That difference in the emotional state between these two different aspects is what enables the actors to understand each other better. They are then able to have a better reaction to each other when they move into the actual performance.

Sonia Yuan and Park Yurim rehearsing a scene from Uncle Vanya in Drive My Car.
Sonia Yuan and Park Yurim rehearsing a scene from Uncle Vanya in Drive My Car.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is the rehearsal scene in the park between the characters Janice and Yoon-a. They have this beautiful, tender moment as performers, and then Yusuke says that the next step is translating that beauty to the audience. How are you able to cross that bridge to take the magic from the set and connect it with your audience?
In terms of that scene, it was actually a very difficult one for the actors and their performances. In the script, all that was written was the creation of this magical moment. There was significant pressure on them to achieve what was written there, but I think they rose to the occasion. It’s such a layered scene, as you not only have them as actors playing their characters, you also have their characters playing their Uncle Vanya characters. So, you have a double aspect there. They did a wonderful job.

In terms of how to convey these emotions to your audience, I think really your only options are to show them very well—visually, you have to convey this to the audience, and I think that’s the most important thing. With a film, you can really use the camera to properly convey that. On stage, if there’s a dramatic performance—this was actually in the last scene, with Kafuku, where he had his back to the audience and then he turned as a way of incorporating this visual aspect. I think it’s really the only way to convey these emotions to the audience.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi.

As we wrap up, I’d like to talk about something from early on in the film, where Kafuku’s wife Oto is telling him this story that involves a character leaving behind a token. This token is something for the character to be remembered by, and it made me think of this idea of your films being a token for the audience to remember you and the impact your work has on them. That will stick with them, even after the film is over.
This idea of the token, particularly in terms of my films as you said, is more than a one-directional thing. This is something that is created from both sides—the film, and then the audience, and it’s created from that relationship. As a result, all the scenes have to be treated very importantly, and I have to prep thoroughly for each moment of the film.

I don’t think of my films with the purpose of them being this kind of token, or distinguish them in that way. I think the way that the film can become a token is created from the viewer—for each person, in their individual life, in terms of where they are when they’re watching the film, and the significance that it has for them. It’s an interactive process, and it’s not something that I can control.

In order to facilitate this happening, I can write the script and I can work with these performances, but… you used the word visceral earlier, and this is indeed something that is really visceral. It’s something taking place within each viewer, that comes from their body or their emotions. This is created through the script and through the acting—it’s something that has to permeate the whole work, this genuine feeling to create this visceral reaction from the audience. I think it will resonate with them if that is the case.

Drive My Car’ is in theaters now, and ‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’ is still screening in various virtual theaters via Film Movement.

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