Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the co-writer and director of Drive My Car, a frontrunner for Best International Feature at the 2022 Oscars, joins Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki to discuss the film’s themes, its construction, and adapting the work of Haruki Murakami.
Adapted from a series of stories featured in Haruki Murakami’s collection, “Men Without Women,” Drive My Car, is the exploration of one man’s life after the sudden death of his wife. As the actor-turned-director Yusuke Kafuku [Hidetoshi Nishijima, giving a quiet, emotionally devastating performance.] returns to work, forms a connection with his young driver [Tôko Miura] and is forced to reexamine his marriage and his relationships with those around him.
The film’s three-hour runtime is more-than-earned, paced thoughtfully, and never wastes a frame. If the key to good writing is to show rather than tell ,then director Ryusuke Hamaguchi and his co-writer Takamasa Oe have succeeded beautifully, delivering characters that are full-fleshed and handled with compassion, every line of dialogue thoughtful and meticulously placed.
Nothing about Drive My Car is heavy-handed, Hamaguchi peels back the layers of the drama slowly, allowing his audience to envelop themselves in the mystery and form deep emotional connections to what is taking place on screen. Drive My Car requires patience, but the reward is revealing a poignant meditation that is nothing short of masterful. And utterly unforgettable.
Read the full interview with Drive My Car director Ryusuke Hamaguchi below:
Awards Daily: Grief is a major thematic element in Drive My Car. What can you tell me about your relationship to grief and what you wanted to portray in the film?
Ryusuke Hamaguchi: Grief is truly universal. I think it ties to wanting to live a better life. Grief is something that will come to everyone. You’re going to be losing someone you love, or you have the potential to lose someone you love. It’s something that you have to deal with and overcome, and then, in a sense, live a better life. This is something that happens universally, and this is also one of my recurring themes. It’s something that particularly resonates with this work.
AD: There’s a quote from the film that really moved me and has stayed with me.
“Those who survive keep thinking about the dead, one way or another.”
To me, this film is like a ghost story and the dead serve as almost a character within the story.
RH: This ghost story concept has been said about some of my other films as well. And this is something that I find a little strange because I’ve actually never made a film involving a ghost except for one short film. Mostly, I just deal with real-life people in real-life scenarios.
So, it’s a little interesting, or strange, for me to have this ghost story attached to my work. I personally do not believe in ghosts at all. I mean, if ghosts were here, that would be nice, but it’s not something that I believe in.
I had an experience when my grandfather passed away; my grandmother went over and just sort of caressed his cheek. I just said to myself, “If there were ghosts still here in this world, we wouldn’t need to be sad because they would be here with us.” That was something that I really felt at the time.
But, again, I do have a sort of discomfort; it’s just a little bit strange for me that people say my work is like a ghost story. I just think that I’m dealing with people who will not be coming back. That might just be the way I see it.
AD: What role do you think that those we’ve lost play in our lives? And how does Drive My Car relate?
RH: In terms of the influence that those who are no longer with us exert, I think this really depends on what kind of relationships they had while they were living. If they had closure with people when they passed away—if they talked, said all the things they wanted to say and had this closure, I think that their effects on those who are left behind are not as strong.
Whereas, if they didn’t talk out everything, if there were things that were leftover, I think the effect would be longer on those who were still living.
This is really the main thing that I’m thinking. Because it’s true that you don’t know when your number’s up. I think that you want to really communicate and make sure you’re talking with people as much as possible.
So, I think this can be a general lesson applied to people while you’re living.
AD: Drive My Car is beautifully paced with moments of tension and quieter, meditative moments. Despite its three-hour runtime, the film never drags or feels overly long.
RH: When we talk about three hours, of course, in the span of one’s lifetime, this is a short amount of time. It would be the amount of time where we’d want to get close to finding an answer. But there might not actually be an answer. So, it’s about the process of looking for an answer that you might not actually achieve.
It’s more about facing what you’re currently experiencing and showing the process of how to find the solution. I think these are things that the audience can experience and understand. So, in that sense, I think it’s close to how things are in actual life.
AD: You’re a director who is directing an actor [Hidetoshi Nishijima] who is playing a director. Was there anything from your personal experience as a director that you put into those scenes? Something you wanted to show about the relationship between a director and his actors?
RH: In terms of the original work, he was an actor. But I thought being a director might be easier because I have a little bit more experience with that. Whereas, I don’t with being an actor. So, in terms of the story, it’s not exactly something that’s the same as mine.
A commonality that we have is in terms of the line reading scenes that were shown. This rehearsal process is something that I really believe leads to better performances. So, that was a big part of why the added line reading sessions of the rehearsals were a big part of the material.
AD: That’s fascinating. Is there anything from that line reading experience that changed the way the film came to be?
RH: It’s not something that would actually change the film’s content. Through the process of reading the lines together, you really get to hear the performers’ voice and become familiar with them. As a result, you’re able to really ascertain their condition.
If there’s a certain line, or lines, that they seem uncomfortable with, or are getting stuck on, that might be the impetus for me to either get rid of that line or change it. That’s something that I actually did pretty often.
AD: There are a few specific scenes in Drive My Car that I want to touch on. I’d like to start with the opening scenes of the film, which is this couple in bed being very intimate with one another. To me, those scenes tell us so much about the couple in a short amount of time. What was your approach to showcasing that intimacy and relationship?
RH: As you say in your question, this scene is very important for building the relationship with Oto, the wife [Reika Kirishima]. In the source material, there weren’t many details regarding this relationship. I was determined not to use flashbacks or monologues in the film. That was not going to be a part of my M.O. It was really important.
This scene, the sex scene, you referred to plays a big role in showing the relationship with his wife, what emotions he has towards her— the actual content of that relationship. We’re seeing them in their most intimate moments, and you could say that the information is not plentiful. If anything, I think it’s more mysterious. It’s not a lot of clarity. However, viewing this intimate sex scene between these two people, again, we feel like we really know them. And on the other hand, it’s that we really don’t know them.
And I think this plays into the length of the film. As we talked about, the three hours of this film, it really is a mystery throughout—where at the end you could say you feel like you really do understand the relationship. And you could say, I really don’t understand anything about the relationship.
It’s actually still a mystery. I used this scene to recreate that feeling for the audience.
AD: As you mentioned this film lacks monologues, but another scene that is light on dialogue but communicates a great deal about the characters is the scene where [Kafuku] goes to the beach. It’s very quiet, but you can see the connection and what he’s feeling. How are you able to show us so much without explicitly telling us?
RH: I’m very grateful that you felt that way about that scene. I appreciate you saying that. There are two things that I’d like to say about this. In regards to this scene, not many things are necessarily being shown. At the same time, it really activates the audience’s imagination in terms of what’s going on.
By this time, the audience has to be somewhat invested in the characters, meaning that they want to know more about them. They want to hear them talking more, to the point that even if they’re not saying as much, it feels like they’re saying a lot because you’re so invested in these characters and you want to know what they’re conveying.
[This scene] is probably pretty close to two hours in. By that point, the emotions or the feelings towards these characters has already been built up by the audience. That’s why I think it works in that scene.
AD: I’m curious about your relationship with Murakami, his work, and your approach to this adaptation.
RH: In terms of the original work that this came from [Men Without Women], to begin with, I loved it when I read it. I felt an affinity for its theme of having two people deepen their relationship via having conversations in cars. That was something that fit with me, and with themes that I’ve dealt with.
This came from a short story. So, to turn it into a feature, it was important to think about Murakami’s themes and also his methods. I actually incorporated those things and used them as a reference pretty strongly. I also used some other short stories from the collection.
[I tried to] incorporate his way of telling a story. I think that was a really big factor for me. He often incorporates the idea of two different worlds. This is something we see in his novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Even though a lot might not be said in one world, there’s another world that sort of translates what’s happening in that other world. So, one world is helping to understand this other world.
This is something that also plays out in Drive My Car. We have Oto’s story. That’s sort of a parallel story that’s taking place throughout the film. The construction of this is multiple worlds that are set within the same film and they’re sort of mutually translating each other.
I think this construction of the two worlds interacting with each other or translating each other, is something I learned from Murakami.
AD: What other stories from “Men Without Women” did you draw inspiration from for Drive My Car?
RH: It’s actually two short stories. One is “Scheherazad,” this is the story of a woman who’s telling tales while she was having sex. Another is “Kino.” The main character’s name is Kino, and he’s also a man who is being cheated on by his wife. Within that story, the state that he’s able to reach, or the places able to reach in the story, is similar to Kafuku’s journey and where he’s able to get to.
AD: What lessons have you learned in the process of making Drive My Car? And what do you hope audiences will take away from it?
RH: I think a lot of it derives from [the film’s] interaction with the various audiences that view it.
When I make films, I never think, ‘I’m making this because I want the audience to learn something or to take something away from it.’ That’s not really how I go into it. I think of it more as us spending time together. And from that, the viewer can learn more about what kind of person they are. And conversely, through people’s reactions to the film, I can learn more about what kind of film it actually is.
It really is about this encounter, or the meeting, between the audience and the film. And any kind of comments or feedback they would have regarding the film, whether it’s positive or negative.
I’m just happy that people are responding to it. Simply, I would just say my hope is that a lot of people will see this film. I hope that I’ve made something that they will enjoy.
Drive My Car is screening in select theaters across the country.