Merely 10 days into shooting Drive My Car, production on the film came to a full stop. The number of COVID-19 cases had climbed dramatically in Tokyo, Japan. For eight months, production remained shut down, giving writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi the valuable time he needed to further prepare for Drive My Car. (He also worked on his film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy during this period.)
Nothing could have prepared him, however, for the immense success of Drive My Car, which includes four Academy Award nominations. "I actually was in a plane at the time of the [nominations] announcement," he tells A.frame through an interpreter. "Then I came to find out that I'd been nominated in four different categories, so it seems like I touched down in a totally different world than the one I left."
Drive My Car is nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best International Feature Film. Never before had a film from Japan been nominated in the Best Picture category.
Co-written by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, the three-hour drama is based on Haruki Murakami's 50-page short story of the same name. The film was also inspired by two other stories ("Scheherezade" and "Kino") in Men Without Women, Murakami’s 2014 collection of seven short stories.
"There was also another story called 'Kino,' and this character actually quite served as a model for the character in Drive My Car," Hamaguchi explains. "By putting these together, it really became clear to me what the problems are, the issues that the main character was dealing with, in that there's a time that you have to actually properly face your emotions."
In a film dealing with the issues of coping with loss, living with grief and regret, and letting go of the past and earning forgiveness, Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Yūsuke Kafuku, a renowned stage actor and director, who is directing a contemporary, multilingual production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, Japan, while grappling with the unexpected death of his wife and the haunting mysteries she left behind.
Hamaguchi considers listening to be the most important part of the acting process. In Drive My Car, Yūsuke and his hired driver, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), each engulfed in guilt for different reasons, have private conversations and slowly begin to learn more about one another while she drives him in his red 1987 Saab 900. Hamaguchi explains that, when he first read the short story "Drive My Car," it was a story that dealt with a man struggling to process his emotions. The car was used as a moving space where conversations could happen and intimate moments could occur. These concepts resonated with him and he felt a closeness to these ideas. Hamaguchi has found that, as one moves through various landscapes while driving in a car, conversations—even those that might stall in another space—can likewise move along with ease.
"For me, filmmaking is really just pure happiness."
In a scene in a snowy landscape, the two characters are finally able to truly express themselves. "The words that came out of their mouths are things that they had not been able to express up until that point. And the words they use are actually very simple," Hamaguchi reflects. It's a release of what is in the characters' heads and hearts, ignited by finding someone to pull out the words they've rehearsed to themselves, but haven't been able to verbalize.
Hamaguchi explains that, when he was younger, he would "run away" from the things he found unpleasant but he learned that it is necessary to actually run towards the reasons that make one feel that way. In the decade and a half that he has been making feature films—both narrative films and documentaries—he has learned the importance of trusting his instincts. He credits the films of John Cassavetes as an influence on his work.
Drive My Car pushes the limits of language, while exposing the beauty of communication in all its different forms. A highlight of Yūsuke's multilingual production of Uncle Vanya was the monologue delivered in Korean Sign Language. Though Park Yurim, who played the actress, is not deaf, her "persuasive" performance during her audition convinced Hamaguchi she was the right one to bring to life a dream he had had for years.
"This is something that I always found very fascinating, and I actually had the chance to deal with a production where they actually used sign language as their official language," he says. "It really felt like their own independent culture or an independent language... it's something that's being expressed directly from the body."
"It really felt like something honest," Hamaguchi continues. "That, to me, was the appeal of it." Like his characters, Hamaguchi plans to take a moment to take stock of his feelings and what this history-making moment means to him. For now, there is only one emotion coming through.
"For me, filmmaking is really just pure happiness."
—Reporting by Elisa Osegueda
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