At the movies with Hamaguchi Ryūsuke

In our April 2022 issue, the Drive My Car director discussed the films and filmmakers that had made their mark on him, from Back to the Future to Tokyo Story and Éric Rohmer to Kelly Reichardt.

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke

Since his graduation feature in 2008, Passion, Hamaguchi Ryūsuke (born in Kanagawa, Japan, in 1978) has perfected a cinematic language that combines confident pacing, subtle yet fraught emotional expression and playful narrative twists. He has been a regular at Cannes, Locarno, New York and Berlin film festivals since his breakthrough epic Happy Hour in 2015. He is popular at home too, shooting films in Tokyo, Kobe, Hiroshima and elsewhere with a combination of first-time and seasoned actors. 

In his latest offering, the Oscar-nominated Drive My Car (2021), Hamaguchi adapts a short story by Murakami Haruki about a bereaved theatre director and an unexpected bond he forms while on the road. The film itself becomes a vehicle for Hamaguchi to pursue a long-running interest in performance. In earlier films, including The Depths (2010), Intimacies (2012) and Touching the Skin of Eeriness (2013), the figures of the photographer’s model, stage actor and dancer embody professions that mine authenticity and experience to produce their performances. In Drive My Car, Hamaguchi creates parallels between stage and screen acting that lead to existential questions concerning what it might mean to act oneself, or to put oneself in another’s shoes. In the interstitial space between private and professional, real and performed selves, protagonists navigate creative, sometimes crushing, impulses. Characters follow scripts in the theatre and social scripts in everyday life, with lust, lies and memory constantly disrupting them and rerouting the film’s narrative. 

Indeed, memory is an important theme for Hamaguchi, whose films often explore time and perception in relation to remembered (and misremembered) events. Asako I & II (2018) and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) question memory’s veracity by playing with doublings, coincidences and duplicity in ways that have earned comparisons with Jacques Rivette and Éric Rohmer. 

Language is another key element of Drive My Car, whose characters rehearse a multilingual production combining Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, English, sign language and the myriad expressions Hamaguchi captures in gesture and body language. 

Such expressivity emerges in part through the generous length of some scenes, facilitated in itself by the duration of some of Hamaguchi’s films: Happy Hour runs to a little more than five hours, and Drive My Car a minute shy of three. The director’s working method is also extensive, involving workshops, rehearsals and shooting periods over several months. The films’ confident pacing affords audiences room to think with characters as they blunder, and grow. 

A day after Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, Sight and Sound invited him to discuss the films and filmmakers he admires.

Drive My Car (2021)

Cinematic schooling

At university I joined a film club, meeting a real cinephile circle of enthusiasts. Experiences in that club, as well as joining a student filmmaking society, were revelatory because I realised just how many films there were to see and learn from. I remember watching Wim Wenders’ films, and several by John Cassavetes, whose spirit and expression of raw emotion continue to impact my style to this day. 

In the club we also watched nouvelle vague films – I liked Éric Rohmer in particular. Sometimes critics compare my work with his – also with Jacques Rivette and Hong Sang-soo. As far as comparisons go, I’m not sure my work is all that like Hong’s. We’re interested in relationships, and dialogue, but beyond superficial similarities I’d say he has a very distinctive style in the way he frames pairs of people within shots and uses crash zooms. I like Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then [2015] for its playfulness with time and repetition. 

We also worked our way through Hollywood classics. Howard Hawks made a big impression on me. There wasn’t much written about him in Japanese but, by watching his films on video again and again, including Rio Bravo [1958], I observed how he expressed actors’ gestures and body languages with great clarity and an economy of means. 

Rio Bravo (1959)

Back then I also got to know Japanese greats. Ozu Yasujirō and Naruse Mikio’s understated and very human dramas resonated with me most. Kurosawa Kiyoshi was a big influence when I was a graduate student at film school and took his classes. 

If I love a film, I’ll watch it many times, maybe ten or more times. If I have a question while working on a film, something I’m struggling to express, say, I might turn to cinema to see how others have overcome similar challenges. It’s fascinating to watch another director’s film and think about the context in which they’re making their work, what they’re bringing to it of their own life or experience. 


Because not all foreign films are available with Japanese subtitles, I sometimes end up watching films that are untranslated. Although inevitably I miss a level of meaning that’s contained in the dialogue, the experience can also be interesting because I notice more in characters’ body language and in the film’s pacing, pauses and construction. This was the case with several films I recently watched that starred Isabelle Huppert. The experience is not the same as if I understood the dialogue but nevertheless it reveals a great deal in non-verbal ways and was an interesting way to study her performances. I’d often borrow films that didn’t have Japanese subtitles when I was a student – and I think I learned a lot from them. 

When I was adapting Murakami Haruki’s short story for my latest film, Drive My Car [2021], I added elements to the narrative and characters. For example, in my adaptation, the theatre-director character, Mr Kafuku, is interested in languages – spoken language, sign language and the various gestural languages of a person’s physicality. I’m interested in how meaning can develop on different levels and at different speeds depending on what means you use to express it, verbal or otherwise. When I edited the film, it didn’t have subtitles yet for the parts spoken in Korean, English and Mandarin. Editing these parts without a translation made me more sensitive to framing body language and unspoken atmospheres of emotion. 

Happy Hour (2015)

Adaptation is itself a form of translation. To write Drive My Car, I read Murakami’s short story many times over, as well as Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Mr Kafuku is adapting Uncle Vanya in the film. Murakami’s story is pretty brief, so I drew from other stories from his collection Men Without Women [2014], and incorporated my own ideas. I was interested in thinking about communication, language and translation, so that’s why I have Mr Kafuku attempting to stage a multilingual version of Uncle Vanya.

Experiencing film

Recently I’ve been revisiting Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), which I remember studying a little during my university days. I’m reading a translation with an introductory commentary now to understand the book more thoroughly. Heidegger’s ideas are helping me think about my next film project. I’m interested in exploring the situatedness and subjectivity of perception and time. I want to think more about how a person’s past can affect their present and future actions, and how memory can arrive like a disruptive visitor and change the course of events. My idea is not concrete yet but it’s the seed of a film, at least, that I’m beginning to imagine as I read the book. The challenge will be to express quite abstract, existential aspects of time and perception visually through film. There’s definitely an interesting relationship to explore between film representation and phenomenological senses of time. 

I think a lot about time – not only by exploring memory within film narratives, but also by experimenting with a film’s duration and pace. Several of my films are pretty long. Usually a 90-minute film is pretty ideal for a viewing experience, I’ll admit. It does its job, transmits its information. But longer durations are interesting for the challenges and opportunities they offer to perception. You might experience your own physicality more when watching a longer film, for example. I don’t necessarily plan to make my films so long but it often turns out that I need that length to express the development of characters and invite audiences to really experience their development and the flow of the narrative. I draw inspiration from theatre, and I suppose I’m used to fairly long durations of plays, some of which include intervals. Some of my films, including Drive My Car, contain actual theatrical performances within them. When critics discuss my interest in duration and theatre, they often mention Jacques Rivette’s film, Out 1 [1971], which runs to more than 12 hours – it’s more like a series, really. I must confess, I’ve not yet had time to watch it! I’d like to, though… 

Arthouse and experimental films are probably best experienced in the cinema, for the atmosphere and sense of community that cinemas can afford audiences. But I suppose television screens are getting ever bigger and sound systems more advanced, so you can watch in increasingly comfortable and immersive settings at home. During the pandemic, when cinemas have been closed, I’ve watched many DVDs at home on my television. Of course the experience is different to attending a theatrical screening because your concentration is different. I definitely have missed cinemas, and fondly remember the year I spent on a residency at Harvard University, where I’d go to Harvard Film Archive most nights. That year, I watched literally hundreds of films. It was a strange time – I remember Trump being elected and the atmosphere in Boston being very tense. The cinema was a bit of a haven for many of us, I think.

First Cow (2019)

Old favourites

I often return to a favourite cinema in Kobe. Each year that cinema screens my film Happy Hour [2015]. Friends show up, and the whole atmosphere feels like I’m surrounded by family. They screen it each year, a bit like how cinemas in America might screen It’s a Wonderful Life [1946] each Christmas – it’s become a kind of festive tradition. 

Last year I was very taken by Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women [2016], which received Japanese distribution and had a theatrical run. Its cinematography is beautiful, really great to see on the big screen. Having been moved by that film, I searched for other Reichardt films, and bought First Cow [2019] on DVD. I was fascinated by its formal construction, and how its form creates suspense and allows Reichardt to explore the development of friendship and ambition within the narrative. 

In Japan, at New Year, families come together to relax and celebrate, and many businesses and shops close. It’s quite a peaceful, reflective time. Each year I like to choose films to watch – one at the end of the old year and another at the very beginning of the new. I opened 2022 with the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Ozu’s Tokyo Story [1953]. It was a good way to start the new year.