Drive My Car is in UK cinemas from 19 November.

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke

This is Japanese director Hamaguchi Ryūsuke’s year. First, a Silver Bear at the Berlinale for his melodrama of loops and repetitions Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, followed by a Cannes screenplay award for his Murakami adaptation Drive My Car.

Hamaguchi, 42, has made nine feature films, including the five-hour-long Locarno-winning Happy Hour (2015) and a documentary trilogy on the 2011 Fukushima disaster, but Drive My Car is his first to get a wide release in the UK.

Murakami’s short story, about a theatre actor-director, Kafuku, striving to gets his life back after the sudden death of his wife, consists of only three scenes – created mainly through dialogue with his driver, Misaki, inside a vintage Saab.

In his film Hamaguchi expands the narrative into a three-hour drama, memorably showing Kafuku’s painstaking rehearsals of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya with a multilingual cast. The result is an understated and precise meditation on language, emotion and loss that shows Hamaguchi’s unique approach to intimacy and empathy as well as his keen eye for performances.

Łukasz Mańkowski: Can you drive a car?

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: Not at all. (Laughs) I do have a licence, but I don’t drive on my own. In my entire life I think I drove a car three times and that’s it.

What was your initial response to Murakami Haruki’s short story?

When it was released in 2013, a friend of mine told me that it resembled the style of my work and I might like it. When I first read it, I had a strange feeling that the story has somewhat the same vibe as my work. Since I tend to revolve around the ambience of the city’s traffic, with vehicles going back and forth and the dialogue being set inside the car, the setting of Drive My Car sparked my interest.

I thought that one day I would like to make a film out of it, also because there had been barely any attempts to adapt Murakami for the big screen. The idea for the film came back after Asako I & II [2018]. I knew that it would be impossible to adapt his long novels, but a short piece seemed achievable.

His Saab was yellow. Why is yours red?

It’s a purely visual thing – there is not a lot of yellow in the Japanese landscape. Yellow is also not the best for the image. To grasp the vibrant scenery of moving vehicles, I had to think of the colour that would be more suitable. It couldn’t be yellow. So I thought either blue or red would fit better. I even went to see a yellow Saab, but when I saw the red one we eventually used, that was it. It had this groovy and cool vibe.

There are no theatre rehearsals in the novel but in the film you show the whole process very carefully. Why?

The whole story is about a man striving to come back to life. My thoughts lingered on the question – how can one reclaim their life through art? I found the answer in the flow of acting. At first, Kafuku is not able to act his loss out, but at the end of his journey he grasps his feelings through performance. That’s a whole process he goes through, not as an actor, but also as a director. Through directing the others, he can grasp the essence of reality around him. As a matter of course, he renders a direction for his reality – that he needs both of the worlds, acting and directing. Thanks to that, he is able to redefine the here-and-now that revolves around him – through outperforming his loss, but also through directing himself to do so and reflecting upon the whole process.

Drive My Car (2021)

The way you work with actors during rehearsals resembles the scenes from the film. How did you work with the actors in Drive My Car?

Indeed, much of the film’s image of the rehearsals responds to my methods. With some exceptions because, after all, the film needs drama. I do focus on repetitions of reading the script without emotions included in it. We go through the text over and over again until the words become embedded in the actors’ bodies and they can deliver the lines automatically. I want my actors to get rid of their expectations towards the characters but also avoid any clichés. It’s all about nuances.

Once the actors get on that level and the words blend with the body, the ability to deliver can spread in different directions. They become more focused; but above all, the process of opening up puts them at ease. And that is the most effective way to work with actors. To act while being relaxed. That’s the core of my method – to get rid of anxiety.

I invite my actors to reflect on the relationship between their characters and the past. I want them to examine how the present unfolds in the shadow of the past. We include that element in the rehearsals by recreating the character’s memories and implementing that into expression. This is how we conceived the roles – through embodied lines and a fused past.

The play in the film is in different languages. Where did that come from?

I actually thought of using that for a different project. That was supposed to be a story of a Japanese actress going to France. There she acts to people from different countries, but her performance is entirely in Japanese so that people don’t understand the words, only her expressions. The project probably won’t happen but the idea stayed with me. And since I was thinking about a unique method of work for Kafuku, I realised it suits him well. The method has a sense of avant-garde approach but, above all else, it’s very simplistic.

Aside from the meaning of words we use, there is also a sense of connection, attention towards the texture of voice or body language. Our body starts to send us a spectrum of feelings. This is when our receptivity invites us to observe and listen. And while we do that simple performance, it starts to pile up, and we are allowed to feel the natural flow of emotions. It seemed to be a simple method from the start, but once I tried it, I realised it does indeed do wonders.

Drive My Car takes a meditative trip down memory lane

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Drive My Car takes a meditative trip down memory lane

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy spins yarns of connection and coincidence in the conditional tense

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Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy spins yarns of connection and coincidence in the conditional tense