Two years after his wife’s unexpected death, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a renowned stage actor and director, receives an offer to direct a production of Uncle Vanya at a theater festival in Hiroshima. There, he meets Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a taciturn young woman assigned by the festival to chauffeur him in his beloved red Saab 900. As the production’s premiere approaches, tensions mount amongst the cast and crew, not least between Yusuke and Koji Takatsuki, a handsome TV star who shares an unwelcome connection to Yusuke’s late wife. Forced to confront painful truths raised from his past, Yusuke begins - with the help of his driver – to face the haunting mysteries his wife left behind. Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s DRIVE MY CAR is a haunting road movie traveling a path of love, loss, acceptance, and peace.
It's really no surprise that Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's film Drive My Car has been receiving the highest praises and sweeping awards for both best picture and screenwriting categories at film festivals. The movie is complex, moving, and infinite. The storytelling is decidedly poingnant and pulses off the screen thanks to the riveting performances by the two distinct leads, Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura. I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with director and co-writer Ryûsuke Hamaguchi about adapting Haruki Murakami's short story of the same name, what initially attracted him to the material, and what inspired him to become a filmmaker.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: This movie is a beautiful story centered around betrayal, self-control, loss, and redemption. What initially attracted you to the short story from Haruki Murakami's book Men Without Women as a visual storyteller yourself?
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi: In my 20s I read a lot of Murakami's books and this book I read when I was in my 30s but what first attracted me to it was that it's set in a lot of conversations that happen in a car, which I thought was very interesting with two very attractive characters. And it's a very intimate place where they can talk sort of about the past and about their honest feelings. I also thought that it was very interesting that the main character is an actor because that's very close to the world that I live in. And so, it was very relatable and interesting to me, so that's why I found this story so attractive
Sadie: It's a very personal connection for artists and the vulnerability behind it, I think a lot of writers and filmmakers and all creatives can relate to a lot of what goes on in the story.
Ryûsuke: The character of Kafuku really attracted me. He is a very logical and sort of a left-brain character. He doesn't show his feelings, and he also doesn't victimize himself. He never does that. And he seems to be very strong. But in reading the book as you progress, you see that he is actually deeply hurt in a real way. And so, what I thought was interesting is that he's able to tell this only to his driver. And I also thought that there's a continuation of the story from where the book ends, so that's why I thought it would be great for a feature film
Sadie: I agree. I may be taking a leap here, but I think the third main character is the car. It anchors Kafuku’s and Misak’si growth and relationship and it's also a very specific choice in terms of car model, size, and color. I've yet to read the original source material but I'm not sure if the car was clearly named or not, or if this was a creative decision. If it was a creative decision I'm curious how much thought went into those details and the importance of those details around the car itself?
Ryûsuke: The first thought, my inspiration was definitely that I thought this could be a movie because they are moving in a car throughout the story. And I think Murakami books, in general, are very difficult to adapt but because they're going from one to another place. I thought it was possible. So, the space of the car I thought was really fascinating because it's moving, but the people inside aren't, they are just stationary. It’s this sort of very ambivalent thing. And I thought that Misaki is sort of able to open up to Kafuku because of this very fact, it's not an actual location. It's not home, it's not the rehearsal location, it's not that sort of a place that can be defined. And so because of that, I found that she's able to share with him her honest feelings.
Sadie: I'm absolutely blown away by what you were able to create from the short story and making it nearly a three-hour film. During that adaptation process, what was your writing process like, and did you ever consult with Murakami?
Ryûsuke: Every time I made a different draft, I would send it to him. However, I did send him a first very detailed plot outline. And after that, he didn't have any input. And I found this out reading interviews after the fact. But apparently, he wasn't reading any of the drafts of the scripts that I was sending him. And if I were to take that in a good way, I would say that he had that much trust in me and he believed in me. I know that he saw the film and enjoyed it.
Sadie: What was the casting process like? Did you have specific actors in mind to play these roles?
Ryûsuke: Mr. Nishijima, who plays our lead, I knew that we really wanted him. He was my top choice. And for my generation, he's like a hero, he's been in so many of Takayoshii's films in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's films. He's in tons of TV shows in Japan, he's a huge star. And so, I knew that the role of Kafuku would be great if we had him. And then for Misaki in my film called Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, she auditioned and I really liked her then and thought she was wonderful. No one in the industry could have predicted that I would cast her but I found that she was the only person that could play the role of the driver.
Sadie: They have very believable chemistry throughout the movie and they're parallel stories, it's very greatly crafted and the character development is also very well done.
Ryûsuke: In real life, both of these actors are quite controlled and they don't tend to show off or be very outward and so that really suited the characters I think and really worked well in the ensemble of characters in the film. And there was a trust that emerged between the two of them as the shoot went on, and so that I think naturally bled onto the screen as well.
Sadie: What inspired you to become a filmmaker and what are you driven to write?
Ryûsuke: It definitely evolved in stages for me. The first was the Back to the Future films, I really loved those good Hollywood films, they really inspired me. I went to film school and in film school, I watched John Cassavetes films and the emotion that really just leapt out of the screen, it was so tangible, I felt it through the bodies of the actors and it was like a sickness that I hadn't even experienced in real life and so I was really inspired by that and that gave me this idea that, ‘Oh, I could spend my life doing this.’
Sadie: It's such a beautifully shot film as well, the framing is very precise and speaks to the characters rather than taking away from them - what was the collaboration process like with your cinematographer?
Ryûsuke: The cinematographer is a man named Hidetoshi Shinomiya, and I'm very pleased that you use the word precise, because I totally agree. And it was something that was actually quite difficult on set because I chose not to decide too much of the blocking of the actors. I wanted the actors to have more freedom. And so, he watched the rehearsals and decided where to put the camera. And yet he still was able to create this nonstatic, dynamic way of shooting. I think that's why the emotion really comes across in this film and that people all around the world are able to relate and enjoy this film and that there's been so much positive response to the film.
Sadie: Any advice for screenwriters adapting a short story?
Ryûsuke: One thing is that the text that you read in a book, and how it may come across in a film is totally different. The more attractive a writer's style is or sentences are to you, then the harder it can be to turn into a scene. So, what I always say is to take the feeling that you received from the text and turn that into imagery. I sort of forbid myself from trying to take what is attractive about how it's written to directly into what's attractive about the film or about that scene.
Drive My Car is now available to watch in select Theaters.