Few filmmakers navigate the intimate revelations of performance as skillfully as Ryūsuke Hamaguchi. Across his unobtrusive, gently existential melodramas of connection and longing, characters move gradually toward self-knowledge through patterns of role-play, repetition, and rehearsal, acting out identities to explore how inhabiting these might change them.
After achieving global recognition with the five-hour opus “Happy Hour” (2015), Hamaguchi crashed the Cannes competition with his 2018 follow-up, the richly novelistic “Asako I & II.” Now, with his two recent features—the romantic anthology “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” and emotional epic “Drive My Car,” both in theaters—the Japanese filmmaker cements his status as one of our great living dramatists.
“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” which won the Silver Bear grand jury prize at this year’s Berlinale, takes the form of an elegant triptych, spinning three self-contained stories of love, coincidence, and imagination. With emotionally linked tales of women at crossroads of desire, each vignette details a chance encounter and the extended, euphorically open-ended dialogue it provokes. Like the French New Wave master Éric Rohmer, whose “Rendez-vous in Paris” was a significant source of inspiration, Hamaguchi favors static medium shots, which through actor and camera placement allow us to inhabit the same space as the characters while the steady momentum of their conversation imbues it with feeling. Out of this poised formal language, each vignette also presents one stylistic flourish—a jarring zoom, a direct address to camera—that collapses any remaining emotional distance between audience and performer.
“Drive My Car,” which won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes this year, is at its surface a different beast altogether. A languorous, richly rewarding adaptation of the slim, same-named story by Haruki Murakami, this three-hour drama centers on stage actor and director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who grieves his wife’s death and navigates the detritus of her romantic betrayals after traveling to direct a production of Anton Chekhov’s great play Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival in Hiroshima. There, he is assigned a chauffeur, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), who handles his beloved but temperamental red Saab 900 Turbo with astonishing grace; neither the playwright nor his driver are capable of openly discussing their emotions, but their circular routes back and forth from rehearsal allow for eventual, unexpected communion.
A lesser filmmaker might have shrunk from the challenge of adapting Murakami, a literary icon whose spellbindingly metaphysical novels often follow characters discovering worlds within worlds, oscillating between ambiguous magical realism and quotidian detail. But Hamaguchi’s own style of theatrical inquiry—as well as his decision to adapt only what most compelled him about Murakami’s short story rather than attempt to translate its entirety—has resulted in a complex adaptation that pinpoints the text’s philosophical essence but confidently accelerates off in its own directions, toward a moving meditation on the power of performance to deepen our sense of reality. (It is Japan’s Oscar submission for Best International Feature.)
Speaking through a translator, Hamaguchi discussed the layers of performance within his dramas, the importance of rehearsal, and his pursuit of truth.
“Drive My Car” and “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” share a fascination with role-play, with cars as venues for extended dialogues, and with ideas of coincidence and romantic desire. How did these films inform one another?
With the production periods for both films, there was a bit of overlap. And actually, in regard to “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” this was an anthology that I was making in preparation for “Drive My Car.” And there were actually many different places where there were common themes of—as you pointed out—using the car and different themes of the performers. They were connected from the beginning.
For [all three chapters of] “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” we had very long rehearsal periods. Perhaps each one was maybe even longer than the ones for “Drive My Car.” And one important aspect of that was the line readings that we all did together. This is similar to what we see in “Drive My Car” with Kafuku, what he does with his group [to prepare] for the [Uncle Vanya] performance: when they do, over and over, these line readings as a group, this is something where you really have a chance to get a sense of perception from the person's voice, the way the voice changes over time throughout the process. And if you're doing [a reading] with a bigger voice, it actually leads to a stronger performance when they do the actual filming. This had quite a direct relationship to “Drive My Car.” These were a lot of techniques for me as a director that were incorporated from one film to the other.
Rehearsal is very important in “Drive My Car.” The film’s rehearsal scenes, I felt, succeeded in conveying multiple dramatic layers: the actors’ performances for the film, their characters’ performances for the play, and a more seemingly organic level of emotional access. These layers suggest a combination of stage and screen techniques but also an almost documentarian effort to get away from the artifice in both.
I appreciate your comment in regard to that. Of course, this being a film, which has a certain narrative, you can't show all of the rehearsals. There are only limited portions, which are being shown. Of course, for this three hour movie, there actually was a lot more trial and error that was taking place. But in terms of incorporating the rehearsal process into the film, I think this is the place where you can really judge the details, and that oftentimes is where the truth is revealed. I think this is something that the audience can also feel. Over time, as I've been making my films, this is something that I've really felt: that the details—these small, specific detailed portions—are really important for judging what is happening. And showing rehearsal provides a way to do that.
Kafuku’s rehearsal style is similar to yours, wherein the actors repeat text without emotion until they can recite it automatically. At that point, they can internalize and personalize it. When did you first incorporate that approach?
In terms of the rehearsal process, you could say that my feeling toward it became strong fairly recently, when I was making my film “Happy Hour.” I think that's when I really established it as part of my process. Reading the lines together as a group is something that I started in essence during “Happy Hour.” It was a way to understand the joining of the text and the performers themselves. And this really serves to produce very strong scenes, I thought. So from that point on, it was something that I was trying to use as much as possible.
And in regard to the overarching premise, you have to differentiate between the lines that actors are using and the way that people actually talk. Many times, it can be fairly unnatural in terms of that, that they wouldn't actually say these words in the way they're written. But reading the lines together, it's a way that you can physically get used to saying these lines so that they come out automatically, as you referred to earlier. It's something that actually is very helpful for the performers, when it is time to actually do their performance, that they will be able to say these words more easily.
Another more important point is the collaboration or the interaction between the texts, the words themselves, and the performers. This is something that we can see very strongly in the works of Chekhov, as well as the works of Haruki Murakami. You could even call it a universal aspect that's found in both their works, in terms of the collaboration between the words themselves and the performers. If we look at Chekhov, his work is from a Russian author from over 100 years ago. This is not something that, today, I have any direct relationship to, but through a dialogue, it's something that you would be able to [make] your own. You do feel this connection to something that maybe you naturally would not have a connection to. I think that you can get these strong emotions from the performers based on these texts. Something I've noticed is the extreme importance of the words, and of these lines.
Both your movies this year reflect your established style of mesmerizing long takes and passionate closeups, and the editing of both intertwines them beautifully. How do you remain attuned to the flow and the rhythm of the story enough to find the shape of each scene?
You asked about the editing, but I think the two important things that go into it are what's in the script and then what actually takes place when it's being filmed, when the performers are performing the scripts. Of course, when I'm writing my scripts, I try to incorporate as much into that as possible. The filming is where the actual interpretation takes place. I don't tell the performers my particular interpretation or what I want them to do. This enables me to get surprises from my performers when they are actually doing their performance, and it enables me to say on the spot whether something is a good take or if I want to use it. And then during the editing process, I'm also able to see things that might be surprising to me. And I'm looking at it in the context of the larger picture at that point, whether I'm going to use that take.
To tighten things up, I have to make selections in terms of what I'm using. But what I'm using as my criteria is the character's emotions. Is it being conveyed enough? Is this long enough to convey these emotions? Is it conveying them for too long? That really is the criteria in terms of what I'm doing in regards to that. Whether the emotion needs to be brought to the next scene or not, those are the yardsticks I'm looking at.
In Haruki Murakami’s story, Uncle Vanya is discussed but its themes are also distilled by Murakami into his own prose. “Drive My Car” extrapolates away from the Murakami but also elaborates more upon the Chekhov story; we hear and see more of it directly. All three stories explore this idea that life is a process of performing our roles as written without knowing why, and that only in death—as Sonya says in Uncle Vanya, beyond the grave—will we find that clarity we lack in life, which is full of suffering. What strikes me is that the process of adaptation, moving back from the reality of one story and containing it within another, creates a space for analyzing that story but also examining what you feel from it as a reader. What is your perspective on art in this way, as allowing room for catharsis or even overcoming death in some way?
So first, in regard to Uncle Vanya, you're correct that in the original work from Murakami, there's only a few lines that actually talk about it. But if we're going beyond the short story, there are extensive references to Chekhov in his other works and novels. He was strongly influenced by Chekhov. Within my work, though, within “Drive My Car,” Kafuku actually has a very strong correspondence to Vanya. The lines that are being said for Uncle Vanya are really expressing the feelings of Kafuku, his emotions, that being that he's living a life that he didn't want to have, but it's the life that he has to live. Those common emotions occur between Kafuku and Vanya.
The same can be said between Misaki and Sonya in Uncle Vanya. Misaki actually remembers some of Sonya’s lines, and she actually says some of her lines in the film as well. So again, these are sort of corresponding characters to each other. In a way, throughout “Drive My Car,” there's a parallel taking place with Uncle Vanya, between these two works. And in another way, or in the same way, they're mutually translating each other. They're influencing and translating each other. And they're showing us a different way to look at each of them.
In terms of parallel stories, this is something that we see in many of Murakami’s novels as well. In terms of my work, we actually have reality; and within that, we have the play. We have the performance-of-the-art portion. And this is something that is able to be realistically portrayed, these two different worlds within the film. But this is where we see the role of art coming into play.
If we look at Kafuku as a character, there are some emotions he cannot express in normal life, but he is able to via his art. And I don't think just the play is the only vehicle to do that. Any kind of art makes this possible. In terms of everyday life, we're tied down or bound by certain things that prevent us from expressing ourselves as much as we would want to. But through art, you're able to achieve this honest version of expression that you can't get in real life. And this is something unconscious as well. But you can face things—let's say, things in your past, unconsciously, via your interaction with this art, whatever version of the art that it is. In the film, when we look at the play that Kafuku is performing in, for him this is one way of recovery. It's a way of returning to himself or “bringing himself back,” I guess you could say. In real life he still would not be able to express these emotions, whereas he's able to be an honest version of himself via his performance in the play.
At the New York Film Festival, you said that what makes acting different from lying is that the former is a vehicle for revealing one’s inner truth while the latter basically amounts to putting on a mask. In that vein, how would you assess the honesty of your own approach to directing? Especially given your films’ focus on duality and performance, do you see yourself as personally revealing inner truths, putting on a mask, or some combination?
I must say, I think I did say something like that at the festival, but it might have been a short period of time, so I want to elaborate on that. Because I don't think it's that simple, that performance is revealing the truth and that, if you're lying, it's like wearing a mask. What I want to clarify is that you can still be telling the truth while wearing a mask. There are nuances to it. I think that art is something like that, where you're wearing a mask but you're telling the truth—meaning that what is shown on the surface and what is being expressed could be two different things. It's not necessarily that you're doing some kind of self-analysis. But what I can say in regard to your question about me as a director is that what I want, ultimately, is truth from my performers, from my actors. And without my own honesty, I will never be able to get that truth from the people I work with.
“Drive My Car” opens in New York on November 24th and in L.A. on December 3rd before expanding nationwide. “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is now in select theaters.