‘Drive My Car’: Ryosuke Hamaguchi prepares for the Oscars

When writer and director Ryosuke Hamaguchi first laid eyes on the red Saab 900 Turbo at the heart of his award-winning “Drive My Car,” he knew it was the award-winning movie. Over thirty years old and in good condition, the car was perfect. A must have – will spend a lot of time indoors. “It sounds like the best choice I’ve ever made,” Hamaguchi recalled in a video interview with CNN.

Although the car did not receive any acting awards, the 2021 film Hamaguchi received four Academy Award nominations, including its first Japanese film for Best Picture.

Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe adapted “Drive My Car” from the short story of the same name by famous Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Their extended version follows actor and stage director Yosuke Kafuku, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, as he battles the unexpected death of his wife, Otto (Rika Kirishima).

Kafuku takes the offer to direct a multilingual theatrical production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima, where he meets Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a woman he hired for his driver in a Saab car so dear to him. As Kafuku confronts haunting truths about his past, the film delves into love, loss and forgiveness, and explores the ways people communicate with others and with themselves.

“Drive My Car” has already won a BAFTA Award and has topped many critics’ lists at the end of the year. Ahead of the Oscars on March 27, CNN caught up with Bahamaguchi to learn more about his film and the ideas he’s exploring in his work.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CNN: First of all, congratulations on the Oscar nominations. How do you feel about getting first place in Japan in the Best Picture category?

Hamaguchi: Of course I feel happy. I never expected that. I think the fact that non-English films can be filtered in this way really assures me that things are changing and that we are part of that change.

I wanted to ask about the beautiful Red Saab 900. Why the color red? and what happened?

In the original short story (by Haruki Murakami) it was a yellow Saab convertible. I knew from the start that it wouldn’t be possible to use a convertible, because noises like wind would make it difficult. But we actually went to see some yellow Saabs. The coordinator, who was in charge of arranging the movie cars, arrived in the red Saab and I remember thinking, “Wow, what a nice looking car.” Once I found out it was a Saab 900, I thought it wouldn’t be too far from the original. I wanted the car to appear in the movie the same way I saw it. As for what happened to the car, the coordinator is still riding it.

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura, as Yusuke Kafuku and Misaki Watari, stand next to the red Saab 900 Turbo in Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car.” “I always felt it was easy to have a very intimate conversation in the car,” the director told CNN. credit: Courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films

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I understand that your rehearsal process is similar to the one we see Kafuku and his crew take on as they prepare for the play. Can you explain why you outfit your reps in this way?

When actors say or do what they wouldn’t normally do when playing characters, the body feels weird and doesn’t move as smoothly as it normally does. “Hon-yomi” (reading the text) is an exercise in saying words that a person would not normally say. She asked the actors to repeat their lines over and over, literally, without emotion. What eventually happens is that your mouth and your entire body gets used to saying the words and learning things, like where to take a breath. When this happens, I can also begin to feel a change in the actors’ voices, as their bodies relax into the words. As soon as I hear their voices are clear, then I think we’re ready to shoot.

The actors who appeared in the play use their own native languages, including Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, and others. Was there a message you were trying to convey through this?

The truth is that it does not contain any message. Of course words have meaning, but the most important part of our communication is body language and the texture of voice. There is a lot of information, and if there is a deception the audience will know about it. We need to encourage mutual reactions between the actors. I thought it would be easier for things like this to happen if we cut off the circuit of exchange based on the meaning of the other’s language – you won’t be able to perform unless you pay attention.

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Park Yurim plays Lee Yoon-a, An actor in a production of Kafuku communicates in Korean sign language. Can you explain how you used this character and Park’s performance to explore the disconnect between what the character says and how they feel?

I became interested in sign language when I was invited to a film festival for the deaf where they communicate in sign language. I really felt like a stranger. I also realized that sign language is a lot more body language than I thought. In order to sign with each other, they must look at the other person closely, because they cannot understand unless they look. I remember I was really watching while I was there, and I had this feeling that if someone looked at me that deep, it meant that if I was going to lie, they could see my lie.

I think the use of sign language and self-expression are very much related. So when I decided to adopt this multilingual play, I didn’t want to use sign language as a language for disability. I really wanted to use sign language as another language. I was looking for someone to play this role and I came across Park Yorim and felt that she was a great actress.

"driving my car" It has a multilingual staff.  Park Yorim plays Lee Yoon-a, an actor in Kafuku's stage production of "Uncle Vanya" who communicates using Korean sign language.

The movie “Drive My Car” features a multilingual cast. Park Yorim plays Lee Yoon-a, an actor in Kafuku’s stage production of “Uncle Vanya” who communicates using Korean sign language. credit: Courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films

Much of the plight of the characters in “Drive My Car” and “Uncle Vanya” is their inability to communicate. Some of that stems from their fear of not really being heard. Do you think we can be better listeners?

You know, I really believe in that. I’m really thinking about how much better the world would be if everyone became good listeners. I was convinced by the interviews I gave in my documentaries (“Tohoku Trilogy” In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami) this applies to anyone’s life. Having your own life means that you have something inside of you that you want to express, and much of it is hardly ever heard. I’m always amazed at the kind of expressive power that explodes when I’m on the listening side. But then, I think I have to listen to myself, too. It’s not just about listening to others, but also about the parts of ourselves that we can’t change. I think it is not a good idea to completely ignore the discomfort that arises within ourselves. I feel I have to get as much frankness out of myself and others as possible. I’m sure that if we could do that, the world would be in a little better shape.

“Drive My Car” and your other 2021 movie “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” share a common theme of lies and deception — and the pros and cons of maintaining imagination, whether it’s to impress others or ourselves. One of Kafuku’s cast members Kōshi Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) admitted that he feels “empty” inside, which seems pointy since he’s an actor. Do you wish we had to perform less to survive?

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I don’t necessarily think we shouldn’t perform or lie. I think it’s somewhat inevitable that this is the way we live. I mean, we all have desires, right? Lying may be one of the short-term ways to achieve these desires. At the same time, I think we all know that lies are very fragile. This is because truth has a certain allure, and humans are drawn to this. The movie depicts it. I think this sense of truth in our perspective can almost be seen as a failure or a loss, but at the same time I think there is something very beautiful when that truth really comes down. I am very interested in that moment.

“Drive My Car” was nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards on March 27.

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