After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi was commissioned to make a documentary about the impact on the north-eastern Tōhuku region. He spent hours driving every day with his co-director, and realised how cars take you places in more ways than one. “The two of us aren’t really communicative with each other in general,” he says. “But in the car, we talked more than we did before. In a car, visually you’re satisfied – you’ve got information from the scenery from the windows. But sonically you only get the engine revving and that’s pretty much it. So I think we tend to want to fill that void.”
This in-transit intimacy exerts its mysterious pull in Hamaguchi’s new movie, Drive My Car, which is adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami. It is about Kafuku, a widowed theatre director who reluctantly accepts a female chauffeur, Misaki, while he oversees a new production of Uncle Vanya. As his red Saab 900 winds its way to work, he listens to a cassette of his dead wife reciting lines of Chekhov, and begins to open up to his driver about his grief and her infidelity.
Taking the scenic route over three hours, observing how Kafuku’s art is drawn into the slipstream of his life, the film is so enigmatic and absorbing that – like Misaki’s ultra-smooth driving – the gear-changes into the philosophical fast lane are hardly noticeable. Winning three awards at Cannes this year, including best screenplay, Drive My Car confirmed that Hamaguchi (to nab another Beatles title) now had a ticket to ride in the auteur big league.
Murakami’s story was originally published in 2014, part of the Men Without Women collection – though Hamaguchi had no contact with the Japanese literary giant beyond permission to proceed. The story uses driving as a metaphor for how other forms of conveyance – sexual desire, role-playing and ultimately storytelling – sweep us despite ourselves towards inner truths. “The lines in a script are actually a vehicle, and they carry on regardless of what the actor thinks about them. So they’re probably closer to a train than a car,” he says through a translator in a video call from his home city of Yokohama. He continues: “But they’re driving the actors in a positive way. It’s being able to express something you can’t materialise in real life through a fiction.”
One insight into Hamaguchi’s working methods is the mind-numbingly repetitive rehearsal process Kafuku subjects his cast to in the film, a version of how the real-life director also works. His idea is that drumming in the lines without emotion allows actors to fully internalise the text, the better to access authentic emotions in them later.
Drive My Car’s production circumstances seemed to have embedded a similar truth-seeking drill into Hamaguchi, too. Shortly after shooting on the Tokyo-set prologue had begun in early 2020, the pandemic hit and production was shut down for eight months. They had to relocate the main part of the story from Busan in South Korea to Hiroshima, because of foreign-travel restrictions. So Hamaguchi – “grateful” for the extra time – finished off a quick-sketch anthology film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, that was in part a dress rehearsal for the larger work: an extended car journey opens the first section, about a model who discovers her booker is dating her ex; role-playing is a revelatory gateway in the second and third.
Hamaguchi had an itinerant childhood: born in Kanagawa prefecture, just south of Tokyo, he moved around due to his civil servant father’s frequent postings. “Whenever I get asked where I’m from, I don’t really know what to say.” He was a typical video game-and manga-loving teenager before access to Tokyo’s glut of arthouse cinemas while at university broadened his tastes. He was especially drawn to John Cassavetes, whom Hamaguchi has praised for his ability to depict people at breaking point. Later, doing a film degree – studying partly under cerebral horror maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa – Hamaguchi found kinship with older traditions. “I just couldn’t find anything interesting in contemporary Japanese cinema, apart from a very few directors,” he says, sipping tea. “But then I started watching Japanese classic movies and I found how much richer cinema was back then. A national heritage that we can be proud of as a culture.”
His 2012 earthquake and tsunami documentary The Sound of Waves – and its two follow-ups – was a crucial breakthrough, he says. Being forced to forget about scripts and react simply to what he shot brought new freshness to his work. “I learned how to use the camera correctly, which is to bring out the power of reality. Who the subjects are as people, as individuals. I wanted to break down these brackets and show these people as individuals, not just random people who suffered from disaster. Now I reflect that in my [fictional] movies by trying to bring out as optimally as possible what the actors can express.”
Drive My Car – a transition from skittish, ironic melodramas such as Asako I & II into something with a cool, serene depth – shows this new concentration. But art only ever has truth in the passenger seat because its journey has a fixed destination, Hamaguchi reminds us. “A story has to end, right? And everyone, including the creators and the audience, knows it’s a lie. But because of that limitation, we can be honest in that fiction.”