Ryusuke Hamaguchi: “This Is How We Live Our Lives”

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021)

Over the past several months, Ryusuke Hamaguchi has been extraordinarily generous to interviewers curious about the background, influences, and working methods that have led to his emergence as one of Japan’s most internationally acclaimed directors. He’s had a remarkable year. In March, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a triptych of thematically interlinked short stories, won the grand jury prize in Berlin. A few months later, Drive My Car, an adaptation of a story by Haruki Murakami, won the best screenplay award and the FIPRESCI prize in Cannes.

Drive My Car has since been selected as Japan’s candidate for the Oscar for best international feature, and it’s won best film and screenplay at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards as well as the Silver Hugo and an audience award in Chicago.Janus Films will open Drive My Car in New York on November 24 before sending it across the country. Starting this Friday, London’s Close-Up Film Centre will present a survey of Hamaguchi’s work through December 5 in conjunction with the UK-wide film season Japan 2021: 100 Years of Japanese Cinema.

By his own admission, Hamaguchi floundered in Japan’s commercial film industry for a few years before he caught wind of a program at the Tokyo University of the Arts. Kiyoshi Kurosawa taught a class, telling his students that he admired Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris—Steven Soderbergh’s, not so much—and that he wondered what they might do with it. He staged a screenwriting competition, and Hamaguchi won. Kurosawa was clearly impressed, and years later, asked Hamaguchi to work with him and Tadashi Nohara on the screenplay for his historical thriller Wife of a Spy (2020).

The Solaris that the class of thirty students completed in 2007, a full-length feature that Hamaguchi told Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov in 2019 was “rather good, and critically well-acclaimed,” can only be shown at the university because the students never got around to securing the rights to the novel. The following year, Passion, Hamaguchi’s graduation project mapping the reverberations among a group of friends following a couple’s announcement that they intend to marry, was selected to compete at the Tokyo Filmex International Film Festival.

When an earthquake and tsunami hit the coastal regions of Tohoku on March 11, 2011, Hamaguchi traveled with Ko Sakai to interview survivors and film the damage, clean-up, and reconstruction. They set out to make a documentary and wound up making three, the Tohoku Documentary Trilogy (2011–2013). “I learned how to use the camera correctly, which is to bring out the power of reality,” Hamaguchi tells the Guardian’s Phil Hoad. He aimed to “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.”

With The Depths (2010), Hamaguchi explored the attraction between a famous Korean fashion photographer and a Japanese male escort, but it was with Intimacies (2012) that Hamaguchi signaled more clearly the direction he was taking. He worked with students at the ENBU film and theater school on a three-part story about the troubled production of a play to create a feature that blends documentary and fiction and runs just over four hours.

Happy Hour (2015), Hamaguchi’s international breakthrough, runs an hour longer. To track the emotional ups and downs in the lives of four women in Kobe, close friends in their late thirties, Hamaguchi workshopped his actors for six months, and then, because they all had day jobs, shot only on weekends for eight more months. “My workshops are basically having the actors not perform but read the text over and over,” he told Jordan Cronk in Film Comment in 2018, “and for these readings I ask my actors not to add any nuances or inflections. It’s more about reading the text aloud, over and over, until they can almost say it automatically, and there comes a moment when I can hear it in their voice—a certain weight or thickness—and the words that are written are completely absorbed into the actors. Once we accomplish this, it’s time to shoot.”

Hamaguchi tells Trevor Johnston in Little White Lies that he picked up this workshopping method from a documentary on Jean Renoir. As influences, Hamaguchi has cited directors as divergent as Howard Hawks, Jean Grémillon, and Masahiro Makino. But the two names he brings up over and again are John Cassavetes and Eric Rohmer. “When I was twenty years old, I watched the film Husbands and it’s still my favorite film,” he tells Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage. “It’s one of those films where I feel the more times I watch it, there’s really no other film like it.”

One of the lessons he’s taken from Rohmer, he tells Marshall Shaffer at Slant, is that coincidence “allows you to add risk to storytelling. I think those kinds of risks allow for emotion—and for something moving to happen as well. Another thing that I learned from Rohmer is that in dealing with coincidences as a subject, I’m also dealing with desires. I think it’s really important that the characters want something. They’re planning something. I think that desire allows for coincidence to feel real and become reality within the stories.”

Asako I & II (2018) was the first of Hamaguchi’s features to compete in Cannes, and like Happy Hour, you can watch it on the Criterion Channel. A “fascination with the magical powers of the seemingly mundane is signaled from the start,” wrote Melissa Anderson at 4Columns in 2019. Asako (Erika Karata), a university student, meets and immediately falls for the free-spirited Baku (Masahiro Higashide). When he inexplicably disappears, Asako leaves Osaka for Tokyo, where she meets the straitlaced Ryohei, who happens to be the spitting image of Baku and is also played by Higashide. “The pleasures of Asako I & II, like those of Happy Hour, lie in witnessing the keen understanding evinced by Hamaguchi and his cast of how genuine emotions in romantic dyads are expressed or, just as often, concealed,” wrote Anderson.

Reviewing Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis calls it “a perfect entry point into Hamaguchi’s work.” At the A.V. Club, Lawrence Garcia suggests that it’s “arguably the most concerted expression of Hamaguchi’s artistic preoccupations to date.” And at Reverse Shot, Matthew Eng writes that the film “exquisitely showcases Hamaguchi’s gift for homing in on moments of person-to-person contact and dilating its particular, hair-trigger tensions.”

In the first story, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” a model, Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), listens in the back of a cab as her best friend excitedly tells her about a magical first date. Hamaguchi has said that he shot this first scene in an actual moving vehicle—no green screen—as a sort of rehearsal for Drive My Car. When Meiko realizes that her friend’s date is her ex, and that his version of their breakup may not be entirely above board, she has the driver head to his office where she plans to confront him. “What all three stories in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy have in common,” Hamaguchi tells IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “is that they involve characters whose secret plan turns into a shared fiction once everyone else figures out what’s going on.”

In “Door Wide Open,” a married mother is roped into her young lover’s plan to lure his professor, a famous novelist, into a sexual harassment scandal. The scheme misfires tragically for everyone but the schemer. And two women turn a case of mistaken identity into an opportunity for newfound intimacy in “Once Again.” “Each woman is aware of the ruse they are engaging in, opting to be as creative as possible in service to a purely therapeutic, cathartic outcome,” writes Odie Henderson at In the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang observes that each story in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is “built around volleys of verbiage that gather casual yet beautifully modulated swells of emotion.”

Requesting permission from Haruki Murakami to adapt “Drive My Car,” Hamaguchi laid out his plans. He would move the flashbacks up the timeline to tell a linear narrative, lift moments from other stories in the 2014 collection Men Without Women, lean a little more heavily on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and expand the backstory of the marriage between actor and stage director Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima). During the tense months that he waited for Murakami’s reply, Hamaguchi worked on his projected series of seven short tales, three of which became Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.

Murakami eventually lit the green light. “Not unlike what South Korean director Lee Chang-dong accomplished with Burning (2018), Hamaguchi has taken a relatively slender Murakami text and expanded its allegorical conceits into a highly cinematic, enigmatic reflection on longing and the need for human connection,” writes Jordan Cronk at the top of his interview with Hamaguchi for Reverse Shot.

Twenty years after the loss of their daughter, Yusuke spies Oto having sex with a hot young actor, Koshi (Masaki Okada). He agonizes for days over whether to confront her, but before he can decide, she suddenly dies. Two years later, Yusuke is invited to stage a production of Uncle Vanya at a festival in Hiroshima, where he is assigned a driver. “The lovely, funny, humane scene where Yusuke and his taciturn young chauffeur, Misaki (Miura Toko), are invited to dinner with the festival director Yoon-su (Jin Daeyon) and his deaf actress wife Lee Yoon-a (Park Yoorim) is as deft and multidirectional as ensemble acting gets,” writes Adam Nayman for Film Comment.

In the backseat of his red Saab, Yusuke listens to tapes of Oto reading Chekhov and prepares to run his actors through paces not unlike those Hamaguchi relies on in his workshops. The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Dalton describes Misaki as “a surly, taciturn, chain-smoking young woman on the run from her own traumatic family history.” The “long drives around Hiroshima slowly evolve from terse formal exchanges to painful, candid confessionals.”

Talking with Hamaguchi for the Notebook, Lukasz Mankowski points out that he seems to “rely significantly on the melodramatic expression.” Hamaguchi agrees, noting that the “in-betweenness of melodrama is something I’m particularly fond of. It’s because it opens a margin for perspectives. One can feel the sadness of the tragedy; the other will cherish the laughter. For me, the foolishness of melodrama becomes its actual seriousness because it enables the filmmaker to grasp the essence of the time. And this is precisely how I perceive the reality of ours; how I feel it. We live seriously, but then again, we do foolish things. This is how we live our lives. That’s the reason why I link my films with the notion of melodrama—because, as simple as it is, I consider life as melodramatic.”

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