‘Drive My Car’ and ‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’ Filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi Explores the Upside of Getting Lost in Translation

Japanese auteur Ryūsuke Hamaguchi reflects on his big year, the power of acting, and the lie that lets him get away with five-hour films.
Drive My Car
"Drive My Car"
Janus Films

In the films of Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, pretending to be somebody else is usually the first step towards self-understanding. So many aspects of the rising auteur’s work betray his deep-seated belief that we have to allow for some fiction in our lives in order to leave room for the kind of honesty that “truth” keeps from us.

It’s a conviction that seeps through every stone of his lightly enchanted slice-of-life dramas, which are populated by characters that often use role-play, rehearsal spaces, doppelgängers, and the safety net of the written word as permission to reveal — or even discover — the buried essence of who they really are. That’s especially true for Japanese Oscar entry “Drive My Car,” and Berlinale winner “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” which together are finally bringing the filmmaker the international attention he deserves.

“In my opinion,” Hamaguchi told IndieWire during a recent interview, “fiction is the only kind of lie that society allows to exist, and it’s only allowed to exist because there’s a clear end to it. But in the short period of time before that end arrives, people are allowed to express something real about themselves.” One of the most rewarding qualities of Hamaguchi’s films is how they stretch that “short period of time” into such epic proportions that it seems as if you might be able to spend the rest of your life in it.

Case in point: His four most recent features have an average length of more than three hours. That stat might be partially skewed by his 317-minute opus “Happy Hour,” but the real secret behind those staggering running times — which are even wilder in the context of an Éric Rohmer acolyte who’s emerging as one of Japan’s most internationally popular filmmakers — is that Hamaguchi doesn’t give his financiers the chance to fixate on what the numbers are supposed to be. It’s a process that requires a little fiction of its own.

“I do have a little bit of a plan when it comes to making this work,” Hamaguchi said in Japanese, with an interpreter at his side. His secret? He doesn’t tell anyone how long his movies are until it’s obvious they shouldn’t be any shorter. “No one thinks they’re paying for a three-hour or a five-hour movie,” Hamaguchi said, “but when I’m ready, I say: ‘Please just watch the edit that I have, and then we can discuss.’” Once they see the director’s cut, there’s little need for discussion.

After the year Hamaguchi has enjoyed in 2021, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll ever have any trouble earning the benefit of the doubt. In March, his playfully lo-fi short story triptych “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale. Less than four months later, his three-hour Haruki Murakami adaptation “Drive My Car” zoomed away with the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes.

Hamaguchi never intended for the films to arrive on top of each other, but COVID-related scheduling quirks forced the two productions to overlap, and now their releases will as well (both films acknowledge the pandemic in their own unobtrusive ways). Hamaguchi’s 2018 Cannes favorite “Asako I & II” brought the 42-year-old filmmaker plenty of new fans, but this stunning one-two punch has crystallized his genius for stories that peel away the upholstery of the social contract — parables that rattle settled characters out of their self-images and force them to see themselves in an eye-opening new light.

Like Abbas Kiarostami before him (another of his personal heroes), Hamaguchi has found that cars are the most naturally destabilizing spaces we share on a regular basis. Pecking away at a breakfast pastry in the offices of the Criterion Collection during a recent trip to Manhattan, Hamaguchi smiled about the chat he had with his taxi driver on the way there. “Something about the inside of a car makes conversation really easy to start,” he said. “It’s a strange and mysterious space that’s not quite settled because it moves too much — it’s public and private at the same time in a way that defies any clear definition. And so I think the conversations we have in cars arise from the urge to stabilize that space.”

Hamaguchi’s fascination with that phenomenon naturally drew him towards “Drive My Car” when it was published in Murakami’s 2014 short story collection “Men Without Women.” The bittersweet tale follows a widowed stage actor, who finds himself opening up to the young female chauffeur hired to drive him to and from the theater where he’s performing a role in “Uncle Vanya” each night. She handles the task so smoothly that her passenger can’t feel the car moving or remember the role he’s supposed to perform while riding in it.

This four-wheel chamber drama couldn’t have been more suited to Hamaguchi’s interests. Still, one does not approach Murakami lightly. Not only is the author a literary titan at home and abroad, but his writing is introspective in a way that resists adaptation. Turning the likes of “Kafka on the Shore” or “Dance Dance Dance” into a movie would be like trying to drink a cup of water with a fork, which perhaps explains why so few people have tried it despite Murakami’s rock star popularity.

Hamaguchi, however, had the benefit of seeing where previous attempts went wrong, and more recently where they went right. “Jun Ichikawa and Lee Chang-dong are very different kinds of directors from me,” Hamaguchi said, “but ‘Tony Takitani’ and ‘Burning’ are fairly successful adaptations of Murakami’s works because each filmmaker stuck to their style and closely focused on the things that interested them [about the source material]. Watching those movies helped me realize that I could stick to what I like to do as well.”

It would take more than five years for Hamaguchi to shoot his shot, but he eventually sent Murakami a letter expressing his interest in the rights to adapt “Drive My Car.” It was during those nervous months of waiting for a reply that he started to write “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” cranking out first drafts for each of its three stand-alone stories in just a few short weeks. Naturally, those scripts were steeped in the same ideas that had drawn Hamaguchi to Murakami’s work, and sharpened by the anxiety of potentially making it his own.

“I wasn’t certain that ‘Drive My Car’ would happen at the time, but I was intensely focused on the challenges that might be ahead of me if it did,” Hamaguchi said about the looming prospect of tackling the most expensive and high-profile project of his career. “I knew that it would involve conversations in cars, a number of explicitly sexual scenes, and that it was going to be about the subject of performance.”

In that light, it’s no wonder that the three vignettes featured in “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” involve a late night cab ride in which a model realizes that her best friend is dating her ex, a woman trying to honeytrap a literary professor by reading his erotica aloud, and two strangers in a post-internet world who inadvertently pretend to remember each other from high school.

If the film’s DIY aesthetic makes “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” seem even scrappier than Hamaguchi’s previous work, its sly theatricality and irrepressible characters allow the stories that comprise this low-stakes lark to collect into a raw, funny, and invariably humane mosaic of women divided against themselves. So while Hamaguchi admits that it began as a practice run for “Drive My Car,” he also insists that it became a whole lot more once the rubber hit the road.

His actors submitted to a unique rehearsal process so exhaustive that it sometimes becomes part of the movies that Hamaguchi creates from it. His method is simple: The cast is required to read the script to each other over and over and over and over (and over and over) again until the artifice has been drilled out of the dialogue and every line is exposed to the same Chekhovian nakedness that allows the characters in “Uncle Vanya” to bare their souls without disrupting the monotone rhythm of daily life. As Hamaguchi repeated this numbing ordeal with three different sets of actors in advance of “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” it soon emerged as the perfect narrative vehicle for his unleaded version of “Drive My Car,” which is the story of a man who desperately needs some help seeing into his blind spots.

In this telling, Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijimai) isn’t just an actor, but also a theater director who runs his productions in a way that takes Hamaguchi’s approach to new extremes. Here, his unfaithful wife didn’t die of ovarian cancer, but rather a sudden hemorrhage that snuffed her out before Yūsuke could find the courage to ask her what she was missing from their marriage. And when he casts her gorgeous ex-lover as the title role in the workshop of “Uncle Vanya” that he stages two years later, not even Yūsuke knows if he’s doing so because he wants to solve the mysteries his late wife left behind or if he just wants to torture the man with whom she shared them.  “The truth, whatever it is, is not as frightening as uncertainty,” Yelena says in Chekhov’s play. By the time curtains are raised on opening night, Yūsuke’s own process will force him to peel back the lies he lived with during his marriage and find meaning in the truth he finds in himself.

When asked if Yūsuke is a stand-in for himself, Hamaguchi demurred. “Yes, it’s true that I do a very similar rehearsal process,” he said, “but the reason I made it such a big part of the movie is because I needed a first-hand understanding of how the character worked. Our personalities are so different.” Hamaguchi promised that he’s more emotionally forthcoming with his actors than Yūsuke allows himself to be. In fact, the character is so icy and reserved that a theater director Hamaguchi interviewed for research later scolded him for casting his job in such a harsh light.

“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”

Hamaguchi more personally identifies with the strange gimmick he invented for Yūsuke’s productions, all of which feature an international cast who are instructed to speak in their native tongues. The version of “Uncle Vanya” we see in “Drive My Car” is staged in Japanese, English, Mandarin, Tagalog, and even Korean Sign Language, with tiered subtitles projected above the stage and everyone in the show itself forced to rely on emotional cues because they can’t understand the words their fellow actors are saying. The idea was inspired by the year when Hamaguchi lived abroad in the U.S. when he was younger, much of which was spent in ESL classes. Everyone in that room struggled to speak to each other — but the experience allowed Hamaguchi to realize how even the emptiest dialogue can disguise itself as communication in a way that deters people from listening to each other or themselves.

“There’s so much beyond language that is understandable,” Hamaguchi said. “Right now, I’m speaking in Japanese, which is a language you might not be able to understand. But even so, you can tell that I’m riding some kind of wave — you can tell when I’m really excited about something, or when I don’t care about something else.” Without the benefit of a shared vocabulary, communication becomes a more active process.

By putting his actors in a situation where every line is a direct reaction to the last, Yūsuke shakes his cast free of their own heads, liberates them from the prison of psychology, and compels them towards a more unmediated kind of truth. It’s the same vertiginous sensation that Yūsuke gets from being driven around by a chauffeur so good that she causes him to lose his bearings and realize that he’ll never learn anything new about his wife by obsessively analyzing the evidence she bequeathed to him.

This is where Hamaguchi thrives: situations in which several people are participating in a lie that none of them have the heart to acknowledge. “What all three stories in ‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’ have in common,” Hamaguchi said, “is that they involve characters whose secret plan turns into a shared fiction once everyone else figures out what’s going on.” That unspoken pact is a sacred thing in all of Hamaguchi’s films, and often galvanized with an erotic charge; even when his characters are in the midst of having sex, the real heat stems from the stories being spun between them.

“A lot of journalists have asked me why my characters are always roleplaying,” Hamaguchi said, “and I think the simple answer is that I find it interesting. But now I’m starting to think that it’s also about desire. If somebody wants to be or have something, the fastest way to make it happen is usually to lie. A lie can’t last, though — it doesn’t quite fit in with the realities that came before. It can only survive as fiction.”

Sometimes that fiction plays out on stage for an audience of hundreds, and sometimes it’s contained between a married couple in the privacy of their own bedroom. “People are performing all the time,” Hamaguchi said, but each of his brilliant new films affirms in its own way that acting is ultimately just reacting. “One of the big reasons why I wanted to make ‘Drive My Car’ is a line from Murakami’s story: ‘If we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.’”

Film Movement will release “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” in theaters on Friday, October 15. Sideshow and Janus Films will release “Drive My Car” in theaters on Wednesday, November 24.

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