On the Road: Ryusuke Hamaguchi on "Drive My Car"

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The Japanese director talks about his Haruki Murakami adaptation, winner of the Best Script award in Cannes.

By Leonardo Goi

All through our chat, Ryusuke Hamaguchi stares at me as if to make sure I get all that he’s saying. The Japanese director understands English well, but doesn’t feel comfortable speaking it; in the Cannes hotel we met at, an interpreter sits between us, and I cannot help but think there’s a curious parallel between the translation barriers we’re wrestling with and his monumental, luminous Drive My Car. Monumental in size, luminous in touch. Clocking at three hours, it is based on a short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami, which English speakers can find in the anthology Men without Women. In the film, Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theatre actor and director, travels to Hiroshima to stage Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Two years have passed since the death of his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima, also seen in Tran Anh Hung’s 2010 film adaptation of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood), a TV screenwriter who would routinely fall into a writing trance after sex. “She’d grasp a thread of a story from the edge of orgasm,” Yusuke remembers, and in a sensuous 40-minute preamble, Hamaguchi outlines their creative-carnal relationship before complicating it once Yusuke catches Oto in bed with Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a younger actor whom the director will later cast in the lead role of Chekhov’s play.

Yusuke has made a name for himself through multilingual productions, which leave his cast to speak in their native tongues and audiences to follow via subtitles screened in real time. The actors themselves don’t understand each other, but that matters little. Language barriers—in Yusuke’s Uncle Vanya as much as Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car—aren’t obstacles so much as catalysts to wring out an emotional truth. The film itself is about many things—about loneliness, personal loss, language, and memory—but perhaps the most cardinal is the belief in art’s redemptive powers, the idea that art can act as a universal idiom to unearth and process one’s traumas. This accounts for the strange exhilaration the characters succumb to while dealing with Uncle Vanya. At one point, Yusuke admits he finds Chekhov terrifying for the very same effect he hopes the text will elicit in his actors: “when you say his lines, he drags out the real you.”

A sprawling road-trip, Drive My Car unfolds for large chunks inside Yusuke’s crimson Saab 900, which the man seems to regard less as a vehicle than a protective chrysalis. It’s here that he listens to the recordings of his late wife reading out parts in Uncle Vanya—leaving him to fill the gaps in the title role. But once in Hiroshima, he’s forced to leave the wheel to a chauffeur the festival’s hired to drive him around for the whole sojourn. The driver, Misaki (Tôko Miura), is a taciturn twenty-something who’s grappling with a family tragedy of her own. And so Drive My Car swells into a late-night confessional; alone in the car, the two strangers strike a bond rooted in a history of shared sorrows. It’s a film of fulminating and harrowing exchanges, enlivened by Nishijima and Miura’s implosive performances--a tale about making peace with your past, and the role you ought to play.

Read the interview here.