When writer/director Ryusuke Hamaguchi first saw the red Saab 900 Turbo at the center of his award-winning movie Drive My Car, he knew it was the car. The car is over thirty years old and in immaculate condition. It was meant to be – he would spend a lot of time inside. “It’s like the best casting I’ve ever done,” Hamaguchi recalled in a CNN video interview.
While the car didn’t win any acting awards, the 2021 Hamaguchi film received four Oscar nominations, including Japan’s first for Best Picture.
Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe adapted “Drive My Car” from the short story of the same name by famed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Their extended version follows actor and theater director Yusuke Kafuku, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, as he struggles with the unexpected death of his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima).
Kafuku accepts an offer to stage a multilingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, where he meets Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a woman hired to drive him in his cherished Saab. As Kafuku confronts the haunting truth of 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 topped critics’ lists at the end of the year. Ahead of the March 27 Oscars, CNN reached out to Hamaguchi to learn more about his film and the ideas he explores in his work.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CNN: First of all, congratulations on your Oscar nominations. How do you feel about winning first place in Japan in the Best Film category?
Hamaguchi: Of course, I’m satisfied. I never expected this. I think the fact that non-English language films can be nominated in this way really confirms to me that things are changing and that we are part of that change.
I wanted to ask about the beautiful red Saab 900 in the movie. Why red? And what came of it?
In the original story (by Haruki Murakami) it was a yellow Saab convertible. I knew from the beginning that it would be impossible to use a convertible because noises like the wind would interfere with it. But actually we went to see some yellow Saabs. The coordinator who was in charge of arranging the vehicles for the shoot arrived in his red Saab and I remember thinking, “Wow, what a beautiful car.” As soon as I found out it was a Saab 900, I thought it wasn’t too far from the original. I wanted the car to appear in the film as I saw it. As for what happened to the car, it belongs to the coordinator, so he still drives it.
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura as Yusuke Kafuku and Misaki Watari stand next to a red Saab 900 Turbo in Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. “I always felt it was easy to have a very intimate conversation in a car,” the director tells CNN. Credit: Courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films
As far as I understand, your rehearsal process is similar to what we see when Kafuku and his actors are preparing for a play. Can you explain why you prepare your actors this way?
When actors say or do things they wouldn’t normally do while playing characters, the body feels weird and doesn’t move as smoothly as usual. “Honyomi” (script reading) is an exercise in saying words that a person would not normally say. I asked my actors to repeat their lines over and over, literally without emotion. What eventually happens is your mouth and your whole body gets used to saying the words and learns things like where to breathe. When this happens, I also begin to feel the change in the voices of the actors as their bodies relax into the words. As soon as I hear their voices become clearer, I think we are ready to fire.
The actors featured in the play use their native languages, including Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and others. Was there a message you were trying to convey with this?
The truth is that it does not contain any message. Of course, words matter, but the most important part of our communication is body language and voice structure. There’s a lot of information out there, and if there’s a hoax, the audience will know it. We need to encourage mutual reactions between actors. I thought it would be easier for things like this to happen if we break the chain of exchange based on the meaning of the other’s language – you won’t be able to act if you’re not careful.
Park Jurim plays Lee Yoon-ah an actor in Kafuku’s production who communicates in Korean Sign Language. Can you explain how you used this character and Puck’s game to explore the discrepancy 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 communicated in sign language. I really felt like an outsider. I also realized that sign language is much more physical and expressive than I thought. In order to sign signs to each other, they must look carefully at the other person, because they cannot understand until they look. I remember I was actually being watched while I was there, and I had the feeling that if someone is looking at me with such depth, then if I lie, they will be able to see through my lies.
I think that the use of sign language and open self-expression are very closely related. So when I decided to adopt this multilingual game, I didn’t want to use sign language as a disability language; I really wanted to use sign language as another language. I was looking for someone for this role and I came across Park Yurim and felt she is such a great actress.
Drive My Car has a multilingual cast. Park Yurim plays Lee Yoon-ah, an actor in Kafuku’s Uncle Vanya who communicates in Korean Sign Language. Credit: Courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films
Much of the plight of the characters in “Drive My Car” and “Uncle Vanya” stems from their inability to communicate. This is partly due to their fear of not being truly heard. Do you think we could be better listeners?
“Drive My Car” and your other 2021 film “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” share a common theme of lies and deceit, and the pros and cons of maintaining fiction, whether it’s to convince other people or yourself. One of the Kafuku cast members, Koshi Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), admits to feeling “empty” inside, which seems obvious considering he’s an actor. Would you like us to have to put on fewer plays in order to survive?
I don’t necessarily think we shouldn’t speak up or lie. I think to some extent the way we live is inevitable. I mean, we all have desires, don’t we? One of the short-term ways to satisfy these desires may be to lie. At the same time, I think we all know that lies are very fragile. This is because truth has a certain seriousness and people are drawn to it. This is shown in the film. I think that this sense of truth that comes from our perspective can almost be seen as a failure or a loss, but at the same time, I think there is something very beautiful about when this truth really lands. I am very interested in this moment.
WarnerMedia acquired “Drive My Car” to premiere on HBO Max in March 2022. HBO Max and CNN are owned by WarnerMedia.