In late 2019, Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi was having coffee with actress Tôko Miura in a quiet cafe in west Tokyo, discussing an ambitious new drama he was developing. Rather than holding auditions, Hamaguchi tends to cast his films simply by sitting down with actors to talk, sharing his vision for a story while getting a sense of the real person who might embody a part. The director had reached out to Miura to discuss Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a comedic, multilayered anthology film he was writing about the conflicted emotional worlds of several idiosyncratic Japanese women. But he quickly appraised that she wasn’t quite right for the part in that project. Instead, he found himself picturing her as the co-star of an entirely different, equally ambitious drama that he was working on simultaneously: Drive My Car, a feature-length adaptation of a short story by the acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami.
Drive My Car tells the story of Yûsuke Kafuku, a stage actor and director who travels from Tokyo to Hiroshima to mount a performance of a play by Anton Chekhov while still in a state of mourning over the sudden death of his enigmatic and adulterous wife. During the director’s stay, the local theater company provides him with a chauffeur — a gruff, somewhat mysterious young woman named Misaki — to ferry him around the city in his cherished red Saab 900, a perk he doesn’t particularly want but can’t refuse. Over the course of their long car rides, a mysterious bond begins to form between the two strangers, opening a path for mutual unburdening and new beginnings.
The finished Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy eventually premiered in competition at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival, becoming a critics’ favorite and winning the event’s Silver Bear audience award. Drive My Car then screened several months later at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, winning three prizes including best screenplay. The latter film is now in the final stretch of a historic Oscars campaign, having surpassed nearly all expectations by earning nominations for best film, best director, best adapted screenplay and best international film — tying Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 feature Ran as the most nominated Japanese film ever.
“I don’t understand how he possibly came up with all the ideas that are in these two films in such a short amount of time,” says Hamaguchi’s now Oscar-nominated producer on Drive My Car, Teruhisa Yamamoto. “Just as a writer, he’s a true genius,” Yamamoto adds. “It’s like he’s a bottomless well of ideas.”
During that first actor-director meeting in Tokyo, Hamaguchi sensed Miura might be perfect to play Drive My Car‘s central female chauffeur. The actress was uncommonly blunt and curt by Japanese standards, but she was also palpably intelligent and thoughtful, giving her a somewhat curious bearing that was precisely how Hamaguchi had imagined his character.
“I started acting when I was 5 years old,” says Miura, now 25. “I think I was hurt at times as a child, or there were times where I wasn’t able to communicate what it was that I wanted to say, and that made me become really careful about how I choose my words,” she explains. “And I think this aspect of me related pretty closely to what director Hamaguchi saw for Misaki.”
The character’s other most important required trait, however, presented problems. In both the original story and Hamaguchi’s script, Misaki compensates for her peculiar reticence with impeccable skill and grace behind the wheel — something Miura couldn’t easily promise. Like nearly 30 percent of all people in Japan, home to arguably the world’s finest public transportation system, Drive My Car‘s would-be driver didn’t know how to drive.
Hamaguchi told the actress the part was hers if she could quickly become competent and comfortable with the manual transmission of a classic car from the 1980s. So, Miura signed up at an intensive full-time driving school, and she was behind the wheel of a Saab 900 Turbo within weeks, with Hamaguchi’s assistant director as her practice passenger.
The director already had overcome other key moments of uncertainty during Drive My Car‘s early phases of development. It was Yamamoto who brought him the idea of adapting a work by Murakami. Although Hamaguchi admired the author and knew his work fairly well, he didn’t consider himself one of Japan’s self-described “Harukists,” the hard-core set of Murakami completists. But Yamamoto was indeed such a super fan. The producer, now 40, had dreamt of big-screen adaptations since becoming infatuated with Murakami’s writing during his high school days. But by this stage in his career — he had produced Hamaguchi’s 2018 Cannes contender Asako I & II and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2020 Venice best director winner Wife of a Spy, as well as the breakthrough Netflix series The Naked Director — Yamamoto was well aware of Murakami’s industry reputation for reclusiveness and reluctance to grant adaptation rights. So, as a matter of strategy, he proposed to Hamaguchi that they target a short story rather than one of the writer’s major novels. (Earlier short story attempts also seemed to have yielded the greatest success onscreen, such as Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s critically acclaimed 2018 feature Burning, and Jun Ichikawa’s well-received 2004 drama Tony Takitani, as opposed to Tran Anh Hùng’s 2010 remaking of Murakami’s best-selling novel Norwegian Wood, an effort that was widely considered a disappointment.)
Yamamoto initially suggested one of Murakami’s earliest short stories (he declines to say which title), but after wrestling with it for some time, Hamaguchi said he felt it wasn’t cinematic enough, and put forward “Drive My Car,” from the 2014 collection Men Without Women, as a promising alternative. As the two began bandying about ideas, they determined that “Drive My Car” alone was too slim a tale to fill out a feature, so they pulled elements from two additional pieces in the same Murakami collection — “Scheherazade” and “Kino.” Hamaguchi also revisited the full Chekhov play that’s mentioned in the story — Uncle Vanya (1898) — and was struck by how timeless and relevant the great Russian’s dialogue was to the pathos of the story he wanted to tell about a unique current of contemporary Japanese loneliness. He decided that he would use more of the original play than the brief mentions in Murakami’s piece, lacing repeated rehearsals of Chekhov’s lines throughout his story, and using the dialogue’s ambiguity as a shifting commentary on his characters’ interior states. He also invited screenwriter Takamasa Oe, who possessed a breadth of experience in the real-life Japanese theater scene, to collaborate on the script, ensuring that their depictions of that world would ring authentic.
Hamaguchi then wrote Murakami a letter dozens of pages long, explaining in detail all his ideas and intentions for the project. He concluded with a request for Murakami’s blessing. The director and his producer then waited nearly six months for a reply.
Many weeks in, Hamaguchi remembers thinking they would probably just have to move on. “I thought, ‘OK, that’s it. I guess we can’t make this film,’ ” he says. But, at last, Murakami’s response arrived. It contained a simple assent with no additional commentary. They could have the rights to the three stories and make their film. (The producer and director have yet to meet or interact with Murakami further, although they learned from interviews in the Japanese press that Murakami went to see the film with his wife upon its release in Tokyo theaters — and apparently he was pleased with it.)
Drive My Car had appealed to Hamaguchi as material for an adaptation for an array of interrelated reasons — some practical, others more intellectual.
Much of his filmmaking is characterized by a penchant for long stretches of dialogue that are both engagingly lifelike and full of swerves and surprises. “Ever since I was in my 20s, when I first started making films, that was the only way I could conceive of making a movie,” he explains. “But this characteristic does have its weaknesses, and I have to look for ways to compensate for it.” With Drive My Car, an appealing visual motif was right there in the title.
“Cinema is about movement,” he continues, “so in a very simple way, once you put your ideas into a mode of transportation — a train, a car — suddenly it’s all more watchable; suddenly there’s the sense of a destination that arises.” Thus, two characters’ subtly evolving conversational dynamic is given cinematic dynamism by a bright red Saab cruising through the Tokyo cityscape and coastal Japanese landscapes.
The story’s circumstances would also allow Hamaguchi to depict a personal thesis he had developed about the unique virtues of long car rides — how they “can encourage you to open up in an interesting way” you might not otherwise. The director first noticed the phenomenon while working on the four documentaries he made in the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, an all-consuming project that involved lengthy drives up and down the far northeast of Japan, interviewing survivors of unspeakable devastation. “When two people are facing each other, there is the potential for a kind of emotional truth to come out, but I think it actually happens very rarely,” he says. “But in the car — with one person in the driver’s seat and another in a passenger’s seat — there’s something to be said about looking away from each other, but both facing the same goal and destination. Together, that allows for a certain kind of honesty to come out in the conversation. People might find they’re able to say things that they would never discuss if they were looking straight at each other.” The idea of Drive My Car‘s two strangers, each struggling with their own trauma and emotional repression, finding the circumstances for connection during long glides down the highway was a scenario that resonated deeply with the director.
The fact that Murakami’s lead character, Kafuku, was a theater director also opened up an avenue for Hamaguchi to explore novel ideas about rehearsal and performance that he had been developing. To an extent, Kafuku serves as Hamaguchi’s avatar. Like the filmmaker, the stage director of the film is a devotee of the “flat-read” rehearsal method, whereby performers affectlessly read the script repeatedly as a group, internalizing its rhythms and dramatic potential. The fictional director, like his creator, also pursues an experimental form of multilingual performance, in which the Chekhov play’s characters are performed by actors of varied ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Each speaks their mother tongue, with the dialogue subtitled in real time for the audience, while the performers themselves are unable to understand one another beyond the sounds of foreign words that become cues for their individual knowledge of the script.
“I first heard about the flat-read while watching the short film The Direction of Actors by Jean Renoir  when I was in film school,” Hamaguchi says. “They show Renoir directing his actors before and after they used this method — and of course it was much better afterward.” Hamaguchi attempted to use the flat-read during rehearsals of his first few films with mixed success; he achieved a breakthrough with his acclaimed five-hour film Happy Hour (2015), which featured all untrained actors speaking enormous amounts of dialogue.
“The question became, how do we get these nonactors to memorize all of this?” Hamaguchi recalls. “So I had them read the script over and over without emotion, because when we read it with ‘acting,’ it could be sort of an intimidating process for nonprofessionals; but by reading it without emotion, they felt much safer, they remembered the lines, and I noticed that their voice started to change as they sort of relaxed into the language. I discovered that this is the key moment when the lines become fully integrated into their body; and that’s when I know I can begin shooting.” Hamaguchi has used the method on all his films since, but with Drive My Car, thanks to its theater director protagonist, he could also place the technique into the film itself as one of its philosophical subjects.
Hamaguchi says he developed his personal take on multilingual theater by happenstance, but he’s used it as a means of taking the lessons of the flat-read one step further. The germ of his approach came to him while he was studying abroad in the United States years ago. The director spoke only a little English at the time and would often find himself in situations where he couldn’t grasp the precise meaning of a discussion, but he noticed that he could nonetheless feel out its emotional import. He had considered exploring this phenomenon further by writing a film about Japanese students abroad in France; but when Drive My Car came to him, he realized he could adapt some of his reflections into an experimental mode of performance. In the same way that the flat-read forces a direct and almost physical relationship with the text, performing opposite speakers of different languages would push the actors even deeper into their own knowledge of the script, while they simultaneously respond to the pure physicality of one another’s performances.
Drive My Car was made with a budget of about $1.3 million, a sizable sum by the standards of Japan’s indie film scene. Yamamoto says a much larger-than-usual chunk was allocated to creating extended rehearsal time, as well as hiring a substantial number of interpreters to assist the film’s various multilingual performers.
This extended approach to rehearsal, which often blurred into the performance itself, dictated a more fluid form of filming as well. Azusa Yamazaki, Drive My Car‘s editor, said that when she began working on the film’s theater sections, they more closely resembled documentary footage than the earlier dramas she had edited for Hamaguchi, including The Depths (2010) and Asako I & II (2018).
“Up until Drive My Car, the filming of his dramas was done with a sort of classic coverage, where they were divided into different kinds of shots and the edit was somewhat predetermined,” she explains. “But in the case of Drive My Car, even though there was a script the actors closely followed, it was shot from all different directions so as not to miss anything in any moment. The impression that I had was that he didn’t know all of what could potentially happen on set — he didn’t know the exact dramatic outcome of every scene in detail — because there was so much freedom and trust for the actors.”
When veteran Japanese leading man Hidetoshi Nishijima signed on to star in Drive My Car, he was excited to collaborate with Hamaguchi, whose work he had long admired from afar, but he also had reservations about his character. In many ways, Kafuku is the archetypal Murakami protagonist, a sophisticated and coolly impassive observer, one who is moved by powerful emotions despite his outward appearance of passivity.
“I felt it was a really difficult role because this main character’s emotions are kept hidden inside the whole time — and the film would be nearly three hours long and he’s in almost every scene,” Nishijima explains. “In Murakami’s story, these attributes were written in a very attractive way, but as a film, I wasn’t sure how the audience’s interest was going to be kept.”
Hamaguchi says it was Nishijima himself who gave him confidence they could pull off the unique vibe of the Murakami leading man. “As a person, Nishijima has a sort of distance where he doesn’t get too emotional in the moment, but he also really does experience his scene partners’ acting, and he fully incorporates everything he’s feeling into his subtle expression in the moment,” Hamaguchi says. “[Nishijima] was always my first choice and I felt that this movie probably wouldn’t work without him.”
Once rehearsals began, the actor was instantly sold on his director’s methods. “It was a wonderful experience,” Nishijima says. “What I think is really beautiful about the play within the film is that it’s a kind metaphor for the artistic process, because there are all of these people with different languages and backgrounds coming together, and they’re able to come to a deeper understanding and have this sort of miracle of an experience together. That’s what happens in the film, and it was also happening on set for us actors.”
Nishijima also points out that Drive My Car is as much a film about an artist getting his creative voice back as it is a meditation on overcoming grief, betrayal and personal failure — and that much of the film’s genius derives from the way Hamaguchi elegantly anneals these processes into one intertwined dramatic sweep.
Hamaguchi has been overwhelmingly courteous about Drive My Car‘s cascade of honors thus far, always crediting the global adoration of Murakami for the breakthrough mainstream success of his finely wrought film.
But his producer, Yamamoto, has additional theories. “With COVID and all the other problems across societies right now, there’s a shared feeling of separation and loss that people are feeling everywhere,” he says. “This is a film about strangers of different ages and backgrounds who come together and manage to find a deep feeling of healing and moving forward, and I think that is what has connected with people’s hearts.”
This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.