Grief Patterns

Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has enjoyed a remarkable year. His film Wheels of Fortune and Fantasy – due out in the UK in 2022 – won the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. And this was swiftly followed by the Drive My Car, an adaptation of the short story by Haruki Murakami which took Best Screenplay in Cannes. Starring Hidetoshi Nishijima as an actor/director staging a new version of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, it’s a moving exploration of grief, stasis, and love as he develops a relationship with his driver, Misaki (Tôko Miura).

ASFF: What was it you liked about the Murakami short story that made you want to adapt it?
I very much liked the characters that are in the story. There’s Kafuku and Misaki, the two protagonists, and [I liked] the fact that they are talking in a moving space, which is a car, and neither of these characters are characters who reveal much about themselves. It’s not that they talk a lot about themselves. In fact, in the original, there’s even a description about how for a month they don’t really talk to each other. But then for one reason or another, they start to talk a little bit more about themselves and they get to know each other and they establish this relationship and Kafuku also as a character is an actor, which is related to ideas that I have often dealt with in my own work. I had read this story about eight years ago for the first time and I remember thinking that this is something that I could be interested in adopting or thinking through.

ASFF: What is it about his car that he’s so attached to? Is it a shell to protect him?
Yes, I think that’s there. And I think that element was there in the original story as well. But in the filmic adaptation, I think that element really increased in a way because the car is also a space…at the beginning of the film, when he couldn’t go back to his house, he ended up staying in the car, and that’s a space of protection in a way. But then also it becomes the one space where he can continue to hear his wife’s voice [via tape recordings]. And Kafuku as a character is very much burdened by this memory, burdened by something, burdened by his ideas of his wife. And he’s unable to move forward. In a way the car becomes a symbol of that.

ASFF: He owns a red Saab 900, which feels very specific. How did you come to that choice?
So, in the original story, it’s actually a yellow convertible car. But I felt that yellow as a shade is too bright to really find a place in the Japanese landscape. Also because there’s a lot of green in the images, I thought that yellow would be hidden and wouldn’t stand out enough.

ASFF: You’ve also released Wheels of Fortune and Fantasy in 2021. Did the two films overlap in production?
RH: These two films did overlap. And that really was because of the pandemic. In 2019, I started working on [anthology drama] Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and I shot the second story first, then the first story, but because Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy was an independently produced film, we thought that we can just shoot the other story whenever we can. And we had laid it to rest for a second. And that was when I moved on to start working on Drive My Car. But after 10 days of shooting Drive My Car – we had shot up to the part before the credits – because of the pandemic, we had to stop production. And so we had to go on an eight-month break because of that. And I felt that eight months is too long of a break. So then I decided to go back into Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and we shot the third story of that during that eight month break. And so basically finished Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy in that time. Then I went back to working on Drive My Car and finished that and so it wasn’t originally planned that they would both end production around the same time but because of circumstances that’s how it ended up being.

ASFF: How did you feel about winning two major prizes in consecutive festivals? That’s almost unheard of!
All I can really say that I’m very grateful for this. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, in my mind, it’s a very small film. It felt like a film that we just made in our neighbourhood. And so we were just surprised to even be invited in competition for a festival, and it was even more of a surprise when we received a prize. Obviously, I’m very happy about receiving these prizes, but at the same time, there’s a part of me that thinks, they didn’t have to be so concentrated around the same time!

Drive My Car opens in cinemas from 19 November. For more details click here.

Words: James Mottram