Haruki Murakami’s beloved books have been the basis of several big screen adaptations over the years, with varying results. But the latest has been acclaimed almost unanimously: “Drive My Car”, according to a short story from the writer. It’s the rare successful adaptation that stands out firmly as a sophisticated film, and it sheds new light on its director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, as a major talent.
The source for “Drive My Car” is no more than 40 pages long. It’s about a stage actor named Yusuke Kafuku, who gets a personal driver and makes an unexpected friend, an actor who was one of his late wife’s lovers. From Harukami’s ambiguous tale reflections of regret and performance, Hamaguchi pulls out something bigger but no less intimate: a multi-layered, unpredictable three-hour drama that tends to invigorate viewers.
The 42-year-old director has been making films since the 2000s, but he’s the first to say how unlikely this one can seem.
“Basically, I don’t think Murakami’s works are made for adaptation,” the director said thoughtfully in the offices of Janus Films, one of the distributors of “Drive My Car”. He was speaking in September before his premiere at the New York Film Festival. “Murakami’s writing is wonderful for expressing inner emotions, and I think that’s why people want to adapt them. But it’s really hard to recreate those inner feelings in a movie.
Once upon a time, Murakami wouldn’t even allow adaptations: “A book just has to be a book,” he told the New York Times in 1990. But with “Drive My Car,” notable examples include “Burning,” an acclaimed adaptation by Korean author Lee Chang-dong with Steven Yeun, as well as “Tony Takitani” and “Norwegian Wood”. Carlos Cuarón, the co-writer of “Y Tu Mamá También”, even directed a short film of “The Second Bakery Attack”, with Kirsten Dunst.
Murakami was surprised when he heard that Hamaguchi’s adaptation (who had his permission) was three hours long. So he bought a ticket to see “Drive My Car” at a local theater.
“I was drawn from start to finish,” the writer said in an email. “I think that alone is a wonderful achievement.”
The simmering take on Hamaguchi – the Japanese Oscar nominee for Best International Feature – seems to crack the code by adapting Murakami. To start, the director chose a relatively simple story. “Drive My Car” lacks the surreal touches readers might experience in the novelist’s “A Wild Sheep Chase” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”, for example.
“He is able to go back and forth between realistic things and things that are not real in a book,” Hamaguchi said of the author’s other work. “But when you put that in the movie, it’s easy for it to get a little silly and hard to make the audience believe. “Drive My Car” was a story where it stayed in the realm of realism. “
Murakami’s original followed Yusuke’s conversations with his driver, Misaki (played onscreen by Toko Miura), a reserved young woman who gradually warms up. Misaki doesn’t mind when Yusuke lines up with the help of the car’s cassette player. He tells her how he ghosted his new actor friend to get revenge for his wife’s infidelity. His wife in turn is only a memory in history.
Hamaguchi’s version mixes up and expands the timeline of the story. Yusuke’s wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), is still alive, and we start by observing her and Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima). She’s a popular TV writer, and the couple have a ritual: she tells him stories when they have sex, and later they work out the plots together.
It’s a seductive vanity and actually comes from another Hamaguchi story, “Scheherazade” (which, like “Drive My Car”, is part of the “Men Without Women” collection). Hamaguchi’s opening scene is a moment of appeasement between Yusuke and Oto at home, with Oto first mysterious in a twilight figure.
The scene is a romantic contrast to the opening of Murakami: Yusuke monologue about different types of female drivers. Hamaguchi attributes the idea to his co-author, Takamasa Oe.
“I wanted to emphasize the centrality of Oto in the narrative,” Oe wrote in an email. “His voice and ghostly presence were always going to be the key to the story.”
The film stays true to Oto’s death, but Hamaguchi then builds a mention of “Uncle Vanya” in the original in a central story. Yusuke is invited to stage the play for a theater festival in Hiroshima. Its international cast includes a young hotshot (and hothead) named Koshi (Masaki Okada), who had an affair with Yusuke’s wife (as the actor in the short story).
The actors in Yusuke’s play speak their lines in different languages - an idea that comes in part from Hamaguchi’s experiences taking an English class in the United States with other foreign visitors. In the film, Hamaguchi is particularly interested in the changing energies of rehearsals.
“I think that with repetition there are more mistakes. You can feel what is happening more keenly. And that’s actually the creative process, ”Hamaguchi said. “I think it might be more interesting than the perfected or final version.”
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Hamaguchi gives Yusuke one of his own habits as a filmmaker: very extensive tabletop readings of the script before filming. Yusuke’s intensive preparations add another dimension to Hamaguchi’s interplay of emotions. In “Uncle Vanya”, Sonya’s line “What can we do? We have to live our lives ”takes on a deep resonance as Yusuke connects with Misaki who becomes the film’s emotional anchor.
Putting together a Chekhov production may seem like a big departure from Harukami’s standalone story, but that’s quite normal for the author.
“When my work is adapted, my wish is that the plot and dialogue be changed freely,” Murakami wrote in the email. “There is a big difference between the way a piece of literature develops and the way a film develops. “
For this reason, the writer also favors “Burning,” which deviates generously from his 1983 short story “Barn Burning” and shifts the action.
“Changing the scenery from Japan to South Korea, I felt like a mysterious new reality was born. I want to warmly commend those kinds of ‘gaps’ or differences,” added Murakami. one exception in “Drive My Car”: “I had imagined an old Saab convertible so when I saw the Saab with a roof appear in the movie, I felt a little embarrassed at first. got used to it very quickly. “)
In a way, Hamaguchi’s scenic vanity remains true to the sense of the nested realities in Murakami’s work. This is reminiscent of Cuarón’s characterization of the story he adapted, “The second attack on the bakery”. In an email, Cuarón said that he shared with other works by Murakami the sense of “a parallel universe, which belongs to the fantasy or inner experience of the main character and is almost impossible to adapt” .
Adapting Murakami can seem even more intimidating when the author describes his writing as a kind of private cinema: “Do I imagine the scenes are playing out in my head as I write? Sure. In fact, for me that’s one of the joys of writing fiction – I make my own movie just for myself, ”he wrote in the email.
But Hamaguchi knows enough to avoid idealizing his source. It is more faithful to what “Drive My Car” made him feel when he read it.
“I had to think about how I received the news,” he said. “My emotional experience was something that I wanted to convey to viewers of the film as much as possible. It was behind my thinking about the construction of the film.
“Drive My Car” joins an already impressive filmography for Hamaguchi, who studied under a mood master, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Five o’clock “Happy Hour” (2016), Hamaguchi’s first film to make waves at festivals, chronicled the lives of four women. In the romantic melodrama “Asako I and II” (2019), a woman falls in love with an old flame lookalike. Hamaguchi also directed “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” and wrote the screenplay for Kurosawa’s “Wife of a Spy,” both released here this year.
Hamaguchi seems ready to expand this work, keeping a close eye on these inner feelings.
“What I really think about is the mystery that is inside every human being,” he said. “So if a character is able to convey that sense of mystery, that’s when they don’t feel unreal anymore. They are really starting to exist. If the character can make you feel this mystery in one way or another, that’s the heart of working with fiction for me. “