Haruki Murakami’s beloved books have become the basis for several film adaptations over the years, with varying results. But the latter caused almost unanimous recognition: “I am driving a car” from the writer’s story. It is a rare successful film adaptation that stands firmly in place as a complex film and redefines its director Ryusuke Hamaguchi as a major talent.
The source code for “Drive My Car” is no more than 40 pages long. It’s about a theater actor named Yusuke Kafuku who gets a personal driver and unexpectedly makes a friend, an actor who was one of his late wife’s lovers. Harukami Hamaguchi creates something more grandiose, but no less intimate, based on hilarious reflections on regret and action in a fairy tale: a multi-layered, unpredictable three-hour drama that tends to inspire audiences.
The 42-year-old director has been making films since the 2000s, but he is the first to say how unlikely this movie might sound.
“Basically, I don’t think Murakami’s work is made for adaptation,” said the director thoughtfully at the office of Janus Films, one of the distributors for Drive My Car. He performed in September ahead of the New York Film Festival premiere. “Murakami’s writing is a great expression of inner emotions, and I think that’s why people want to adapt them. But it is really difficult to recreate these inner experiences in the film. “
At one time, Murakami did not even allow adaptation: “It is enough for a book to be a book,” he told The New York Times in 1990. But alongside “Drive My Car,” notable examples are “Burning,” the acclaimed adaptation of Korean author Lee Chang-dong, starring Steven Yun, and “Tony Takitani” and “Norwegian Forest.” Carlos Cuarón, co-writer of Y Tu Mamá También, even directed the short film The Second Attack of the Bakery, starring Kirsten Dunst.
Murakami was surprised when he heard that Hamaguchi’s adaptation (for which he received permission) lasted three hours. So he bought a ticket for Ride a Car at a local theater.
“I was attracted from start to finish,” the writer wrote in an email. “I think that one thing is a remarkable feat.”
The ebullient interpretation of Hamaguchi – the Japanese Oscar nominee for Best International Film – seems to break the Murakami adaptation code. To begin with, the director chose a relatively straightforward plot. Drive My Car lacks the surreal touches that readers might know from, for example, The Hunt for Wild Sheep and The Chronicle of Clockwork Birds.
“He can switch between realistic and fake things in the book,” Hamaguchi said of another work by the author. “But when you put it into a movie, it easily gets a little silly and it’s hard to get viewers to believe it. “I drive a car” is a story in which it remains realistic. “
Murakami’s original follows Yusuke’s conversations with his driver, Misaki (played on-screen by Toko Miura), a low-key young woman who gradually warms up. Misaki doesn’t mind when Yusuke plays the lines with the cassette player in the car. He tells her how he banished his new actor friend out of revenge for his wife’s betrayal. His wife, in turn, remains only a memory in history.
Hamaguchi’s version shuffles and expands the chronology of the story. Yusuke’s wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), is still alive, and we will start by observing her and Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima). She is a popular writer for television, and the couple has a ritual: she tells him stories when they have sex, and later they develop plots together.
It’s a seductive vanity that actually stems from another Hamaguchi story, Scheherazade (which, like Riding a Car, is part of Men Without Women). Hamaguchi’s opening scene is a moment of calm between Yusuke and Oto at home, where Oto is initially enigmatic in a twilight silhouette.
The scene provides a romantic contrast to Murakami’s opening: Yusuke’s monologue about different female drivers. Hamaguchi attributes the idea to his co-author Takamasa Oe.
“I wanted to emphasize the centrality of Oto in storytelling,” Oe wrote in an email. “Her voice and her ghostly presence have always been the key to the story.”
The film remains faithful to Oto’s death, but then Hamaguchi builds the original mention of “Uncle Vanya” into a central storyline. Yusuke is invited to stage a production at the Hiroshima Theater Festival. Its international lineup includes a hot (and hot) young man named Koshi (Masaki Okada), who had an affair with his wife Yusuke (like the actor in the story).
The actors in Yusuke’s play speak their lines in different languages - an idea that arose in part from Hamaguchi’s experience when he attended English classes in the United States with other foreign guests. In the film, Hamaguchi takes a particular interest in the fluid energy of rehearsals.
“I think there are more mistakes during the rehearsal. You can feel more vividly what is happening. And this is actually a creative process, ”said Hamaguchi. “I think it might be more interesting than the improved or final version.”
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Hamaguchi gives Yusuke one of his filmmaking habits: reading the script very carefully before filming. Yusuke’s intense preparations add another dimension to Hamaguchi’s play of emotions. In “Uncle Vanya” Sonya’s line “What to do? We have to live our lives, ”resonates deeply when Yusuke establishes a bond with Misaki, which becomes the emotional anchor of the film.
Editing a Chekhov production may seem like a significant departure from Harukami’s self-contained history, but for the author it’s all fair.
“When my work is adapted, I want the plot and dialogue to change freely,” Murakami wrote in an email. “There is a big difference between how a piece of literature develops and how a film develops.”
For this reason, the writer also has a preference for “Burning,” which is very different from his 1983 short story “Burning a Barn” and carries over to the action.
“By changing the setting from Japan to South Korea, I felt like a mysterious new reality was born. I want to appreciate these “gaps” or differences, ”added Murakami. (With one possible exception in Driving a Car: “I was imagining an old Saab convertible, so when I saw a Saab with a roof in the movie, I felt a little uneasy at first. But I got used to it very quickly.”)
In a sense, Hamaguchi’s stage conceit remains true to the sense of embedded realities in Murakami’s work. This is reminiscent of Cuarón’s characterization of his adaptation of The Second Attack of the Bakery. In an email, Cuarón said that he shared with Murakami’s other work a sense of “a parallel universe that belongs to fantasy or the protagonist’s inner experience and is almost impossible to adapt.”
Murakami’s adaptation can seem even more intimidating when the author describes his works as a kind of private filmmaking: “Can I imagine scenes playing out in my head as I write? Of course. In fact, for me it is one of the joys of writing fiction – I make my own film, made especially for myself, ”he wrote in an email.
But Hamaguchi knows enough not to idealize his source. He is more faithful to what he felt when he read Drive My Car.
“I had to think about how I got this story,” he said. “My emotional experience was that I wanted to convey as much as possible to the audience of the film. It was behind my thoughts on making the film. “
“Drive My Car” complements Hamaguchi’s already impressive filmography, who studied under the master of mood, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Five-Hour Happy Hour (2016), Hamaguchi’s first film to hit festivals, follows the lives of four women. In the romantic melodrama Asako I and II (2019), a woman falls in love with a double of the old flame. Hamaguchi also directed The Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and wrote the screenplay for Kurosawa’s The Spy’s Wife, both released here this year.
Hamaguchi seems intent on expanding this creativity by keeping a close eye on these inner feelings.
“I’m actually thinking about the secret hidden inside any person,” he said. “So if a character can give that sense of mystery, then the character no longer feels unreal. They begin to really exist. If the character can somehow make you feel this mystery, for me that’s the essence of working with fiction. “