The film’s success will change the Japanese film industry – The Hollywood Reporter
If there was a starting point for drive my carThe journey to the 2022 Oscars was in 2020, when producer Teruhisa Yamamoto made the surprising suggestion to director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi to adapt a short story by world-renowned author Haruki Murakami. The novelist was known to be extremely reluctant to grant adaptation rights, and his stories and his voice were considered particularly difficult to bring to the screen. “It’s not something I would have ever considered, but Yamamoto said he thought the results might be interesting if I tried,” Hamaguchi says.
Like his director, the 40-year-old producer’s career has grown steadily back home in Japan, but drive my carThe stunt of honors – three awards at Cannes, best picture from the three major American critic groups, a Golden Globe for best foreign language film and four Oscar nominations, for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and Best International Film – have raised its profile to a higher international level.
Yamamoto began his career in a junior role at Japan’s largest film studio, Toho, the historic home of Akira Kurosawa and Godzilla; but he left the company at the age of 30, fearing he was about to find himself trapped in middle management. He then joined independent production company C&I Entertainment, where he was able to move on to the role of producer, working mainly on television projects, including the Netflix original Japanese series, The naked director. “My plan was to get people I liked working with together and create my own team to start making my own movies,” he says. One of the people Yamamoto liked the idea of working with was Hamaguchi, whose graduate thesis film, Passion (2008), seduced him. The couple first collaborated on Hamaguchi’s Cannes contestant in 2018 Asako I & II and they have continued together ever since, with Yamamoto also producing veteran Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s award-winning period thriller, wife of a spy (2020), which Hamaguchi co-authored. Early last year, Yamamoto joined Disney as a producer on the Tokyo-based content team.
THR connected with Yamamoto in Tokyo to discuss his creative connection with Hamaguchi, drive my carthe development process of and how he fits into the Oscar nominee role.
How did you meet Hamaguchi?
I met him 10 years ago. I was looking for a director who I thought was really talented but who was around the same age as me. he had just left Passion, his thesis film from Tokyo University of the Arts. I was very moved by this film and found it unique among contemporary Japanese films. I contacted him and we totally got along. We both had a lot of passion for finding a way to make great movies.
I understand that it was you who suggested to Hamaguchi to adapt a story by Haruki Murakami. What made you feel they would be a good creative match?
So, first of all, I really, really like Haruki Murakami’s work. Here in Japan, we call super fans of Murakami “Harukists”, and I would describe myself as an avid Harukist. I’ve thought a lot about how to make a film based on Murakami’s work since I was a teenager. I wanted to do it myself, but when I met Hamaguchi – and I got a sense of his cinematic style, his worldview and the way he understands the story – I felt that there were some interesting similarities to the worldview expressed by Murakami. In Hamaguchi’s past indie films, he’s often depicted how many things in life and relationships can suddenly fall apart or drastically change in very quick moments. It’s something that’s close to a lot of Murakami stories. But there are also interesting tonal differences between the two, and Murakami’s work often deals with themes of life and death, which Hamaguchi had not done except in his documentary work. So I thought it might be a new opportunity for Hamaguchi’s filmmaking, but I also thought Murakami’s flavor might work well with his style. Many Hamaguchi fans in Japan commented how drive my car doesn’t really look like any of his movies, in a way – and I think that’s the Murakami element. He kind of reached a new style with this movie.
Many people think that Murakami’s work is particularly difficult to adapt to the screen, because the unique mood of his writing is so tied to the inner experience of his protagonists.
Murakami’s worldview is definitely very difficult to portray in a movie. When director Hamaguchi and I discussed it, we agreed that we shouldn’t try to replicate his story directly. … We decided to explore the heart of the story, so that we really understood what was being said beyond the decorative aspects of the writing, capturing that flawless story behind all the stylistic choices. But we also agreed to keep the main character’s unique sensibility and characteristics – that flavor of Murakami. Doing these two things may seem a bit counterintuitive. It really felt like a process of digging deeper and deeper wells into the earth until we got to that Murakami water source somewhere. There was a lot of expansion to be done, as the original short story is quite short. There was a lot of freedom and fun in doing this, but the question we kept in mind was “Does this keep Murakami’s worldview intact?”
I heard you tried to get permission to use the original Beatles song “Drive My Car” but it didn’t work out. What’s the story there?
Well, we haven’t decided to license the song. It’s true that we thought about it, but I heard Tran Anh Hùng, the director of [the 2010 Murakami adaptation] norwegian forest what they paid for that Beatles song and I was like, ‘Well, that’s not going to be possible for us.’ (Laughs.)
It’s fun to think about what that would have been like. How would you have used it if you could? It’s such an upbeat tune and the film is so meditative.
One idea was to use it on the ride that Misaki and Kafuku are doing in Hokkaido. Another idea was to potentially play it during the end credits. But yeah, it was a little… I don’t know how to put it. I probably would have felt embarrassed about it. (Laughs) It’s such a fun and famous song. The movie is called “Drive My Car” and the lyrics actually say “drive my car” over and over. It probably wouldn’t have seemed quite right.
What effect do you think drive my carwill have on the Japanese film industry? During the post-war decades, Japanese cinema was so innovative and influential, but in recent years it has lost some of that reach. Industry players often blame a variety of factors: the market power and risk aversion of major Japanese studios and talent agencies, lack of government support, limited funding from the indie scene, reliance on manga adaptations, etc way to ask, how are you drive my carsuccess spills over here?
I think it will change the industry. It is our responsibility as Japanese filmmakers to change things. In a way, you can compare the Japanese industry to the Galapagos in that we usually rely on our own domestic audience to recoup the entire budget for a film; as a result, our films have evolved in a way that only suits protected local tastes. And a lot of Japanese filmmakers don’t really know how to make great movies, but they still succeed. It looks like I despise them, but I don’t. They’re just part of that general consensus that adapting a hit manga with famous faces and quickly turning it into a movie is a great way to go. Making interesting films in Japan today is really difficult, because there’s not a lot of funding and people don’t usually try a lot of new things. We have to change our mindset to create films that can be released worldwide to be successful.
What were your expectations for awards season and how do you feel now about all the nominations, especially Best Picture?
I just can’t believe it. I was hoping that maybe we would get a nomination for best international film. Like, how good would that be? But just hearing you ask that question now… I feel a lot of pressure. I will do my best to express my gratitude.
You still haven’t met Murakami — you’ve only been able to correspond with him briefly, by letter, to get the adaptation rights. He’s notoriously reclusive, but now that you’ve made his story world-famous, you might finally be able to win an audience with him.
It would be amazing to meet Murakami. As a fan, I wouldn’t want to take the time from his writing to sit down with us – that would be my biggest concern. But if I were to meet him, I would express my deepest gratitude to him for all the incredible stories he shared with us. Chatting with Murakami over a good tea – that would be a dream come true for me.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a March issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.