Japanese road movie crowned at Cannes pulls in to French cinemas

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Drive My Car, winner of the Best Screenplay award at the 2021 Cannes film festival, has just opened in French cinemas. Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s unusual and poetic road movie, peppered with literary references, takes the main characters on an inward journey which addresses grief, love and the creative process. RFI met with the director during his stay on the Croisette in July.

Lead character Yusuke Kakufu played by Hidetoshi Nishijima is a stage actor and director in his 40s who accepts a job in Hiroshima at a theatre festival.

He is clearly attempting to rebuild his life after the sudden death two years earlier of his beloved wife Oto, played by Reika Kirishima, who happened to be a screenwriter. He is also trying to come to terms with his wife’s secret affairs, one with a young actor who gets tangled up in the story.

When Kafuku arrives at the arts centre in Hiroshima, he discovers he has been allocated a chauffeur to drive him around in his own cherished vintage car, a bright red Saab 900. He is uncomfortable with this, but the organisers insist it’s for his safety.

On top of that, he’s to be driven by a young woman called Misaki, played by Toko Miura, who is taciturn and distant. Admitting that she is extremely efficient at her job, he gradually accepts the situation and overcomes his reticence.

Long winding road

This not a film for those expecting thrills and adventure. The action is a based on a melancholy and mysterious inward journey, taking place within the cosy confines of the car, which provides the perfect sheltered space for a man to deal with his painful past.

His road trip is a cathartic experience, which in turn liberates Misaki from her own personal burden.

Throughout the film, there are references to writers past and present, and the process of writing, clearly a sacred stage of the filmmaking process for Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who both directed and co-wrote the screenplay.

Not only is it an adaptation of a short story by world-renowned novelist Haruki Murakami, originally called Men without Women (2014), it incorporates dialogue from the Russian writer Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, a work Kafuku knows by heart, and which he is staging in Hiroshima.

Kafuku is also a deliberate Japanese twist to the name of writer Franz Kafka, Hamaguchi says, yet another reference to Murakami who wrote a novel called Kafka on the Shore published in 2002.

Hamaguchi openly admits he loved Murakami’s characters so much he decided to spend three hours telling their story. Although the result is a little longwinded and sometimes repetitive, the director insists this was a necessary process to allow the characters to reveal themselves “in a natural way”.

Hope at the end of the journey

“When I adapted his short novel into a movie, of course I had to make some changes, but I believe all of these changes were made with respect for Murakami’s work,” he told RFI after the premiere in Cannes.

“There is always the same method in his long novels, where there are a lot of layers in one universe. There is also finding hope at the end of a long journey, and this is the part I really wanted to honour in the movie.”

The role given to language and universal expression through drama is poignant. There is a magical quality to the fact that the play Kafuku is rehearsing is staged by actors from different nationalities who perform their lines in their native languages (including Korean, Japanese, English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and even sign language) with subtitles appearing on the stage.

It is Hamaguchi’s second time at the Cannes film festival; his film Asako I & II was selected for the competition in 2018. At only 42, he is regarded as the new figurehead of Japanese cinema, having won prizes at several prestigious European film festivals.

He wrote the screenplay for Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, which won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2020.

His Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at Berlin in 2021 and is to be released in France later this year.

Drive my Car, co-written with Takamasa Oe won him best screen play at Cannes 2021. It was released in France on 18 August.

Who else won prizes at Cannes? Find out here

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