Ryusuke Hamaguchi on Delivering the Definitive Double Feature of 2021 with “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” and “Drive My Car”

Among the many unpredictable qualities of a Ryusuke Hamaguchi film, the form they take have become one of the most distinguishing, with his international breakthrough “Happy Hour” running a shade over five hours just after he made the 38-minute short “Heaven is Still Far Away,” and his most recent “Drive My Car” takes a slender Haruki Murakami short story and turns it into a majestic three-hour drama while he simultaneously created the omnibus “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” comprised of three segments that run a total of two hours. At this point, few look up the length of one of Hamaguchi’s films before going in, knowing that any time with the writer/director is well-spent, but as someone so attuned the rhythm of life in his work, it comes as a surprise that when the filmmaker would seem to be open to letting the story take shape as he’s writing, he knows its exact parameters from the start.

“I do start with a certain kind of framework or structure when I first start writing, otherwise it would be difficult for me to start,” Hamaguchi said during a recent stop at the New York Film Festival. “But once I do begin writing, the dialogue that I end up writing teaches me a lot about the characters and as I gather more information about the characters, I find the story can change.”

As it would happen, the narrative would take twists and turns that Hamaguchi couldn’t have predicted as he went about making what would become two of 2021’s finest films, having to halt production on “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” when the COVID outbreak first began and turning his attention to “Drive My Car” when it was safe to start filming again before returning to shoot the third chapter of “Fortune and Fantasy.” The films aren’t explicitly linked to each other in any way other than their overlapping shoots, yet when watched in tandem, they illuminate the filmmaker’s tremendous gifts and preoccupations, namely with the relentless passage of time and what people hold onto, whether it be memories or beliefs or hopes, that either propel them or hold them back from moving on.

In “Drive My Car,” the director is drawn to the tale of Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a stage director who seizes the opportunity of a two-month residency staging “Uncle Vanya” in a small town two years after losing his wife, an event that inspires equal parts anguish and ambivalence when he knew she was having an affair. Working with a collection of actors speaking a variety of languages – from English derived from time in Taiwan to Korean sign language, Yusuke is tasked to get everyone on the same page, yet deals with feeling out of sync himself, initially put off by the theater company’s insistence on employer a driver (Toko Miura) for him when he uses the time in his humble red Saab to run lines yet gradually coming to find he can confide in the stranger transporting him from place to place in a way he can’t with anyone else.

Unanticipated connections are also what give such vitality to “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” which unfolds as a trio of scenarios involving women all feeling a bit neglected in their lives latching onto a moment in which they feel as if they have the upper hand and finding perhaps they do, but not in the way they could imagine. Whether it is in “Magic (Or Something Less Assuring),” when a fashion assistant named Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) meets her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend Tsugumi (Reika Kirishima), who is unaware of their connection as she waxes on about him on a car ride home, “Door Wide Open,” where a woman poses as a fan of an author, urged on by a boyfriend who was once shamed by him, to attempt to strip him of his tenured professorship by putting him in a compromising position, or “Once Again,” in which it seems two friends from high school have reunited, only to learn there may be some mistaken identity, the detour from the desired outcome is always a mere roadblock towards some greater destination, taking the characters places that can only make them smile at what’s been brought about by happenstance and delivering to audiences stories that are gripping in building in the small surprises of life that happen every day.

With “Drive My Car” recently selected as Japan’s official entry to the Oscars and released side-by-side this fall with “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” which premiered earlier this year at Berlinale, Hamaguchi, with the assistance of a translator, generously shared a few details about the making of these two films and his process in general, making human-scale dramas at an epic scope and how his work in nonfiction has shaped his thinking about crafting dramas.

There’s always forward momentum in your work, no matter whether characters remain psychologically stuck in the past, and you seem to take this idea head-on in one of my favorite scenes in “Wheel of Fantasy and Fortune” during its first segment, “Magic or Something Less Assuring,” where Meiko’s mind drifts off during an encounter in the restaurant, and where another filmmaker might create some distance between worlds or time frames, you stay in the present moment with a well-timed zoom. When so many of your films deal with the past or imagination, is it challenging to find ways to stay in the moment?

I really wanted to give myself a challenge to have many time axies exist within one frame in that scene, and it was important for me to have that all in one take. I thought it would cause some kind of confusion but also make that scene really interesting and intriguing and a lot of people ask me about the use of zoom in that particular scene, but actually I chose to use it in there because that’s what allows me to keep it all within one take, so by zooming in, the frame closes in on the characters and through that, the actors can then move outside of the frame, so I was able to really do this thing where two time axises were existing in the same shot.

The other idea as it applies to time is how there are these intergenerational dialogues in your films where you can see where different attitudes of characters of different ages can collide in conversation. Is that of more interest these days?

Regarding “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” and this is a coincidence that I happened to depict a female character in their twenties, thirties and forties and ended up with depicting a wide generation of characters, but I am interested in having that width of generations because it allows it to open up the stories from very closed in. I also think it’s a harder thing to do to be able to depict a wider swath of generations and I think that challenge is worth doing.

Something that struck me watching these two films close together was how in “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” one of my favorite lines is when Tsugumi says, “I’m caressed by the conversation,” which could almost literally describe the opening scene in “Drive My Car” where Yusuke’s wife is aroused by inspiration for her work as a playwright. Is the idea that words can be more intimate than a physical exchange something of ongoing interest?

It really relates to the fact that it’s a true sensibility that I have personally and if you’ve seen some of my earlier films too, you’ve seen I am working through some of these themes. I do have this sense through living that words have this characteristic, this ability to be almost closer and more physical than actual touching. I’ve felt that throughout my life and that’s a really precious idea to me. Words are really precious to me, so it’s something I think about.

You’ve said that it was conducting interviews inside of cars for your documentaries about life in the wake of the Tokoku earthquake that helped you realize the intimacy of conversations that can happen there for “Drive My Car.” Did your time in nonfiction actually inform your narrative work in other ways?

Making these Tohoku documentaries, it was a trilogy, but there was one that depicted a folk tale storyteller called “Storytelling” and that really did change the way I think about stories. The documentary followed Kazuko Ono, who is an oral storyteller who taught me that oral storytelling encapsulates reality, even though it might seem confusing at first and often a lot of stories have a reality that was somehow unrealized and those unrealized realities are hidden in the background of these stories. She also told me that oral storytelling encapsulates a sort of truth that is inside them, so I had this experience of understanding the relationship between storytelling and reality and how they’re closely tied and linked with each other.

Your process is said to involve getting the actors to memorize the script in such a deep way it becomes subconscious for them. Are there things you learn about the story from watching them rehearse?

In the process of doing readings, I am checking to see how easy it is for the actors to be saying the dialogue, so when I find them struggling to say some of this dialogue, I often change that dialogue to make it easier for them. And if we’re talking about a truth that does appear, I think it’s the truth of something about the actor that is appearing through the process. When we have the dialogue that is right for the actor, it’s because the actor and the character are much more connected and what we’re learning is something about that actor, so even though through these truths, I’m not really necessarily changing anything about the story, there is a change in terms of that truth that appears.

Because of the timing imposed by COVID, was it interesting moving back and forth between these two films?

Yes, I do feel these two films really did influence one another and in a real sense, the production times overlapped because I had shot the first two stories of “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” before we went into production on “Drive My Car,” but then “Drive My Car” had to stop production and so then we shot the last story of “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.” Then I went back again to “Drive My Car,” so even though the contents of the films are quite different, I regard them as twins.

“Drive My Car” is now playing theatrically in New York at the Elinor Bunin Film Center at Lincoln Center and Film Forum and opens on December 3rd in Los Angeles at the Nuart and in Montclair at the Clairidge before expanding on December 10th. A full list of theaters is here.

“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is now available everywhere via virtual cinemas and will open theatrically on December 10th at the Jacob Burns Film Center in New York and the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville. A full list of theaters is here.