By IZUMI HASEGAWA, Hollywood News Wire / Special to The Rafu

Before the Q&A, Hamaguchi stopped for a photo shoot. (Photo by Izumi Hasegawa / Hollywood News Wire Inc.)

“Drive My Car” has made history. It is the first Japanese film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best International Feature.

Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi and based on a short story by world-renowned Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, the film has already won numerous awards from the Cannes Film Festival and BAFTA, among others.

I had a chance to talk to Hamaguchi exclusively and get to know who he is.

Izumi Hasegawa: The film won many awards and you have already collected many statues. Now that the film has Academy Award nominations in four categories, what is your feeling now? 

Ryusuke Hamaguchi: I’m just incredibly happy about this, of course. There’s many awards that you speak about, but I think you know, seeing the way the Japanese are reacting to the Academy Awards, that really shows and communicates to me how big of a deal this really is. And I’m very happy for this to be happening to the work that I was a part of.

I’ve watched the other films that are nominated and am just thinking about the fact that our film is among these works. I’m very honored about that. And at the end of the day, I think I’m just really looking forward to what the results will be. Um, I feel almost like a parent watching over the work to see where it will go.

IH: I have watched many films as a film journalist as well as a movie fan, but with your film, I feel your extraordinary talent and intelligence from the screen. “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is the first film I have watched among all of your films, and I was blown away. After I watched the film, I was sure that you would be an international sensation, and my prediction was right [laugh]. I was wondering what kind environment created this talent when you were growing up and what inspired you. 

RH: I was raised in a very normal family, a very ordinary family, and there wasn’t anything really special about how I grew up. And thank you so much for saying these things about my talents and skills. But I think I’ve always been working with the understanding that I don’t have talent, I lacked talent. I felt this since I was in the filmmaking club at university.

I think film at the end of the day is a very visual medium. And I admire people who make films in highly visual ways even in the film club. I felt that there are people who are far more talented than I am visually. But I still knew that I really wanted to make films because I like films. So if I made a film, I thought I could only bring something from the words, and the words the actor is saying.

And I realized that this isn’t a strong toolkit to have as a filmmaker, but I figured this is what I am able to do by trying to grow and refine the things that I’m really capable of doing. So I think this is the result, that I understood what I am not capable of, and I have been trying to grow what I am actually capable of doing.

Kafuku takes on a multilingual theatre production. Production stills © Sideshow and Janus Films

IH: Last year’s best picture, “Nomadland,” and “Drive My Car,” and your documentary film about 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, they are all depicting “loss” and how people deal with it, as well as how they recover from it. “Drive My Car” took place in Hiroshima, where experienced huge loss when the atomic bomb was dropped. The main characters, who have huge loss in their past, met in that place and heal each other without any romantic relationship. I am sure that your talent of direction to portray that emotion moved voting members. Could you talk about your own “loss” experience and the reason you picked this story?

RH: After releasing the film and I actually heard people speak about the film, I realized that this story is, in fact, a story about loss. I wasn’t thinking about what I was making really until I listened to the audiences’ thoughts. Like “Oh, this film is actually about loss.” I haven’t actually experienced huge losses in my life personally. I have experienced loss of my grandparents, but my grandparents really died in their old age. I haven’t experienced any unexpected huge loss.

When I worked on the documentary film about the (2011) earthquake and tsunami, I was working to interview with people who had experienced the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear incident that happened in Tohoku. I encountered people who had just lost a lot, even though that wasn’t my own experience.

What I really realized through the interviews is that these kinds of losses can happen any time to anybody, at any given moment. I realized that nobody was thinking that tomorrow there’s going to be a tsunami. But through the interviews, I realized that I’m not living in this way, where it can always be that tomorrow anything could happen, but that in fact it can happen, and you never know when that’s going to happen.

I think that experience has led to a sort of foundational elements of my thinking today. And so I wasn’t necessarily trying to show this idea of loss through the film, but I do think it’s become one of the guiding lines of my work, in the spine of this work.

IH: Lately, Hollywood has tried to show diversity, but they have not caught up to the real world yet. Among this year’s Academy Award nominees for best picture, there are two films that  have deaf characters. “CODA” and your film. And in the stage production within your film, it seems very challenging. In a near-future world, foreign actors play the characters who speak their own languages on the same stage. Lately, whenever I go to Japan, I am surprised that so many foreigners work in Japan. Japan opened the door to foreign countries about 170 years ago after about two-and-a-half centuries. So Japan is very much a divere world now, but also there is discrimination against foreigners. What did you want to tell the people about diversity through this film?

Taiwanese actress Janice (Sonia Yuan) and Korean actress Yoon-a (Park Yurim) are in the multilingual theatre production.

RH: So personally, I don’t know if I fully understand the term “diversity” and what that actually means. But at the end of the day, I think it is obvious what the reality is, and the truth is that there are many different peoples from different backgrounds, whether that’s race, whether that’s religion, ethnicity, all these things. And that’s just the truth. And that’s the reality.

I think what’s really important is in order to make real diversity, is to ask you if we’re ready to accept that. It’s not always easy, because at the end of the day, we’re saying that everybody is different. And so in order to be able to accept the differences, I think it takes a lot of time. Many conversations are needed to make it happen. And a lot of time needs to be taken in order to get to a place where there is harmony within that diversity.

It’s really about whether people can indeed accept that and be ready to put in that work. And whether I was really thinking about diversity, whether I was aware of the idea of diversity when I was making this scene within the film, that’s a slightly difficult question that I can’t answer.

But I think I did realize that it was a very difficult process that I was doing. It comes with very challenging things. Each person has different ideas on their acting, and they come from different cultures. It means that in order to make this work, we really had to communicate with each other. And I know I’m talking at a much smaller scale here when I’m talking about this theater scene within the film. But doing that was in fact very difficult.

But in order to come to a place where we can really accept this kind of diversity, I think that each of us must do this very challenging process, which is to communicate with each other and invest our time to talk. Otherwise, we are not able to have diversity in reality. I think it takes a lot of time. The important thing is that each of us really has to ask ourselves, are we ready to put in that work?

IH: You’ve already gotten so many phone calls from Hollywood and gotten agents. What is your next project?

RH: To be quite honest, truly nothing has been decided for me in terms of what’s next. I can certainly feel that the situation that surrounds me has changed quite drastically recently, but I’m not entirely sure what to do about that.

Before making the film, I was quite clear about the things that I really wanted to do. But I feel a little bit like my vision is clouded. And so I’m sort of waiting until that really clears and when that clears, I will find what I really want to do, then if that needs a bigger budget in order to make that happen, I think I’d be grateful for some of the opportunities presented by the situation that I’m in right now.

But if it’s also highly possible that I’ll think that a big budget is not necessary to do what I want to do next, and in that case, I think I’ll just keep going as I always have done before.

IH: Thinking about picking up the story “Drive My Car” or other films you have made, do you have any trend or preference for making film? 

RH: In terms of thinking about how I pick my stories, I honestly don’t really know how I go about picking them. It’s really like during the work that I started to learn that “Oh, that’s what I actually wanted to do.” I think personally, I’m a quite reactive person. When something happens to me and then I react to it, then I know myself through my own reactions.

I’m not the kind of person who has these big plans that I work towards. I’m often thrown into a situation and then I find out how I react within that situation and then learn. I am that type of the person. So when adapting Haruki Murakami’s story was suggested to me, my first reaction was that “This isn’t something that I want to do.” And I just kept going down that path thinking that way, and here I am finding myself where I am, and I hope that I can continue down this path.

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“Drive My Car” is in theaters and VOD. A showing was sold out on March 20 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.

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