Haruki Murakami’s well-loved books have been the basis for several big-screen adaptations over the years, with variable results. But the latest has attracted nearly unanimous acclaim: “Drive My Car,” from a short story by the writer. It’s the rare successful adaptation that stands firmly on its own as a sophisticated film, and it puts a fresh spotlight on its director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, as a major talent.
The source for “Drive My Car” runs no more than 40 pages. It’s about a theater actor named Yusuke Kafuku, who gets a personal driver and makes an unexpected friend, an actor who was one of his late wife’s lovers. Out of the Harukami tale’s ambling reflections on regret and performance, Hamaguchi spins something grander yet no less intimate: a multilayered, unpredictable three-hour drama that tends to leave viewers reinvigorated.
The 42-year-old director has been making films since the 2000s, but he’s the first to say how unlikely this one might seem.
“Fundamentally, I don’t think that Murakami’s works are made for adaptation,” the director said with a thoughtful air at the offices of Janus Films, one of the distributors of “Drive My Car.” He was speaking in September ahead of its New York Film Festival premiere. “Murakami’s writing is wonderful at expressing inner emotions, and I think that’s why people want to adapt them. But it’s really difficult to re-create those inner feelings in film.”
Once upon a time, Murakami didn’t even allow adaptations: “It’s enough for a book to be a book,” he told The New York Times in 1990. But along with “Drive My Car,” notable examples include “Burning,” an acclaimed adaptation by the Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong that co-starred Steven Yeun, as well as “Tony Takitani” and “Norwegian Wood.” Carlos Cuarón, the co-screenwriter of “Y Tu Mamá También,” even made a short film of “The Second Bakery Attack,” starring Kirsten Dunst.
Murakami was surprised when he heard that Hamaguchi’s adaptation (which had his permission) was three hours long. So he bought a ticket to see “Drive My Car” at a local theater.
“I was drawn in from beginning to end,” the writer said in an email. “I think that this alone is a wonderful feat.”
Hamaguchi’s simmering interpretation — Japan’s candidate for the Academy Award for best international feature — seems to crack the code in adapting Murakami. For starters, the director chose a relatively straightforward story. “Drive My Car” lacks the surreal touches that readers might know from the novelist’s “A Wild Sheep Chase” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” for example.
“He is able to go back and forth between things that are realistic and things that are not real in a book,” Hamaguchi said of the author’s other work. “But when you put that in the film, it’s easy for that to become a little silly and hard to make the audience believe in it. ‘Drive My Car’ was one story where it remained in the realistic realm.”
Murakami’s original followed Yusuke’s conversations with his driver, Misaki (played onscreen by Toko Miura), a reserved younger woman who gradually warms up. Misaki doesn’t mind when Yusuke runs lines with the help of the car’s cassette player. He tells her how he ghosted his new actor friend out of vengeance over his wife’s infidelity. His wife in turn remains just a memory in the story.
Hamaguchi’s version shuffles and expands the story’s timeline. Yusuke’s wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), is still alive, and we begin by observing her and Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima). She’s a popular writer for television, and the couple have a ritual: She tells him stories when they have sex, and later they elaborate on the plots together.
It’s a beguiling conceit and actually comes from another Hamaguchi story, “Scheherazade” (which, like “Drive My Car,” is part of the collection “Men Without Women”). Hamaguchi’s opening scene is a becalmed moment between Yusuke and Oto at home, with Oto at first mysterious in a twilit silhouette.
The scene is a romantic contrast to Murakami’s opening: Yusuke monologuing about different kinds of female drivers. Hamaguchi attributes the idea to his co-writer, Takamasa Oe.
“I wanted to emphasize Oto’s centrality to the narrative,” Oe wrote in an email. “Her voice and her ghostly presence were always going to be the key to the story.”
The film does stay faithful to Oto’s death, but Hamaguchi then builds out a mention of “Uncle Vanya” in the original into a central story line. Yusuke is invited to direct the play for a theater festival in Hiroshima. His international cast includes a young hotshot (and hothead) named Koshi (Masaki Okada), who had an affair with Yusuke’s wife (like the actor in the short story).
The actors in Yusuke’s play speak their lines in different languages — an idea that partly came from Hamaguchi’s experiences taking an English-language class in the United States with other foreign visitors. In the film, Hamaguchi takes particular interest in the rehearsals’ shifting energies.
“I think in the rehearsal, there are more mistakes. You can feel more vividly what is happening. And this is actually the creative process,” Hamaguchi said. “I think maybe this is more interesting than the perfected or final version.”
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Hamaguchi gives Yusuke one of his own habits as a filmmaker: very thorough table readings of the screenplay before shooting. Yusuke’s intensive preparations add another dimension to Hamaguchi’s interplay of emotions. In “Uncle Vanya,” Sonya’s line “What can we do? We must live out our lives” takes on a deep resonance as Yusuke strikes up the bond with Misaki that becomes the film’s emotional anchor.
Mounting a Chekhov production might seem a significant departure from Harukami’s self-contained story, but it’s all fair game to the author.
“When my work is adapted, my wish is for the plot and dialogue to be changed freely,” Murakami wrote in the email. “There is a big difference between the way a piece of literature develops and how a film develops.”
For that reason, the writer also favors “Burning,” which liberally departs from his 1983 short story “Barn Burning” and relocates the action.
“By changing the setting from Japan to South Korea, it felt like a new mysterious reality was born. I want to highly commend these kinds of ‘gaps’ or differences,” Murakami added. (With one possible exception in “Drive My Car”: “I had been imagining an old Saab convertible so when I saw the Saab with a roof appear in the movie, I felt a little bothered at first. But I got used to it very quickly.”)
In a way, Hamaguchi’s stage conceit stays faithful to the sense of nested realities in Murakami’s work. It brings to mind Cuarón’s characterization of the story he adapted, “The Second Bakery Attack.” In an email, Cuarón said it shared with other Murakami work the sense of “a parallel universe, which belongs to fantasy or to the main character’s inner experience and is almost impossible to adapt.”
Adapting Murakami can sound only more daunting when the author describes his writing as a kind of private moviemaking: “Do I imagine the scenes play out in my head while I write? Of course. In fact, for me, that is one of the joys of writing fiction — I’m making my own film made just for myself,” he wrote in the email.
But Hamaguchi knows enough to avoid idealizing his source. He’s more faithful to how “Drive My Car” made him feel when he read it.
“I had to think about how I had received the short story,” he said. “My emotional experience was something I wanted to convey to the viewers of the film as much as possible. That was behind my thinking of the construction of the movie.”
“Drive My Car” joins an already impressive filmography for Hamaguchi, who studied under a master of mood, the director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The five-hour “Happy Hour” (2016), the first Hamaguchi film to make waves at festivals, chronicled the lives of four women. In the romantic melodrama “Asako I and II” (2019), a woman falls for the doppelgänger of an old flame. Hamaguchi also directed “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” and wrote the screenplay for Kurosawa’s “Wife of a Spy,” both released here this year.
Hamaguchi seems set to expand that oeuvre, by keeping a close eye on those inner feelings.
“What I really do think about is the mystery that’s inside any human being,” he said. “So if a character is able to give that sense of mystery, that’s when the character no longer feels unreal. They start to really exist. If the character can make you feel that mystery somehow, that to me is the core of working with fiction.”