Stage Coach

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s dramas of disconnection

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car, 2021, 4K video, color, sound, 179 minutes. Misaki Watari and Yūsuke Kafuku (Tōko Miura and Hidetoshi Nishijima).

IN THEIR EARLY DAYS, films weren’t as concerned with the realistic elaboration of action as with the various devices writers, directors, cinematographers, and production artists used to convey ideas and emotion through moving images. Theatricality—what Roland Barthes called a “sensuous artifice”—was at the basis of these movies, tasked not with recreating verité on screen but with artfully construing the psyche. Shadows and bursts of light, recurring objects, long takes, static camerawork, expressive acting, and striking (though not necessarily beautiful) faces seared images into a viewer’s mind. As cinematic language transformed in response to technological advances, the distinction between film and theater deepened, and the two arts soon became widely understood as fundamentally opposed.

Yet plenty of filmmakers have thought rigorously about theater and how to translate that thinking with conviction to the screen. Werner Schroeter and Rainer Werner Fassbinder forged their experimental cinemas in the crucible of postmodern theater, while more recently, independent directors like Patrick Wang (A Bread Factory), Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), and Matías Piñeiro (Viola) have used the play-within-a-film device to trouble the boundaries between life and stage. Carrying this practice beyond the West, Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi envelops himself and his actors in a world of near-melodrama, and in doing so has found a way to infuse every minute with the contingency of live theater. In his two newest features, Drive My Car and The Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, the elegance and simplicity of the costumes and set decoration do not signify the “real.” Instead, they offer a stark contrast to the sensational emotional lives of the characters, who struggle within and against the social conventions of modern Japan. In the second of The Wheel’s three vignettes, “Door Wide Open,” Nao (Katsuki Mori), a young married woman and nontraditional student, carries on an affair with another pupil, Sasaki (Shouma Kai). Sasaki has recently been demoted a year by the stoic professor Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), who has just won a prestigious book award for his latest novel. As revenge, Sasaki asks Nao to seduce Segawa in order to get him fired. Over the course of their conversation, however, Segawa and Nao continually surprise each other as two misfits, isolated by their inability to conform. A bit impulsive, Nao is disliked by her classmates, who find her standoffish and uncool; Segawa is unsmiling, transparent, and demanding of both himself and his students. Neither can twist themselves into the social frameworks that would make them more likable, and in the course of trying to trick Segawa, Nao begins to understand what genuine connection and inspiration would be like outside of her marriage and her emotionally neglectful affair with Sasaki. Most of their story takes place in ugly spare rooms and school offices, yet cinematographer Yukiko Iioka moves the camera with dramatic flourish, capturing the characters from many angles. Even the blocking feels theatrical, each step deeply motivated and in concert with the lens.

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, The Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 121 minutes. Segawa and Nao (Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Katsuki Mori).

Much of Hamaguchi’s work—including his earlier films Passion (2008), Intimacies (2013), his breakthrough Happy Hour (2015), and the more recent Asako I & II (2018)—features instances of mistaken identity, bizarre coincidence, and serendipitous collision. Happy Hour, a five-hour epic following four thirtysomething friends living in Kobe, dwells on the catastrophe of ending and transforming relationships, alternating between arresting close-ups and overwhelming wide shots. Hamaguchi cast the lead roles not by auditioning professionals, but by holding an acting workshop for amateurs during an artist residency in Kobe that facilitated an organic process of character development. The emotionally detached, nearly mechanical performances in his latest films recall the work of playwright and theater director Richard Maxwell, whose experimental company New York City Players prioritizes spare, elemental acting by “beginners” that counterintuitively maximizes the emotional thrust of dramatic scenes. With Drive My Car, a loose adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, Hamaguchi has found a scale on which not only to stage a twisty melodrama, but also to reconstruct, in a way, his conception of Happy Hour as an experience of making theater. In the second act of Drive My Car, theater director and actor Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) attends an artist residency in Hiroshima and begins auditioning actors to perform in a multilingual staging of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. One of those actors turns out to be Kafuku’s late wife’s lover, Kōji Takatsuki (Masaka Okada), while another is a mute woman, Yoon-a (Yoo-rim Park), who harbors a little secret of her own. In many of their early table reads, Kafuku commands the actors—most of whom appear to be trained or experienced—to recite their lines without emotion or emphasis.

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car, 2021, 4K video, color, sound, 179 minutes. Janice and Yoon-a (Sonia Yuan and Yoo-rim Park).

Later, he gives them license to explore. In one deeply immersive moment, a Chinese actress named Janice (Sonia Yuan) cast as Yelena, the young wife of a retired professor whose estate Vanya manages, rehearses a scene in the park in front of the others with Yoon-a, who plays Sonya, Vanya’s niece and confidant. Janice recites her lines in Mandarin while Yoon-a, who can hear but can’t communicate phonetically, expresses herself in Korean Sign Language. Their scene speaks to the strained relations between stepmother and stepdaughter, who, bonding over shared unhappiness, release their tension in a strange and mesmerizing gesture of elated rapprochement. As with Yelena and Sonya, the “real” Janice and Yoon-a speak their own separate languages, but they find a way to understand each other. The audience, meanwhile, experiences the gap between language and image, as Hamaguchi asks us not only to read subtitles, but to dwell in the profound absence words produce. A kind of magic takes place that foreshadows the film’s final, wrenching scene.

The disclosures that occur between Yelena and Sonya, discreetly building intimacy over the course of their exchange, mirror the shifting power dynamics between the actors and their director. Takatsuki, a disgraced television star whom Kafuku intentionally miscasts as Uncle Vanya despite his youth, keeps inviting the director out for drinks, which end in confrontations between Takatsuki and gawking haters who take covert photos of him. These meetings force Kafuku’s mysterious and skillful chauffeur, Misaki (Tôko Miura)—an orphan born the same year as Kafuku’s deceased daughter—to idle by as she waits to take the director home (following a recent tragedy, residency leadership no longer allows artists to drive themselves around). Takatsuki, lately in the news for having sex with a minor, is now seeing Janice, his more appropriately aged costar. (One morning, Kafuku glimpses them in a car together, speeding past him on the way to rehearsal.)

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Asako I & II, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 119 minutes. Asako Izumiya and Baku Torii (Erika Karata and Masahiro Higashide).

Each of Hamaguchi’s scenes contains a multitude of subtly complex interactions; I’ve only described a fraction of what occurs in Drive My Car, yet most of its scenes could yield hours of reflection. The director’s generally less-favored film, Asako I & II, plays with the very idea of interpretation by centering a character who is abandoned by her first love only to meet a man who looks remarkably like him. She then reluctantly engages in a relationship with this new-old flame. Her romantic ambivalence and inability to distinguish past from present throws her life into quiet chaos. Crucially, the duality of the film’s title refers not to the identical boyfriends, but to the woman herself, Asako (Erika Karata), beheld on either side of abandonment. The drama of the identical face she sees (both boyfriends are played by the same actor, Masahiro Higashide) is underscored by a major shift in context. When Asako met her first boyfriend, the adventurous and elusive Baku, in Osaka, she was young, spontaneous, unencumbered. When she meets Baku’s lookalike Ryohei, she’s working at a café in Tokyo, and he’s a suit at a big-name sake company. The lightness and brightness of Osaka is supplanted by the rainy seriousness of the capital. What has happened to Asako?

Hamaguchi derives his films from this piercing existential question: Who do we become when our lives are transformed by circumstance? He leverages this question not only narratively with an arc but dramaturgically with role swaps, rehearsals, and iteration, embracing the impossibility of definitive answers or conclusions for his characters. Absence then becomes a space of possibility for both actor and audience, and not a void to fill with information or explanation. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car are milestones for the director, who, since wowing the festival circuit with Happy Hour a few years ago, continues to push cinema out of its comfort zones.

Drive My Car opened in US theaters on November 24.