Changing Methods: An Interview with Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
When Happy Hour (2015) abruptly landed in the western world, it was immediately evident that director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi was a major talent; what was less clear was just how versatile and unexpected Hamaguchi’s subsequent features would be. Asako I & II (2018) was an intelligent anti-romance, and this year has seen not one but two different features from Hamaguchi: the female-focused triptych that comprise Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car, which turns a less-than-two-dozen pages of Haruki Murakami into a three-hour love letter to Anton Chekhov.
Hamaguchi is perhaps the best screenwriter of his generation; his character writing and dialogue is so strong and his plotting so careful that it is easy to tag him with the somewhat backhanded “literary” tag. But Hamaguchi’s films are also filled with the thrill of performance — nearly all his films see characters stepping into clearly defined “roles” for one reason or another — and with the visual clarity and economy of a master. Take, for example, the extended take near the beginning of the first episode of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, where an extended two-shot sees a pair of friends gabbing about the magical night one just had, unbeknownst to her, with the ex-boyfriend of the other. Hamaguchi’s patience commands your attention, but it’s a shot that would not ever suggest the careful editing and camera placement on display in the reading, workshop, and theater scenes strewn throughout Drive My Car. Hamaguchi’s cinema mixes the literary, theatric, and even balletic with the cinematic, and his increasing success is proof that there is still room for ambitious and creative youth in an industry that often looks bleak.
On the occasion of the screening of both Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car at this year’s New York Film Festival, I spoke to Hamaguchi about how his production methods have changed over the years and the links between his newer films with his underseen early work.
At what point in your process, if ever, do you start to think about duration?
I have actually just stopped thinking about it. It’s probably good for a movie to try to fit within two hours, but at the end of the day, when I try to develop the characters in a way that I feel good about, it doesn’t necessarily always fit that time frame. I just try to figure out what’s good for me as long as the producer allows me to.
Duration is secondary to the character’s relationships or the constellation of characters. Those figure into making the decision as to how much time is required. What I’ve started to do is just follow suit.
With Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, you put together three short films. Did commercial considerations factor into your decision to put those together?
I have always really liked making short films. After Happy Hour, I made “Heaven Is Still Far Away” . Making shorts allows me to confirm some of the things I’ve been doing. It’s also really good preparation toward making a feature.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is actually part of a seven-film series I have in my mind. But the problem with shorts, in Japan at least, is that it is very difficult to find a way to give them a theatrical release. When I had the screening of Asako I & II in France I did an interview with Mary Stephen, who was Rohmer’s editor, and in talking with her I learned about the importance of short films for Rohmer. I really sympathized with his ideas, so I thought maybe I could just copy his approach.
Rohmer’s film Rendezvous in Paris  consists of three shorts. I thought if I follow this structure, I could find a way for it to have a release in Japan. That would also give incentive to the crew and cast knowing it will have a release.
Is “Heaven Is Still Far Away” one of those seven films? I detected some similarities between that and especially the third segment of Wheel, with characters who take a leap of faith in believing something about each other.
“Heaven Is Still Far Away” is actually a completely different project, but when you mention the similarities with the third film, I’m not sure how to respond. You’re right, there are similarities there, but I do similar things sometimes. There’s an impulse for me to want to redirect certain ideas.
On that note, Drive My Car reminded me a lot of your earlier work, particularly “Touching the Skin of Eeriness”  and Intimacies , and especially during the workshop scenes. Were you conscious about bringing in things from your pre-Happy Hour work?
Yes, to an extent. I try to redo things I feel I couldn’t quite figure out previously and I reapproach the same ideas. I am quite conscious of a repetition of motifs in my films, and I will probably continue to work that way.
A lot of your early work was made in collaboration with universities or cultural institutes or arose from seminars. Has your production method changed since then?
Yes, there are changes that happen mainly because in the commercial industry the budget is so much bigger. I think often we use the phrase “independent film,” but throughout my career I have never made films that have used my own money. My films are “dependent” rather than “independent.” I receive money from institutions or universities and receive a budget. But what doesn’t change for me is I always work within those budgets given to me, whether big or small. I think about what is possible within the limitations of that budget and I really try not to exceed it. In the event that it sometimes does exceed it, I will always talk with the producer and work within the realms of what the producer is comfortable with.
Your early films seem very collaborative, especially with your performers. Do you still have that method in your recent films?
I don’t think it’s possible to have a film where there is no collaboration with the actors or subject, so it has been a continuation for me. But what has changed is that when I was making documentaries or when I made Happy Hour — which I made over the course of two years — I was able to spend a lot of time on developing relationships. What’s different for me these days is not having that time. When you say “collaboration,” are you talking about the time I spend?
Not just time. In “Touching the Skin of Eeriness” for example, it seems like the performers have a big role in determining the direction of the film and improvising. I’m wondering, first, if that’s true, but also how much that has changed in something like Drive My Car. How much is pre-planned and how much arises during production?
It’s not very often that things go exactly as planned. I’m often discovering things in the process. Often, we say, “okay, actually, let’s do it this way.” Regarding “Touching the Skin of Eeriness,” I worked with the choreographer, Osamu Jareo, and the actors followed the choreography, but I would say it was about 50–50 improvisation versus choreography. Regarding Uncle Vanya [rehearsed and performed at length in Drive My Car], I think there is more that has been pre-planned. But, since making Happy Hour, I’ve started to incorporate this process of readings, and in that what comes through as more improvisational is the emotional aspect of the readings. That element of improvisation through emotions hasn’t changed.
Are your readings similar to the ones in Drive My Car?
Not exactly the same. I do readings where actors read without emotion over and over again, but I feel that’s not quite enough preparation for filming. But I do some similar work.
Drive My Car is adapted from a Murakami short story, but Chekhov is a big part of it as well. Those strike me as very different literary sensibilities. What brings them together?
In the original story, Uncle Vanya is in there, a very short part, but it is said that Kafuku is doing that play. What I did was blow that up into something much larger. I feel that Chekhov and Murakami share a certain universality in their choice of words. They pull words out of somewhere very deep inside. I think that’s why Murakami might have chosen Chekhov for that story.
Talking about relationships to Uncle Vanya, Kafuku is a character and Vanya is a character, and I think there’s something reflective in them with each other. They are both performing, and oftentimes Kafuku is quoting Uncle Vanya. There is also the relation between Misaki and Sonya. Misaki is listening to the tapes of Uncle Vanya and so starts to learn much of the dialogue. There is this idea of Sonya worrying about not being beautiful, and Misaki quotes and thinks about those ideas. So, within all this, these characters are reflecting one another, and I pulled out the potential embedded in there.
The score for Drive My Car by Eiko Ishibashi is really wonderful. How did you end up working with her, and did you know what kind of sound you wanted or let her improvise?
She was introduced to me through the producer. I listened to her and thought she was wonderful. What I felt was this feeling of the “Chicago Sound” — people like Jim O’Rourke. Later on, she told me she agrees that her work fits in that group. I have always felt this sound is very fitting for film music, so when I asked her to join the project, I was sure about working with her.
The thing about Jim O’Rourke, you might know, is that he actually lives in Japan. I didn’t learn until I saw the credits that he played a little guitar in the score. I was very surprised to see that. But Ishibashi was already making music I tended to like. It is not super emotional; her music is quite cool in tone. I wanted to really use that characteristic. I remember specifically asking for music that was not too emotional.
That said, after the edit was done and we started putting the music in, I really wanted some music to form a bridge between the audience and the film. I went back to her and asked if she could bring in a little bit more emotion, and the music she composed after that really fit in super well with the film.
The coda has characters wearing masks and was shot during quarantine. What was it like having to make that decision? Did you consider other ways to try to finish the film or waiting longer or anything else?
I remember when we were trying to decide whether to shoot the scene. It was shot at the very end, the last scene after a year of production. We had finished editing everything up to the performance scene. We were trying to decide whether to shoot the last scene, but I felt that if this film ended with that play scene that it would’ve been too “perfect,” like I was asking for applause from the audience. I don’t like to end in that way. I don’t like scenes like that. I wanted to have a different scene to end on.
People often seem to wonder what that last coda means. All I can say is that the title of the film is the clue.
Top image: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy