‘Drive My Car’ is the 1st Japanese film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars : NPR

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura star in drive my car.

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Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura star in drive my car.

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SEOUL — Japanese cinema turned a corner this week, as the film drive my car became the first country to be nominated for Best Picture in Oscars. If it wins, it will become the second foreign language film with this honor; the first was Parasitedirected by South Korean Bong Joon-ho, in 2020.

drive my car — adapted from a 2014 short story by Haruki Murakamione of Japan’s most celebrated authors, was also nominated for Best Director, Best International Feature Film and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The film is directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, which features some of Murakami’s signature themes: loss, guilt, and the interplay between art and life. Hamaguchi is the first Japanese director nominated since Akira Kurosawa in 1986.

drive my car begins with the story of actor and theater director Yusuke Kafuku, and his screenwriter wife Oto, who attempt to heal from the death of their young child by telling stories, which they make up during and after the sex.

Kafuku’s calm exterior masks his inner torment. He is baffled and devastated to learn that Oto has slept with a series of young actors. But she doesn’t know that he knows.

“My character is a person who loves and understands his wife more than anyone else,” says actor Hidetoshi Nishijima, who plays Kafuku. “You think you understand yourself better and trust yourself more than anyone else. But still, there’s a place in your heart that you can’t reach or understand.”

Oto, played by Reika Kirishima, hints that she is ready to admit her infidelity, but dies before she can. From there, the action fast forwards two years and the main part of the story begins.

Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi delivers a speech after receiving the Best Screenplay award for drive my car at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival in France.

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The characters in the film struggle to come to terms with guilt and grief

drive my car is a complex, layered, three-hour film adapted from a short story that Hamaguchi says is actually “a big story, of which only small bits are shown, and other parts are hidden”. His task, he said, was to reveal the hidden parts, “like excavating ruins”.

Hamaguchi pays particular attention to revealing the emotions of the characters. “The camera has x-ray eyes, and it can even film a person’s soul. I never believed it,” he says. But as he worked on the film, he gradually came to see it that way and hopes viewers will too.

After Oto’s death, Kafuku deals with his pain by acting – by becoming someone else. Among the roles played by Kafuku is the lead role in Uncle VanyaAnton Chekhov’s play about the frustrated caretaker of a Russian country estate.

“Chekhov is terrifying,” Kafuku says in the film, because “when you say his lines, it brings out the real you.”

He breaks down and goes from acting to directing.

The film’s title car – an old red Saab two-door sedan – is Kafuku’s moving stage and also serves as his wife’s sanctuary. With a tape recording of Oto reading the other parts, Kafuku practices his lines in the car as he drives to the theater or glides along highways, and later takes long car trips.

He accepts a filmmaking residency for Uncle Vanya from a theater in Hiroshima, but one of the conditions for his job is to have a driver, since he has glaucoma and a DUI conviction. He is assigned to a young driver named Misaki and struggles to hand over the keys.

Toko Miura, who plays Misaki, says that beneath her tough exterior lies an honest and empathetic character.

“She says she’s sensitive when people lie. I think that means she can understand people’s feelings,” Miura said. “In many ways, I wanted to be like her.”

In the Saab, Kafuku and Misaki gradually open up to each other and discover common feelings of loss and guilt. Kafuku later observes that Misaki’s ride is so smooth that he feels weightless and forgets he’s in a car.

In Hiroshima, Kafuku hires a young, inexperienced actor, who happens to be his late wife’s former lover. Nishijima, the actor playing Kafuku, suggests that his character presents this young actor as a kind of revenge.

Reika Kirishima as Oto and Hidetoshi Nishijima as Kafuku in drive my car

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“I think he gave the role to the actor out of a rather dark, unclear and deep feeling,” he says. “While I was playing this scene, I had such an indescribable feeling.”

But the bereaved husband and young man begin to open up to each other about their relationship with Oto. In fact, both reveal facets of her that the other had not known.

The film’s multilingual piece reflects the universality of Murakami

The multilingual version of Uncle Vanya which Kafuku directs employs a cast of international actors who deliver their lines in their native languages, including Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Tagalog, and Bahasa Indonesian.

It’s one of the ways Hamaguchi brings Murakami’s writing to life, which transcends language and nationality, says Matthew Strecherprofessor of modern Japanese literature at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Murakami “does it through his writing style, writing this incredibly translatable Japanese,” Strecher says. “And he does that by putting his stories in places where it could be anywhere.”

As South Korean and Taiwanese actresses rehearse dialogues from Uncle VanyaKafuku tells them: stop, something important has just happened.

The acting transcends the play, appearing as a conversation between two people rather than actors delivering their lines. Kafuku then tells the actors to extend this conversation to the audience.

“To me, that was like one of the many really important moments in this movie,” Strecher says, “because that was the moment when the barrier between fact and fiction broke down, which always happens. .”

When this barrier breaks down, the effect can be to blur the distinction between actors and audience, as if they are speaking directly to you rather than performing in a play.

“But I think that’s true for all of Murakami’s writings,” Strecher adds. “You go through history and then you end up rewriting history anyway in your own image and find out it’s about you too – because all of his stories are about things we’re all about.”

The characters in drive my car eventually come to some catharsis and relief in sharing their common feelings of loss. But in the end, there are no easy answers to life’s problems. Like the characters of Uncle Vanya In conclusion, all people can do is continue to live as best they can, says Strecher.

Maybe that’s why drive my car ends ambiguously, summed up on Misaki’s face with just the slightest hint of a smile.

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report from Tokyo.