Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi on the Oscars and Japanese cinema

Tipped to win big at this year’s Oscars, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s mighty touch seems to be turning everything to gold. With his latest film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, out now, THE FACE picks his brains.

If you haven’t noticed the billboard ads on the tube, or the furore coming out of major international film festivals over the past year, then you might have at least caught the rumblings from the world’s leading film awards ceremonies. In short: Ryusuke Hamaguchi is the hottest director in the world right now. And with his 2021 film Drive My Car, he’s being tipped to rev his way to the top at this year’s Academy Awards.

It’s an all-out offensive for the Japanese director. Drive My Car – a three-hour adaption of a Haruki Murakami short story, which tells the story of a reticent actor processing grief in his red Saab – only came out in the UK in November. But on February 11th, Hamaguchi’s already releasing another major film: an anthology feature that tells the stories of three chance encounters, titled Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.

Both films have been universally praised – from audience polls and national critics to the world’s leading film juries – for their realistic characters, naturalistic storytelling, engrossing dialogue and meticulous acting performances. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival last year. Meanwhile, Drive My Car bagged a Golden Globe last month and it’s now been nominated for four major gongs at the Oscars, including the grand prize, Best Picture.

To mark Wheels UK release – and only a few short weeks before Drive My Car learns its fate at the BAFTA and Oscar ceremonies, where it will compete for multiple awards – THE FACE caught up with director Hamaguchi over Zoom to learn more about the man whose touch seems to be turning everything to gold.

You’ve developed a reputation for making some very long films over your career – Drive My Car, for example, is a three-hour film, while Happy Hour was over five hours long. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, on the other hand, consists of three short stories. What do you enjoy about working in this short storytelling format?

Generally speaking, it’s knowing that because a short movie is short we have to rely more heavily on the audience’s imagination. It’s like a co-dependence. We say less, so they will have to imagine more than when they watch longer movies. And so I think because of that, the audience can have a deeper relationship with the film, as they’ll want to dig deeper into dialogues and stories.

But from a production point of view, we can take risks easily [in films like Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy] just because the budget is smaller. We can do things that we aren’t able to do while making a longer feature film. We can experiment more, if you like.

What were some of those more liberating aspects of creating this movie?

We had a lot of time for rehearsing, so I had a lot of time to bring out some of the great acting from each actor.

Also, the film is called Wheel of Fortune…” in English, but the Japanese title of this movie is actually Coincidence…”. And from a storytelling point of view, there are a lot of coincidences in this movie, which itself makes it a bit make-believe. So we have to make the audience believe these big coincidences.

That is something that I would normally be a little bit worried and scared to write about as a writer, because you have to ask: is it really convincing? You know, it might be too much of a coincidence and feel unreal. But just having that word Coincidence” in the title, that took a weight off my shoulders. The writing process for this film was so smooth in the end, so [when this freedom] became obvious, I enjoyed the writing process as a result.

In the first segment of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, two characters are discussing a romantic encounter in the back of a cab, and one of the characters says that we caressed each other through our conversation.” I feel like this line sums up the effect that many of your films have on the audience – the dialogue feels very real and as a result, it becomes entrancing. Why is dialogue such an important aspect of your films?

It really isn’t intentional. It’s just how I write, it’s my nature. In a way, it was a bit of a complex for me, because I always used to think that I should write in a more cinematic style and I wasn’t able to. I felt a little bit stunted and limited by it.

But at one point, I realised that by writing these dialogues I’m bringing these actors or characters to life, that my words were giving them vitality and making them more real, making them live.

These intimate words, like the ones in your quote, I think bring out what these actors have got inside. And I’m able to see that through my camera, I’m able to capture it. I think that’s one of the methods that I’ve come to acquire over the years.

You’ve previously worked with two of the actors in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Aoba Kawai, on the queer-themed short drama Touching the Skin of Eeriness. What made you want to work with each of these two actors again on this film?

I actually worked with them twice before – they were in the film Passion [2008], which was my university graduation work. Fusako Urabe, who also appears in the third episode of this movie, is another actor I’ve worked with before on Passion.

Basically, I just like them as people. I met them as a student and they were professionals already, so I feel like they led me onto the career that I have now.

Passion went on to film festivals globally and I’m really grateful for that. It was a great push for my career. I always thought that I wanted to work with them again. And luckily, it came true.

Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy have been released in very close proximity to one another. Were you working on both films quite close together?

It’s a bit complicated, but I sort of alternated between both movies. Both started in 2019. I started with the second episode of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and then after that, I made the first episode. Then I started Drive My Car in March 2020. I was going to complete that one first, but because of the pandemic, I had to close down production for eight months.

During that time, I decided to make the third episode of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. Then, I went back to Drive My Car to complete the second half in November 2020.

Do you feel a strong connection between the two films?

The stories aren’t really connected, but I think there are common threads or themes. For example, in the first episode of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, two characters are driving at night. In the second, we’ve got very direct sexual, explicit expressions. And in the third episode, we’ve got characters acting or pretending. These are definitely common threads between the two films.

Actually, making an anthology movie like this felt sort of like a prep for making a feature film – though that doesn’t mean to say it was in any way inferior to something like Drive My Car.

A few years ago, Parasite made headlines after it swept the floor at the Oscars and, as a result, Korean cinema has opened up to a whole new audience across the globe. With that in mind, how do you feel as a representative of the Japanese film industry at the forthcoming Oscars and BAFTAs ceremonies, during a time when Drive My Car might have a chance at repeating that kind of success?

I think that Parasite opened doors not just to Korean films but to all Asian movies. It played a great and very important role, especially in the US. Asian movies have a wider audience now because of Parasite. Drive My Car is based on Haruki Murakami’s short story and obviously, Murakami is a world-famous author, so I think that contributed to the success of Drive My Car also. But without Parasite, I don’t think that Drive My Car was going to be that popular, or known, even.

But I don’t think you can talk about Drive My Car and Parasite in the same context. Because obviously, Bong Joon-ho is a really talented director, but the movie industry in South Korea is really huge. It’s got so much power. And unfortunately, I don’t think the Japanese movie industry is, as much.

But I think we might see a similar effect in the near future if your films continue to get this level of recognition overseas. People will want to explore further into Japanese cinema if they enjoy your films. Do you have any recommendations for Japanese films or filmmakers?

That’s a difficult question because Japanese cinema has a really rich history and I’ve seen a lot of classic movies.

But if I talk about my own influence, then Mikio Naruse is a great filmmaker. I would recommend that people see the film Flowing [1956]. He’s not widely known globally, but his depiction of characters is very delicate and very detailed. I’ve been hugely influenced by him.

From the younger generation, I would suggest the film director Sho Miyake [And Your Bird Can Sing]. He’s a little bit younger than me, but his movie Small, Slow But Steady is going to the Berlin Film Festival this year and I think he’s very talented – a great director. Those are the two I can think of right now!

The last and most important question: how will you celebrate if you do win an Oscar for Drive My Car this year?

I haven’t even thought about it! I might have to ask for advice from Bong Joon-ho…

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