DECEMBER 5, 2021
BORDERS DEFINE BOUNDARIES. Geographical borders, fences, and rivers demarcate physical boundaries. There are also invisible, less concrete borders — borders between the self and the other, between different cultures, between the past and the present. What does it mean to trespass these physical and metaphysical borders? Undoubtedly one of the most important and exciting filmmakers working in contemporary cinema, the Japanese director Hamaguchi Ryūsuke explores this question in his latest film, Drive My Car, an adaptation of Murakami Haruki’s eponymous short story.
A veteran who has already been making films for nearly two decades, Hamaguchi has slowly gained a fervent following around the world. In a conversation with Hamaguchi in Busan, Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), a self-proclaimed admirer of Hamaguchi, describes him as a filmmaker of rare conviction and focus. And as editors of South Korea’s film magazine Filo beautifully describe Hamaguchi’s cinematic style, the camera in his films seems to “accompany” the characters rather than portray them by relying upon “dead-time” through long takes, prioritizing a certain sense of “respect” toward the human over a distinct style or aesthetic concept. This sense of “respect” in his films is grounded in Hamaguchi’s documentary style, equally evident in both his nonfiction and fiction works. Collaborating with Sakai Ko, he made an important trilogy of documentaries on individual stories of various people affected by the Fukushima disaster (The Sound of Waves, Voices from the Waves: Kesennuma, and Voices from the Waves: Shinchimachi). His 2015 film, Happy Hour, a tour de force drama that explores the shifting relationship between four women in Kobe, Japan, features nothing less than miraculous performances by non-professional actresses under Hamaguchi’s patient direction. And with this year’s Drive My Car, his second literary adaptation after Asako I & II in 2018, Hamaguchi uses his documentary approach once again in adapting the literary material of Murakami Haruki, whose short stories, with their unique atmosphere and unspoken spaces, have inspired imaginative films such as Ichikawa Jun’s Tony Takitani (2004) and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018).
Originally published in 2014 as part of the Men Without Women collection, Murakami’s “Drive My Car” follows Kafuku, a fiftysomething actor working in the movies and theater, with the loss of his unnamed partner to uterine cancer. During their marriage, Kafuku’s partner slept with several young actors, to which Kafuku, skilled actor that he is, turned a blind eye. It is only after his partner’s death that Kafuku struggles with having never asked her about her infidelity: “The question never ventured, the answer never proffered.” Outside the story’s main triadic relationship with Kafuku at the center, there is Misaki Watari, a 24-year-old woman from a fictional town in Hokkaido. Described as ugly in complexion with a scar on her face, Misaki, hired by Kafuku, drives him to TV studios and theater venues. She is “one heck of a driver,” a car mechanic says, her flawless driving skill somehow “too smooth, too mysterious.” Murakami’s third-person narrator offers hints of Misaki’s past: her alcoholic mother dead from a car accident, her father having abandoned her when she was a kid. But at the end of the day, the story homes in on Kafuku and his lingering obsession with his dead partner’s promiscuity (“the very hand that touched her body”). Characteristic of a Murakami short story, “Drive My Car” ends on a note of comfort for the male protagonist: “Misaki didn’t answer. She quietly studied the road. Kafuku was grateful for her silence.”
Traduttore, traditore — the translator is the traitor. If adaptation is a process of translation that inevitably undermines the original work, then Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is a sprawling betrayal that goes beyond the borders of the “original” to venture into unknown territories. Several additional elements and layers in Hamaguchi’s film make the work distinct from Murakami’s work: Hamaguchi first gives a name to Kafuku’s partner — Oto, literally meaning “sound.” It is no coincidence that Hamaguchi graphically matches the movement of a tire wheel on Kafuku’s red Saab 900 with the spinning reels of a cassette tape. Whenever Kafuku is in the car with Misaki in the driver’s seat, he turns on the tape — Oto’s partial reading of Uncle Vanya. The recording of Oto, a remnant of the past, follows Kafuku, her voice a quiet haunting, reverberating within the car as it moves to various places. This haunting works precisely because the past relationship between Kafuku and Oto serves as a long prelude to the main present-day plot of the film.
Hamaguchi’s adaptation harks back to the Latin meaning of translation — trānslātiō, or the act of moving something between two places. One might even say that Hamaguchi’s film is all about movement: the carrying across of bodies, memories, emotions, and stories from one place to another. Oto’s narration of stories speaks to this older meaning of translation. In Hamaguchi’s film, Oto is an actress-turned-TV screenwriter. The film begins at dawn, with Ishibashi Eiko’s mysterious electronic track foregrounding the opening’s temporal liminality. In her bedroom, Oto, shrouded in darkness, rises from the bottom of the frame as she begins to narrate a story about an unnamed high school girl’s sneaking into the house of Yamaga, her first love and school classmate. With themes of unspoken exchange, psychosexual dimension, and even karma that involves a parasitic lamprey eel, Oto’s erotic-murder story is the very stuff of pulpy late-night TV drama. As the film progresses, we gradually learn that sex is an integral part of Oto’s creation of stories. After the loss of their four-year-old daughter, a traumatic past between the couple, Oto relies upon her sexual orgasm to spindle out stories and narrates them to Kafuku during intercourse. Good archivist that he is, Kafuku listens, remembers, and retells the story to her the next morning. Sex is the medium through which an as-yet-unborn narrative moves across the border between the real and the symbolic. By adding this new element in the film, Hamaguchi stresses the translational aspect of storytelling in its most primordial manner. And even as potential betrayal lies at every step of this transfer process, it is still possible — even necessary — to keep faith in what comes across the borders of communication.
Speaking to this idea of transfer is the very act of driving. And it is Misaki, played by Miura Tōko, who drives in the film’s pivotal moments. Unlike in Murakami’s story, Misaki is a more palpable presence in the film. In Hamaguchi’s reimagination, Misaki transcends the role of a passive confidante; she is an active witness to Kafuku’s process of coping, the camera capturing her quiet, firm resilience. At a critical juncture in the film, Kafuku proposes that the two of them go to Misaki’s hometown in Hokkaido. As they enter the fictional town after their long drive from Hiroshima to Hokkaido, the film falls silent — a plentiful, almost sacred silence that Hamaguchi wants the audience to feel. The two go to a site of trauma, and one cannot help but recall the recent disasters of Japan. Both confront ghosts of their own — searing regrets for Kafuku and family trauma for Misaki. Crucially, Hamaguchi reserves the very last sequence of the film not for Kafuku but, instead, for Misaki. We see her grocery shopping in South Korea with a mask on her face, signaling that she is living through the present pandemic era. The red Saab hatchback now has a Korean license plate. Her scar is now gone from her face. With her canine companion, she drives into the distance, her destination unknown.
This open-ended conclusion to the film, with Misaki relocated in a different country, brings us back to what is at stake in the film — the issue of boundaries and borders. At the most fundamental level, Hamaguchi is interested in the boundaries of the self and the crossing of these boundaries through performance or intimacy. Linguistic and cultural boundaries are crossed in the film as well. While Murakami’s story only briefly mentions Uncle Vanya, Hamaguchi turns this element into a full-blown multilingual production. Actors from Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea participate in Kafuku’s ambitious theater project of getting to the bottom of the real in Chekhov’s play through a Bressonian disciplining of actors. Among the ensemble is the most remarkable character in the film, Lee Yoon-a, played in an understated yet wondrous manner by Park Yoo-rim. A former dancer who is deaf, Yoon-a uses Korean sign language in her performance of Sonya. In one of the most poignant sequences of the film, Yoon-a tells Kafuku via translation that her body has been able to recover through the help of Chekhov’s text as it “enters” her body. For the traitorous translator Hamaguchi, communication is a translational process that moves between one human to another, between one language to another, between the performer and the character, between the text and the body, between animal and human, between the past and the present.
And there is yet another kind of border that Hamaguchi trespasses in the film. As Kafuku arrives at the Narita Airport to board on his plane to Vladivostok for his business trip, he receives a sudden email from the theater festival secretariat: his flight has been cancelled due to the cold wave. Shockingly, the content of this email appears on the screen. This is no trivial gesture on Hamaguchi’s part. After all, he could have opted for an alternative route of displaying the content of this email via voice-over narration or a direct shot of the email message itself. In many works of contemporary cinema, the invasion of text into the cinematic frame functions in general either to mimic the generational habit of rapid smartphone tapping or to critique this habituated behavior. Neither seems to be the case in Hamaguchi’s film. It is a gesture more benevolent, almost generous, as Hamaguchi opens up the very borders of the film frame itself to make it more porous to foreign elements, even if that entails giving up on the sanctity of what’s inside the frame. The thrill of watching Hamaguchi’s films, striving toward a sprawling territory rather than a hermetically readable field of vision, lies precisely in witnessing such gestures.
All references to Murakami Haruki’s short story are based on Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen’s translation. East Asian names are listed in the order of last name and first name. The author would like to thank Elizabeth Keto and Chaorong Hua for their stimulating conversations and suggestions.