If there were any doubts that the future of Japanese cinema runs through writer-director Hamaguchi Ryûsuke, the past month ought to have dispelled them. Hamaguchi received a glowing tribute at the New York Film Festival as he premiered two new films for American audiences, Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. The festival affectionately dubbed their programming as “Hamaguchi Weekend,” further cementing his standing as a figure of renown in world cinema. A week later, Japan selected Drive My Car to represent the country in the Best International Feature race at next year’s Academy Awards.
Before Drive My Car’s release next month, general moviegoing audiences will first get a taste of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which enjoyed its world premiere earlier this year at Berlinale. This triptych of short stories about coincidence, imagination, and desire might appear modest in comparison to Hamaguchi’s sprawling, three-hour Murakami Haruki adaptation, but his Rohmer-like collection unfolds each of its three tales with a grace and gentility that belie their rigorous construction and intuitively guided emotionality.
Prior to his weekend tribute by the New York Film Festival, I sat down for an interview with Hamaguchi. Our conversation delved into how he determined the length and juxtaposition of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’s three stories, why he lets the emotions of his actors on set determine his camera placement, and how humor colored his thematic exploration of chance.
What do you find appealing about the short story format?
Simply put, I think short films are just easier to make. This is an obvious thing, but to make one feature film is very hard work. Whenever I’m starting a new project, I find that it’s really daunting. I’m telling myself, “Oh, I’m going to put myself through this again? I’m going to get more gray hairs? Is this what I want to do?” But when you’re making short films, it’s much less of a burden. I think psychologically speaking, it’s much easier for me. I feel like it’s also okay to fail or try to experiment with new things. For me, the short film format is good for the soul.
Drive My Car is adapted from a Murakami Haruki short story. Do you see the process of making that film as similar to making a short, even though it’s three hours long?
I don’t really think there’s a similarity other than the fact that the original material for Drive My Car is a short story. There’s no similarity between that and making shorts because, at the end of the day, it was turned into a feature. I don’t know if you’ve read the original story, but it ends sort of partway through a narrative where not much is revealed at the end of that story. And so, in reading that, I thought, “I don’t think that I could end in the same way with a film.” I felt that after something like two hours of watching the film, an audience might feel very frustrated if I ended it the same way. So, from the moment that I knew I was adapting the short story, I knew that I needed to go beyond the ending for the film adaptation. Regarding “Drive My Car,” the short story, I think inherently it really had the potential to be much longer. In fact, I like to think that it should have been longer because there are such intriguing and interesting characters that are in the film. It should have been able to go beyond what’s actually on the page. And so, in thinking that, I ended up with a three-hour film.
Why not make it longer? Why not over five hours like Happy Hour?
That’s really just because the producer said to me at the beginning to make the film within two hours and 20 minutes. Joking aside, I didn’t really see the necessity to go beyond three hours. This ending felt like the right moment to end the film.
How do you determine the length of a story when you get an idea? How did you know the three segments of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy were meant to be 40 minutes?
When I finish writing, it’s dependent on how much potential there is in the relationships that are present in the film. By the time I feel that I’ve used up the relationships that are present there, that’s when I feel that it’s going to end. So, when there may be two or three characters in there, I feel that this is the right amount of time.
Were the three segments in the film conceived together, or at what point did they cohere as a thematically linked feature?
This was actually first decided as a seven-part series. This idea came to me when I spoke to Mary Stephen, Éric Rohmer’s editor. When I talked to her, I thought by making a series I can create something that could actually be distributed because it’s feature-length. Rohmer’s film Rendezvous in Paris gave me a lot of inspiration. When I was shooting the first three stories, I realized that a lot of these stories are around coincidences. As I shot these films, I was starting to think what they also have in common is imagination. The original Japanese title of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is Coincidence and Imagination, so that’s why I ended up with that title.
Does that mean there are four more stories that will be made at some point?
Was “Once Again” always meant to be the final segment? Given that it shifts gears and focuses on a less outwardly sensual relationship, the short does seem to put the two that came before it into a slightly different context.
I wrote the script for all three of these stories in 2019, and I was able to shoot the first and second stories in 2019 as well. But the third story was actually shot in 2020, and it was just after the pandemic emergency was lifted at the time that we shot it. In that sense, I think, there was a difference inside me between making the first and second film and then the third. What’s also really interesting and fun about short stories is that they can have a more direct relationship with reflecting myself and who I am. Shorts have the ability to do that. In some ways, I think the difference in nuances that you might be feeling between the first two stories and the third is related to the change inside me. But, at the same time, these three stories were written together. To me, it was part of the same flow. It’s there, but that difference you speak of might be something related to the difference in me.
The final segment is the only one that ends on an image of the characters rather than an image of the city. Is that a reflection of the way that you changed?
Yes. At the script stage, the first and second story ended with a shot of the people. It was only when we were shooting that I decided that we actually needed to end with a shot of this city or the town, and so that’s what we ended up doing. But with the third story, that was also intended to end with a shot of people. What happened here with the third story is that I didn’t change my mind about that. Something about me really felt that it was important to end with their expressions, and I think that does reflect something about my psychological state.
How do you determine how proximate your camera should be to a character’s emotion? There’s a striking difference between the zoom-in to a close-up on Meiko at the end of “Magic” and the extreme long shot that captures the reunion in “Once Again,” both of which feel like the climactic moments of their respective segment.
When we shoot, I have the actors play from the very beginning to the end of a scene all the way through. Initially, what we do is place the camera in the best place of vision to be able to see the important actions that happen in the scene. But regarding the movement of the actors, we don’t decide exactly how the space is used, though I do ask them to use as much of the space that we have as possible. At the same time, we don’t really talk about where they might want to stop their movement. That’s because that stopping, I think, is decided by the emotion that’s present [in the scene]. And so, in some ways, that distance created between the camera and the subject is almost coincidental because it’s really dependent on emotional movement.
And then there’s the almost lucky shots that I get because of this process. But, then, sometimes I feel that the distance between the camera and the subject isn’t quite right, so then we’ll [reposition] the camera. We’ll continue to collect more incidental shots, and once I feel that we have enough of them, that’s when we say, “Okay, let’s move on.”
Regarding your question about the use of zoom, I just knew that I wanted to use zooms mainly because I like them. I don’t know if I’ll continue to use zooms for all seven stories throughout, but I did know that I wanted to use zooms in these three films. In thinking about where to use the zooms, I think it can be said that they are used at the peak of something emotive. But, at the same time, I think it’s the zooms that make it seem that way. Another thing that a zoom is able to do is that it makes the storyteller apparent because it and also for some. It’s also very silly as a technique, and I felt that silliness is actually quite necessary in these stories.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy effortlessly holds a duality of feeling, both the sincerity of lovers and friends trying to connect and the irony of fate interjecting to thwart them. How did you keep one from overpowering the other?
I knew humor was very present in these films. I think that’s actually related to the fact that coincidence is the subject of the three stories. I think when that when we’re talking about storytelling, typically there’s sort of a cause-and-effect relationship that’s happening. But once you bring some kind of coincidence into the story, there’s suddenly the smell of absurdism that comes to waft into existence. There’s often a tendency that when coincidences appear within a story, storytelling almost tends to fail. But Rohmer taught me, in fact, with his films that coincidence also allows you to add risk to storytelling. I think those kinds of risks allow for emotion—and for something moving to happen as well.
Another thing that I learned from Rohmer is that in dealing with coincidences as a subject, I’m also dealing with desires. I think it’s really important that the characters want something. They’re planning something. I think that desire allows for coincidence to feel real and become reality within the stories. And the failure of those plans appears only when the truth appears. I think coincidences often appear from our blind spots, because people often don’t know that it’s coming. Coincidence is what makes these desires almost fail. And so, in having these moments, I think that’s when the audience can feel that coincidence, in fact, exists when these things happen. And I think this feeling is also related to humor.
There are male characters in your films, and Drive My Car has a male protagonist, but there seems to be a building image of you as a “woman’s director.” Not that this is your limit, but akin to Todd Haynes or Mike Nichols, you seem to have a real knack for portraying the inner lives of the opposite sex. Is this a description you would welcome?
I’m really happy and grateful that you say that, and very honored to be compared to those filmmakers. All that said, I’m not so aware of wanting to just depict a woman necessarily. What I’m always interested in with whatever character I’m depicting is to figure out the reason behind their actions and try to understand what drives them. In my early years of filmmaking, I felt that it was easier to depict men as characters. But after making Happy Hour, I felt that it was easier to also work with women. At the end of the day, I don’t know how precise my depiction of women’s inner lives is because I’m not one. But regardless of who I’m depicting, I’m always trying to work to understand the reasons behind their actions.
Translation by Aiko Masubuchi