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Haruki Murakami and the Challenge of Adapting Her Stories for Film

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Haruki Murakami and the Challenge of Adapting Her Stories for Film

Haruki Murakami’s much-loved books have been the basis for many big screen adaptations over the years with variable results. But the latest has attracted almost unanimous praise: “Drive My Car,” from a short story by the author. It’s the rare successful adaptation that stands firmly in its own right as a sophisticated film, and it sheds a new light on its director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, as a major talent.

The source for “Drive My Car” runs no more than 40 pages. It is about a theater actor named Yusuke Kafuku, who finds a personal driver and makes an unexpected friend, an actor who was one of his late wife’s lovers. Of the regrets and vague reflections of the Harukami story on display, Hamaguchi is something more grand, yet no less intimate: a multi-layered, unpredictable three-hour drama that rejuvenates the audience.

The 42-year-old director has been making movies since the 2000s, but is the first to say how improbable it may sound.

“Basically, I don’t think Murakami’s work is made for adaptation,” said the director with a thoughtful air at the offices of Janus Films, one of the distributors of “Drive My Car.” He was speaking ahead of the premiere of the New York Film Festival in September. “Murakami’s writing is wonderful at conveying inner feelings, and I think that’s why people want to adapt to them. But it’s really difficult to recreate those inner feelings in film.”

At one time, Murakami did not even allow adaptation: “It’s enough for a book to be a book,” he told The New York Times in 1990. But as with “Drive My Car”, notable examples include “Burning”. An acclaimed adaptation by Korean author Lee Chang-dong that co-starred Steven Yeun as well as “Tony Takitani” and “Norwegian Wood”. “Y Tu Mama Tambien” co-screenwriter Carlos Cuarón also produced a short film, “The Second Bakery Attack” starring Kirsten Dunst.

Murakami was surprised when he heard that Hamaguchi’s adaptation (which he had permission for) was three hours long. So he bought a ticket to see “Drive My Car” at a local theater.

“I was drawn from start to finish,” the author said in an email. “I think that alone is an amazing achievement.”

Hamaguchi’s scathing interpretation – Japan’s nominee for the Academy Award for Best International Feature – appears to be breaking the code in Murakami’s adoption. For starters, the director chose a relatively straightforward story. For example, “Drive My Car” lacks the real touches that readers might know from the novelist’s “A Wild Sheep Chase” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”.

Hamaguchi said of the author’s other work, “he is able to go back and forth between things that are realistic and those that are not real in a book.” “But when you put him in the film, it’s hard for him to be a little silly and make the audience believe him. ‘Drive My Car’ was a story where it stayed realistic.”

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Murakami’s origins followed Yusuke’s interactions with his driver, Misaki (played onscreen by Toko Miura), a reserved young woman who slowly warms up. Misaki doesn’t mind when Yusuke drives the line with the help of the car’s cassette player. He tells her how he saw his new actor friend to avenge his wife’s infidelity. In return, his wife remains only a memory in the story.

Hamaguchi’s version shuffles and expands the timeline of the story. Yusuke’s wife, Otto (Rika Kirishima), is still alive, and we begin by seeing her and Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima). She is a popular writer for television, and the couple has a ritual: she tells them stories when they have sex, and they later elaborate on plots together.

This is a deceptive conceit and actually comes from another Hamaguchi story, “Scheherazade” (which, like “Drive My Car”, is part of the “Men Without Women” collection). Hamaguchi’s opening scene is a quiet moment at home between Yusuke and Otto, with Otto at first mysteriously in a hazy silhouette.

The scene is a romantic contrast to Murakami’s opening: Yusuke performs a monologue about different types of female drivers. Hamaguchi attributes this idea to his co-author Takamasa O.

“I wanted to emphasize Otto’s centrality to the narrative,” O wrote in an email. “Her voice and her haunting presence were always going to be the key to the story.”

The film remains faithful to Otto’s death, but Hamaguchi then makes the mention of “Uncle Vanya” in the original story a central story line. Yusuke is invited to direct a play for a theater festival in Hiroshima. His international cast includes a young hotshot (and hothead) named Koshi (Masaki Okada), who had an affair with Yusuke’s wife (like the actor in the short story).

The actors in Yusuke’s play speak their lines in different languages—an idea that came partly from Hamaguchi’s experiences taking an English language class in the United States with other foreign visitors. In the film, Hamaguchi takes a special interest in the shifting energy of the rehearsal.

“I think there are more mistakes in rehearsals. You can feel more clearly what’s going on. And it’s a really creative process,” Hamaguchi said. “I think it’s probably more interesting than the proven or final version.”

Hamaguchi gave Yusuke one of his habits as a filmmaker: thorough table reading of screenplays before shooting. Yusuke’s intense preparation adds another dimension to Hamaguchi’s interplay of emotions. In “Uncle Vanya”, Sonya’s line “What can we do? We must live our lives” comes as Yusuke strikes a bond with Misaki, who becomes the film’s emotional anchor.

Mounting a Chekhov production might seem like a significant departure from Harukami’s self-contained story, but it’s all fair game for the writer.

“When my work is adapted, I wish the plot and dialogue were freely changed,” Murakami wrote in the email. “There is a huge difference between the way a piece of literature develops and how a film develops.”

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For this reason, the author also favors “Burning”, which liberally departs from his 1983 short story “Barn Burning” and shifts the action.

“The changing of the setting from Japan to South Korea felt like a new mystical reality had been born. I would highly appreciate these kinds of ‘gaps’ or differences,” Murakami said. (With one possible exception in “Drive My Car”: “I was envisioning an old Saab convertible, so when I saw the Saab with the roof in the movie, I felt a little nervous at first. Got used to it quickly.”)

In a way, Hamaguchi’s stage conceit remains faithful to the spirit of the realities inherent in Murakami’s work. This is in keeping with the characterization of Cuarón’s story which he adapted, “The Second Bakery Attack.” In an email, Cuarón said that it shares with other Murakami work “a parallel universe, which deals with the imagination or inner experience of the main character and is nearly impossible to adapt.”

Adapting Murakami may seem more difficult only when the author describes his writing as a personal filmmaking: “Do I imagine the scenes going through my head when I write? Of course. In fact, my For me, it is one of the joys of writing fiction – I am making my own film, made just for myself,” he wrote in the email.

But Hamaguchi knows enough to avoid idealizing his source. He is more faithful to how “Drive My Car” made him feel when he read it.

“I had to think about how I got the short story,” he said. “My emotional experience was something that I wanted to convey to the audience of the film as much as possible. That was what was behind my thinking about producing the film.”

“Drive My Car” adds to an already impressive filmography for Hamaguchi, who studied under director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a master of moods. The first Hamaguchi film to hit festivals, the five-hour “Happy Hour” (2016) chronicled the lives of four women. In the romantic melodrama “Asko I and II” (2019), a woman falls for an old flame’s doppelgnger. Hamaguchi also directed “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” and wrote the screenplay for Kurosawa’s “Wife of a Spy”, both released here this year.

It looks like Hamaguchi is ready to expand on that oeuvre, keeping a close eye on those inner feelings.

“What I really think about is the mystery that lies inside any human being,” he said. “So if a character is able to give a sense of mystery, that character no longer feels unreal. They really start to exist. If the character can somehow make you feel that mystery, then to me with fiction is the core of the work.”

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