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How ‘Drive My Car’ Is Changing the Definition of Best Picture

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film is the first from Japan to ever land in the Oscars’ most prestigious category—the next step to making sure the Academy Awards don’t feel so local

C&I Entertainment/Ringer illustration

While Oscar headlines have focused on waning popularity and the decision to omit eight categories from the live broadcast—a choice that hasn’t been well received by the Academy’s own membership—the most under-the-radar tweak was in the Best Picture race. Beginning this year, the slate of nominees for the Oscars’ crowning award was set at a full 10 films, instead of the previous range of five to 10. (In 2021, for instance, there were eight Best Picture nominees.) The rule change may seem insignificant, but opening up the Best Picture field can bring attention to movies that might’ve otherwise slipped through the cracks. This expansion has already yielded a surprise inclusion this year, though it’s probably not what the Academy anticipated: the first ever Best Picture nominee from Japan.

On the surface, Drive My Car doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that would be enthusiastically embraced by people other than critics. The latest project from emerging auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi, it is a three-hour meditation on grief, art, and the universal need for human connection, with extended sequences devoted to characters rehearsing for a theater production or ruminating on buried traumas during scenic car rides. Up for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and International Feature Film, though, Drive My Car has tied Akira Kurosawa’s Ran as the most nominated Japanese film in Oscars history on the way to becoming the feel-good story of award season.

Many excellent movies—and unfortunately, a higher proportion of international films—have been lauded by critics without ever getting the attention of the Academy. (That countries can submit only one movie for the International Feature Film category exacerbates the issue.) So the fact that a reflective Japanese drama from low-profile indie distributor Janus Films has earned all of these plaudits and industry goodwill has come as a bit of a shock—not least of all for Hamaguchi himself. “To be honest, if I knew the answer to this, I wouldn’t work so hard,” he says through an interpreter, speaking on the reasons behind Drive My Car’s Oscars breakout. But while Drive My Car’s success should be attributed to, well, the movie being quite good, it also speaks to the Academy’s recent efforts to diversify its membership and recognize a wider body of films. Coming two years after Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, Drive My Car is the next step toward making sure the Oscars don’t feel so local.

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A loose adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name, Drive My Car follows Yusuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima), a renowned theater director who accepts a residency in Hiroshima to adapt Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya two years after his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), died from a brain hemorrhage. Yusuke’s grief is compounded by the discovery that Oto was having an affair with an up-and-coming actor, Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), and his failure to confront his wife about her infidelity before her sudden death. What’s more, because of an accident during a previous artist’s residency, Yusuke must contend with a young chauffeur, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), who’s assigned to drive him around the city. For Yusuke, Misaki’s presence intrudes on a personal ritual: When he’s in the car, he plays a cassette of Oto reciting lines from Uncle Vanya—a way for him to feel connected with his wife from beyond the grave.

Over time, Yusuke and Misaki begin to warm up to one another—it’s evident that they’re both clinging to past traumas, something that’s all the more perceptible in the intimate confines of a 1987 Saab 900 Turbo. “When you’re sitting in a car with somebody, you’re both facing forwards and not necessarily looking at each other,” Hamaguchi says. “I think this kind of circumstance allows for more personal things to almost accidentally spill out of people.” It helps that the car—the titular role, as it were—is a breakout star in its own right, the central character during the film’s many long stretches on the road. The Saab 900 is elegant yet unassuming, and while its inclusion will appeal to gearheads, the Swedish-made car is also indicative of how Yusuke wants to project himself to the world.

“Cars that are made in Japan have the wheel on the right-hand side,” Hamaguchi says. “But there are some people in Japan who choose to have cars where the wheel is on the left-hand side, because it often represents something cool, or it could suggest something about their social status.” Similar themes of projection and introspection emerge during the rehearsal process for Uncle Vanya; the group of actors auditioning for the play includes Oto’s former lover Koji, whom Yusuke ultimately taps for the lead role. If Yusuke is initially drawn to Koji because he wants to find out more about his late wife, he comes out the other side of Uncle Vanya learning more about himself and the power of art as a form of healing.

With its understated, elegiac tone, Drive My Car didn’t have the makeup of typical Oscar bait when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in July 2021. Despite winning three awards at Cannes, including Best Screenplay, more attention was paid to the Palme d’Or winner, Titane. (Incidentally, cars play an important role in both films, albeit for very different reasons.) “The way that film festivals work, a movie like Drive My Car is not quite designed for it,” Vulture’s Oscars columnist Nate Jones says. “Usually, the movies that come out of film festivals, they’re very punchy, very splashy.”

It wasn’t until Drive My Car won the top prize from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in December that its Oscars momentum started to gain steam, reaching a fever pitch when the movie was also honored by the National Society for Film Critics the following month. The three critic groups rarely rally around a single film: Drive My Car is only the sixth movie in history to complete a clean sweep, putting it in the rarefied air of Goodfellas, Schindler’s List, L.A. Confidential, The Hurt Locker, and The Social Network. “It’s been very organic,” Jones says of Drive My Car’s road to the Oscars. “Janus Films does not have as many resources as even a Neon or A24, to say nothing of a traditional studio or a Netflix. That’s been the most exciting thing: It’s just purely based on people’s affection for it.”

The exact reason Drive My Car has been so adored by critics and larger award bodies is open for debate. As Jones theorizes, it could be in large part because Drive My Car is principally about making art—something that, as recent Best Picture winners like Birdman and The Artist can attest to, is catnip for the Academy. “It’s very much a movie about the magic of the creative process and how good it is just to give yourself over to it, and the way that creating and doing something new can take you out of or help you work through these everyday disappointments in your life,” Jones says.

The universality of art is expressed through the unique circumstances of Yusuke’s production. Uncle Vanya’s cast is multilingual, with actors performing their lines in a mix of Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, Tagalog, and Korean Sign Language. (For the theater audience, there’s a screen over the stage with subtitles.) The effect of the performance within the performance is profound—the emotions of the play transcend their respective languages. “Because they’re speaking in different languages, they ultimately really must listen and really watch each other in order to be able to perform,” Hamaguchi says. “If the actors really do that, I felt that it could lead to more natural emotions and natural reactions coming out of them.”

There’s also the subtle yet affecting way that Drive My Car incorporates the pandemic into its story. Having revealed to Yusuke how her family home was destroyed in a mudslide, and the guilt she harbors over not saving her abusive mother during the incident, Drive My Car’s final sequence sees Misaki shopping for groceries surrounded by masked patrons before returning to the red Saab. The implication is clear: No matter what pain we carry with us from the past, it’s important to always move forward. “The pandemic does play a big factor in all of this,” Hamaguchi says. “This idea of losing someone that you love and yet needing to carry on.”

Between Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi’s romantic anthology film that premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in March 2021, the Japanese auteur is having a bit of a moment. But while a Best Director nomination at the Oscars—a category that pits him against the likes of Steven Spielberg and Jane Campion—will certainly elevate Hamaguchi’s profile outside of the arthouse scene, he doesn’t anticipate the larger spotlight affecting his approach to future projects. “It’s not necessarily that I have more options, I think the bigger issue always is whether I can find something that I want to do,” he says. “In the event that I do, perhaps that idea would necessitate a bigger budget, and if that were the case, then I’d be grateful for more opportunities to work in that way.” (As Hamaguchi explained in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, he’s considering working on another documentary, having previously codirected a series of films centered on victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake.)

In the meantime, there’s still the Oscars to look forward to. Of its four nominations, Drive My Car’s greatest chance of winning comes in the International Feature Film category, as it’s the only nominee that crossed over into the Best Picture race. But regardless of how the film performs on Sunday night, its emergence as an unlikely Best Picture nominee is an encouraging sign that the Academy’s push to increase its international membership is already paying dividends. There is perhaps no category in which this shift has become more apparent than Best Director, which has seen international filmmakers Paweł Pawlikowski (Cold War; Poland), Bong Joon-ho (Parasite; Korea), Thomas Vinterberg (Another Round; Denmark), and now Hamaguchi nominated in the past four years. Along with Parasite’s historic Best Picture win, it appears that the Oscars are finally overcoming the one-inch barrier of subtitles. “It’s no longer weird for a foreign-language film to get a Best Picture nomination,” Jones says. “It wasn’t impossible before, but right now, it’s becoming expected.”

For Hamaguchi, who learned about Drive My Car’s Oscar nominations when he was traveling to serve on the jury for this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, he felt like he “landed in a very different world.” It’s been a surreal experience, and heading into the Oscars on Sunday night, all the adoration for an indie drama about grief, perseverance, and the restorative power of therapeutic car rides is a victory in and of itself. Drive My Car’s thrilling journey to the Oscars may be winding down, but it’s been one hell of a ride. “To actually go to an Oscars ceremony is not something that happens often, especially to people from Japan,” Hamaguchi says. “To be nominated this way is already a cause for celebration, and to be able to do that with all the people who have been involved with the film is something that I very much look forward to.”

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