‘Drive My Car’ Could Change Japanese Cinema Forever

The Japanese film is up for an Academy Award at this year’s Oscars.

Main character Yusuke Kafuku leans against his red car as supporting character Misaki Watari sits behind the wheel.
Main character Yusuke Kafuku leans against his red car as supporting character Misaki Watari sits behind the wheel.
A scene from the 2021 Japanese film ‘Drive My Car.’ Janus Films

Two years ago, South Korea’s Parasite shocked the world and changed cinema forever when it became the first foreign-language film to win best picture at the Oscars. This year, Drive My Car—an artful, meditative Japanese drama—is up for the award. And though the betting odds are against it, a win for the Japanese film could be just as revolutionary.

Japan’s film industry has struggled through ups and downs since the Golden Age of Japanese cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. At times, movies like Ran (1985), Spirited Away (2001), and Your Name (2016) have soared to capture the world’s attention, but more often, even critical darlings have rambled in relative obscurity. Meanwhile, film production committees in Japan hold to a narrow vision of the domestic market without looking to appeal to the outside world.

It took a special combination of history, artistry, soft power, and luck for Drive My Car to arrive in this position as the first Japanese film nominated for best picture and the most successful Japanese movie at the Oscars since the portfolio of legendary director Akira Kurosawa.

Two years ago, South Korea’s Parasite shocked the world and changed cinema forever when it became the first foreign-language film to win best picture at the Oscars. This year, Drive My Car—an artful, meditative Japanese drama—is up for the award. And though the betting odds are against it, a win for the Japanese film could be just as revolutionary.

Japan’s film industry has struggled through ups and downs since the Golden Age of Japanese cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. At times, movies like Ran (1985), Spirited Away (2001), and Your Name (2016) have soared to capture the world’s attention, but more often, even critical darlings have rambled in relative obscurity. Meanwhile, film production committees in Japan hold to a narrow vision of the domestic market without looking to appeal to the outside world.

It took a special combination of history, artistry, soft power, and luck for Drive My Car to arrive in this position as the first Japanese film nominated for best picture and the most successful Japanese movie at the Oscars since the portfolio of legendary director Akira Kurosawa.

On the one hand, a quiet, three-hour, mid-budget foreign film without any major streaming partner is an unlikely candidate to succeed in 2022. But critics and experts say Drive My Car is a masterpiece.

Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car is a fictional story that follows a character named Yusuke Kafuku, an actor and theater director struggling to cope with the loss of his wife, whom he discovered had been cheating on him shortly before her death. It’s a restrained but at times forceful film, shifting from Tokyo to an island off of the coast of Hiroshima, where Kafuku directs a multilingual adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya—only to cast one of his wife’s former sexual partners as the lead.

Drive My Car, based in part on a short story of the same name by acclaimed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, is less experimental than Hamaguchi’s previous films, brilliantly walking the line between compelling human drama and bold artistic decision-making. “It’s absolutely best picture-worthy,” Carlos Aguilar, a film critic writing for RogerEbert.com, told Foreign Policy. “It’s a subtly potent drama about the ways we deal with grief and how human connection, particularly sharing our pain, can liberate us from carrying our burdens alone.”

Kafuku’s source of connection is the taciturn young woman Misaki Watari, who is Kafuku’s driver during his time in Hiroshima. At first, Kafuku is reluctant to hire a woman as young as Watari as a driver for his beloved red 1987 Saab 900 Turbo, but she quickly proves herself. The two begin to open up to one another in their long daily commute, eventually helping each other heal from painful, traumatic pasts.

An interior shot of a car shows character Misaki Watari driving with character Yusuke Kafuku in the back seat.
An interior shot of a car shows character Misaki Watari driving with character Yusuke Kafuku in the back seat.

A scene from ‘Drive My Car.’ Janus Films

By balancing a few major stars and a respectable budget with an indie mentality, Drive My Car is also a unique film within Japan. Matt Schley, a Tokyo-based Japanese film and anime reporter, told Foreign Policy that most Japanese productions nowadays are either cheap indie films or big-budget dramas and anime adaptations. “The middle has been kind of hollowed out,” Schley said. Drive My Car “harkens back to when Japanese films were doing really well abroad on the festival circuit in the ’90s.”

Drive My Car is distinct in its production, brilliance, and, without a big-name streaming partner, its meticulous distribution. But changing circumstances and viewpoints in Hollywood have also had an important role in making this nomination possible. Now with 10 best picture nominees instead of five, and several trailblazing Asian award winners on the books, including Chloe Zhao winning best director and Youn Yuh-jung winning an acting Oscar last year, a precedent has been set for Asian and Asian American nominees on the ballot at the Academy Awards, and for them winning. After facing criticism in 2015 and 2016, when all 20 nominees in the major acting categories were white for two consecutive years, the academy has worked to expand toward a more diverse membership.

“I think [Drive My Car’s nomination] says more about Hollywood and the American audience opening up to Asian stories and characters and embracing them,” said Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.Squid Game was one of Netflix’s biggest hits, and of course all of the streaming giants are falling over themselves trying to license anime properties.”

Most commentators within Japan have welcomed the nomination with a touch of surprise, while also noting that this possibility has been steadily building for years. TV producer Nobuyuki Sakuma spoke on Nippon Broadcasting about how he sees this achievement as the accumulation of 10 years of Japan’s indie film scene steadily improving. Erina Ito, a journalist and member of the Japanese Film Project, a nonprofit that researches and makes proposals to resolve issues with labor and gender inequality in the Japanese film industry, said that the nomination comes from both the talent of Hamaguchi and the great history of Japanese movies that made his works possible.

But even just two years ago, Japanese commentators were staunchly pessimistic about Japan’s chances of producing an international hit like Parasite. Unlike Japan, South Korea has invested aggressively in its film and entertainment industries in the past few decades. Yes, Japanese art and culture continue to exert a growing influence through the skyrocketing popularity of manga and anime along with a pre-coronavirus tourism boom. But compared to the thriving world of South Korean film and drama, Japanese live-action film and television aren’t constructed for success abroad. In fact, Drive My Car is in many ways an outlier in a Japanese film industry that fails to fairly compensate labor and look beyond its borders.

“Most people in the Japanese film industry are freelancers,” Ito told me over email. “[They’re] people who love movies and want to make good movies, but they are forced to work under a terrible environment where they don’t have labor contracts and the Labor Standards Act isn’t followed (e.g., long working hours, low wages, power harassment, sexual harassment).”

Japan’s film industry notably lacks the labor unions of Hollywood that provide protections for workers. It results in grueling schedules and poor pay, constantly forcing talented people out of the industry. Another major problem is Japan’s system of production committees, where five or 10 companies each put in money to fund a film.

“It makes sense from a financial perspective, because if the film tanks, then no one company will go bankrupt but at the same time,” Schley said. “But a lot of directors complain about how it destroys their creativity with all of the separate stakeholders putting in different complaints.”

But Hamaguchi doesn’t rely on the major film production conglomerates and doesn’t represent the standard world of Japanese cinema. Hamaguchi also proved an outlier with his long rehearsal schedules, giving actors time to digest and memorize the material. Many Japanese films are shot without any rehearsal time.

Reika Kirishima, Ruysuke Hamaguchi, Toko Miura, and Sonia Yuan stand behind a table featuring the Cannes logo.
Reika Kirishima, Ruysuke Hamaguchi, Toko Miura, and Sonia Yuan stand behind a table featuring the Cannes logo.

Reika Kirishima, Ruysuke Hamaguchi, Toko Miura, and Sonia Yuan attend the ‘Drive My Car’ photocall during the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival on July 12, 2021, in Cannes, France. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

In fact, Hamaguchi originally planned to rely on South Korea’s superior filmmaking infrastructure to achieve his vision. The film was meant to be set in Busan, South Korea, not Hiroshima, but that fell through with COVID-19. This coincidence of history is a remarkable accident. Drive My Car was going to be a Japanese film that relied on the superior South Korean filmmaking talent to succeed—living proof of the vast gulf between the two industries. But due to the pandemic, Drive My Car became homegrown instead.

“I focused on the fact that Korean film is prospering and its influence is getting stronger,” Hamaguchi said at a press conference at the Busan International Film Festival. “And I thought I could learn a lot from the way Korean filmmakers work and produce a film.”

Chances are Drive My Car will not win best picture this year. It simply doesn’t have the same mass appeal as Parasite or the same PR push that winners typically have in Hollywood. It would be the longest movie to win the category in almost 20 years and is competing with much larger studios. Advertisements for best picture-nominated films bombard Los Angeles during the runup to the Oscars, and out of this year’s 10 nominees, the only film without an aggressive awards campaign in LA is Drive My Car.

“I think it’s a long shot solely because ‘The Power of the Dog’ has Netflix and all its resources behind it, meaning they can pay for more publicity and make it more visible,” Aguilar said. Among those betting on the Oscars outcomes in Las Vegas, Power of the Dog was at -155 (greater than 50 percent chance to win) and Drive My Car was at +10,000 as of March 24 (1 percent chance to win).

Still, Drive My Car’s nominations are already making a difference in Japan and abroad. Each passing international nomination brings more momentum and attention to non-American films. Industry insiders in Japan hope that the nominations inspire Japanese distributors and sponsors to give talented filmmakers better budgets and more artistic license, while improving wages and working conditions. Even without a victory, Drive My Car represents a potential step forward for Japanese cinema—but only if production committees empower more talented directors like Hamaguchi to achieve their artistic vision.

To many in the Japanese film world, Parasite represented a seemingly unattainable ideal: an international hit beloved by critics and viewers alike that catapults a national cinema onto the global stage. Japanese directors are constantly impressed by the filmmaking infrastructure and working conditions in South Korea, and Hamaguchi would have shot Drive My Car there if not for COVID-19. Instead, this accident of history has spurred newfound optimism in Japan.

Much fuss has been made in recent years about the dominance of South Korean popular music and cinema in opposition to Japanese popular culture. But the success of Drive My Car, which has a chance to elevate Japanese culture abroad and the infrastructure behind that culture at home, simply wasn’t possible without Parasite. A smash hit like Parasite opened the doors for an artistic drama like Drive My Car. The rise of Asian culture and pop culture around the world is more synergistic—and in the case of Hamaguchi, literally more collaborative—than many have argued.

Thanks to the path paved by Parasite, Haruki Murakami, and generations of Japanese filmmakers who went unrewarded by the academy, Drive My Car has the chance to make history. It also has the chance to change Japanese cinema forever if the industry decides to grow. While not much is different on the ground for filmmakers yet, the future of Japanese cinema is arguably as bright as it’s ever been, regardless of what happens at the Oscars on March 27.

Correction, March 28, 2022: This article was updated to remove a mistranslated quote from Nobuyuki Sakuma.

Eric Margolis is a writer and translator from Japanese.

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