‘Drive My Car’ Oscar is a slow-burn return for Japan’s cinema

The last time a Japanese entry won the Oscar for best international film 13 years ago, it was something of an upset, surprising the forecasters who had barely heard of “Departures,” Yojiro Takita’s story about an accidental undertaker, before the ceremony.

>>Motoko RichThe New York Times
Published : 29 March 2022, 07:39 AM
Updated : 29 March 2022, 07:39 AM

Japanese cinema, after all, had long since faded from its mid-20th century glory, when critics and other filmmakers from around the globe celebrated directors like Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu as giants of world cinema.

This year’s winner, “Drive My Car,” Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s quiet, devastating meditation on grief and art and human connection, was the overwhelming favourite in the international category, and was also nominated for best adapted screenplay, best director and best picture.

Hamaguchi’s Oscar win is something of a capstone to a slow-burn return of Japanese filmmakers to international acclaim. Three years ago, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” was also nominated in the international category at the Academy Awards after winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa won best director at the Venice Film Festival in 2020 for “Wife of a Spy.”

Yet in some ways the international success of “Drive My Car” derives from its transcendence of the constraints of an insular domestic film industry where most movies never make it off Japan’s shores.

Hamaguchi’s movie, based on short stories by Haruki Murakami, portrays “a Japan that is easy to accept and understand for foreigners,” said Tamaki Tsuda, a television producer and former film critic in Tokyo. The content of the film is by definition international: The main character directs a theatre production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” featuring actors from multiple countries speaking different languages, including Korean sign language.

It “touches upon feelings that everyone holds but rarely says,” Tsuda said. “It’s not a movie where you have to understand Japan to really like it and understand it.”

Hamaguchi, in a backstage interview after his Oscar win, said he thought that the movie’s themes translated well across borders. “I think this story about loss, and how to live on after loss, resonated with a lot of people,” he said through an interpreter.

The movie, which presented a cosmopolitan Japan and portrayed characters living in social isolation, may also have echoed current Western impressions of Japanese society.

“We are looking at what vision of Japanese-ness that the broader international culture has of Japan at the moment,” said Jennifer Coates, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at Sheffield University in Britain. With news media portrayals of a loneliness epidemic or the phenomenon of extreme recluses known as “hikikomori,” the kinds of films that have touched critics and audiences outside Japan feature “a detached style” in “films about quiet trauma,” Coates said.

Still, unlike “Parasite,” the South Korean thriller about class struggle directed by Bong Joon Ho that made Oscar history as the first film not in the English language to win the Academy Award for best picture in 2020, “Drive My Car” does not deal with problems in Japanese society head on. Its social message is perhaps quieter, nudging Japan away from an inward focus in a country where borders are still closed to international tourists and immigration is still something of a touchy subject.

The movie has not been a particular box office success in Japan, where it has taken in only 889 million yen (just over $7 million) in ticket sales since its release in August, with most of its viewers in Japan coming only after its Oscar nomination. “The foreign award nominations are what got Japanese off their sofas to go to the theatres,” Tsuda said.

Its lacklustre domestic performance is notable in a country where homegrown movies have been outselling American blockbusters for the last 14 years.

Hamaguchi did not make his movie within Japan’s mainstream studio system, where financing comes from a nexus of film producers, advertising agencies, television networks and even cosmetics companies, a system that often deprives directors of artistic independence. Instead, he sought independent funding from small production companies with little marketing muscle for the domestic market.

“It’s possible to argue that ‘Drive My Car’ is actually an argument against the Japanese film industry,” said Aaron Gerow, a professor of East Asian literature and film at Yale who specialises in Japanese cinema. “There might be some people who say ‘Wow, it won the Oscar and the Japanese film industry is going to benefit from this,’ but there is an argument for saying, No it won’t, because this is a film that is in some ways opposed to the Japanese film industry.”

Japanese moviegoers spent about 162 billion yen ($1.3 billion) in theatres last year, with nearly 80% of those tickets sold for movies made in Japan. Yet many of the domestically produced films have little chance of finding an international audience, film scholars say, in part because they are not of very high quality.

“A lot of film and television production in Japan is hampered by very mediocre acting,” said Kerim Yasar, an assistant professor of East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Southern California. Many movies cast so-called idols who appear on television variety shows, have little theatrical training, and are more akin to social media “influencers” than serious actors.

In Japan, reception to Hamaguchi’s win was tepid. Hirokazu Matsuno, chief Cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, offered congratulations in a daily briefing for reporters. But Kenji Komine, a film and television correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, described the award for “Drive My Car” as a “very embarrassing situation” because the film had not been backed by mainstream studios and received so little funding.

In a brief email exchange, Shigehiko Hasumi, a former president of the University of Tokyo and a mentor of Hamaguchi’s, said he had “no interest in the Academy Awards,” and wrote that “Drive My Car” is “hardly an excellent work” without further explanation.

Still, Tsuda, the television producer, said the Oscar success of “Drive My Car” might yet prompt more Japanese filmmakers to consider an international audience.

“Especially now, with the existence of streaming, Netflix, Amazon and such, Japanese movies and TV shows are streamed all around the world and accessible,” Tsuda said. “So I think people need to be aware of a foreign audience and what perceptions they may have.”

For his part, Hamaguchi said he was not thinking much about a broader audience when he made the film. “I myself am a film viewer, so therefore I have my own standards,” he said in the backstage interview after the Oscars. “So I am thinking about my own personal standards and whether the filmmaking that I am doing is meeting those standards.”

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