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Japanese film 'Drive My Car' scores 4 Oscar nominations, including best picture

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Japanese film "Drive My Car" scored four Oscar nominations this week, including best picture. The movie is adapted from a short story by one of Japan's most celebrated writers, Haruki Murakami. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on how the film builds on some of the writer's trademark themes of art and life, loss and redemption.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The film begins in a dimly lit, dreamlike state. Kafuku, an actor and theater director, is in bed with his wife, Oto. They lost their young child, and they cope with it through a kind of creative therapy, making up stories during and after sex. Actor Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Kafuku.

HIDETOSHI NISHIJIMA: (Through interpreter) My character is a person who loves and understands his wife more than anybody.

KUHN: One thing Kafuku doesn't understand is why his wife has been sleeping with other men.

NISHIJIMA: (Through interpreter) You think you understand each other better and trust each other more than anyone. But still, there is a place in the heart that you cannot understand.

KUHN: Oto seems about to confess her infidelity, but before she can do it, she suddenly dies. Then the story fast-forwards two years. It's 40 minutes into the movie, and only now do the opening credits roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUHN: Kafuku deals with his pain through acting or pretending to be someone else. Among the roles he plays is the lead in the Anton Chekhov play "Uncle Vanya," about the frustrated caretaker of a Russian country estate. Kafuku's mobile stage is an old red two-door Saab Sedan, which also serves as a rolling shrine to his wife. He practices his lines on the way to the theater with a recording of his wife reading the other parts. Later, Kafuku takes up residence at a theatre festival. For insurance reasons, they assign him a young female driver named Misaki.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DRIVE MY CAR")

NISHIJIMA: (As Yusuke Kafuku, through interpreter) Sorry, but I still haven't agreed to having you as my driver.

KUHN: ...He says, barely controlling his irritation. Actress Toko Miura talks about playing Misaki.

TOKO MIURA: (Through interpreter) She says she is sensitive to when people are lying. I think that means she can understand people's feelings, and that way she can choose her words to suit the person she's talking to.

KUHN: Misaki starts out tough and frosty, but Miura says she's actually an honest and empathetic character.

MIURA: (Through interpreter) In many ways, I wanted to be like her, and if I were to meet her, I'd say, let's be friends.

KUHN: Misaki listens as Kafuku practices his lines from the play. The lines are like a subtext or a story within a story, echoing or reflecting what's happening between the movie's characters. Sometimes they're clear. Sometimes they're ambiguous. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi explains.

RYUSUKE HAMAGUCHI: (Through interpreter) These are two very self-controlled personalities. They're not the type who speak out. So I started with Kafuku speaking Uncle Vanya's lines so that the audience would think Vanya's words represent Kafuku's emotions.

KUHN: In conversations in the Saab, Kafuku and Misaki gradually open up to each other and discover their common feelings of loss and guilt. Kafuku later admits that Misaki's driving is so smooth he forgets he's in a car. At the theater festival, Kafuku directs "Uncle Vanya." He makes an unusual choice for the lead role, a young actor who happens to be his late wife's former lover. Kafuku speaks with the actor over drinks at a bar.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DRIVE MY CAR")

NISHIJIMA: (As Yusuke Kafuku, through interpreter) This is what you're thinking. He and I share the same pain because we loved the same woman.

KUHN: In fact, both men reveal facets of the wife the other had not known. The young actor ends up giving Kafuku some advice about his wife's inner demons, as well as Kafuku's own. Actor Hidetoshi Nishijima says perhaps Kafuku cast the young actor partly as a kind of revenge.

NISHIJIMA: (Through interpreter) I think he gave the role to the actor out of a feeling which was rather dark and clear and deep. As I was acting this scene, I had such an indescribable feeling.

KUHN: Later in the rehearsals, there's a dialogue between South Korean and Taiwanese actresses. Kafuku tells the actors, stop. Something important just happened.

MATTHEW STRECHER: To me, that was one of several really big moments in this film.

KUHN: Matthew Strecher is a professor of modern Japanese literature at Sophia University in Tokyo. He says this scene touches on a frequent theme in the works of Haruki Murakami, from whose story the film was adapted.

STRECHER: Because that was the moment when the barrier between reality and fiction broke down, which is something that's always happening.

KUHN: When that barrier breaks down, you may find yourself forgetting that the people you're watching are actors and that they're acting in a play and not talking directly to you.

STRECHER: But I think that's true with all Murakami writing. You go through the story, and then you end up rewriting the story anyway in your own image and discovering that it's also about you because all of his stories deal with stuff that we all deal with.

KUHN: Kafuku directs "Uncle Vanya" using actors from several countries, each speaking his or her own language with subtitles. Strecher says this is one way Hamaguchi brings to life Murakami's writing, which transcends language and nationality.

STRECHER: He does it through his writing style, writing this incredibly translatable Japanese, and he does it by setting his stories in places where it could be any place. They're set in Tokyo, but they don't have to be.

KUHN: Hamaguchi also manages to turn Murakami's roughly 40-page short story into a three-hour-long movie. This might appear to be like building a small house into a sprawling mansion, but Hamaguchi describes it differently.

HAMAGUCHI: (Through interpreter) I don't think Murakami's story is a small house but a big story, of which only little bits are shown and other parts are hidden. And my work was to dig out that important hidden part, like excavating ruins.

KUHN: Hamaguchi says another director once described the act of revealing what is hidden this way.

HAMAGUCHI: (Through interpreter) The camera has X-ray eyes, and it can even film a person's soul. I never used to believe it, but now I do.

KUHN: But Matthew Strecher says that in Murakami's works, there are no easy answers to problems such as loss. All people can do is go on living, which is also what the characters in "Uncle Vanya" conclude. Perhaps that's why "Drive My Car" ends not triumphantly but ambiguously, summed up on Misaki's face with just a faint hint of a smile.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF EIKO ISHIBASHI'S "DRIVE MY CAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.