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Ryusuke Hamaguchi in Berlin, Germany, on Feb. 9.POOL/The Associated Press

Japanese filmmaker, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, may not be the hero that the 2022 Oscars expected, but he is the hero that this year’s Academy Awards needed.

At a time when movie-going seems limited to Spider-Man and Bruce Wayne, Hamaguchi’s twin 2021 art-house hits – Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy – have given fresh life to the daring act of venturing outside your home to watch something completely new, challenging and transcendent.

Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name, Drive My Car follows middle-aged Tokyo actor and director Yusuke as he deals with the sudden death of his wife while staging an adaptation of Uncle Vanya. Meanwhile, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy – shot in-between the pandemic-interrupted production of Drive My Car – is a collection of three short films, each pondering life’s tiny moments of unexpected intimacy.

Both films are powerful, sublime works that fit Hamaguchi’s reputation in Japan for epic human drama – but it is the three-hour Drive My Car that has caught the Hollywood awards zeitgeist, earning a surprisingly delightful/delightfully surprising four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. But can the 43-year-old Hamaguchi complete his supremely unlikely journey from international film-festival favourite to household Hollywood name?

Ahead of the 94th Academy Awards, and just a few days before Drive My Car was celebrated as the best film of 2021 by the Toronto Film Critics Association, The Globe and Mail spoke with Hamaguchi through a translator about his new level of fame.

Drive My Car received rave reviews across the festival circuit last year, and when all the critics’ guilds began naming it the best film of 2021, long-shot Oscar talk followed. But how much attention were you paying to this conversation?

To be quite honest, I wasn’t thinking about the Oscars at all. At the end of the day, the Oscars are a very distant stage to a lot of Japanese films. So what’s happening now is something that is incredibly surprising.

Hidetoshi Nishijima, left, and Toko Miura in a scene from Drive My Car.Janus Films and Sideshow via AP

Do you see yourself already being afforded more opportunities because of the Oscars nominations? I don’t mean that you’re getting offers from Marvel Studios …

At the end of the day, I won’t know how important it all is until after the awards. I’m getting a lot of calls from unexpected places, but I have no real idea how much of it will help my filmmaking. What’s important for me is to preserve my creative choices, so it would be important to find and build a relationship with someone else where that’s important for them, too.

I feel that Drive My Car is best experienced in the darkened space of the theatre, where you can absorb its drama and length – and it took months for it to make it to digital release here in Canada. Do you feel this film’s power might be diminished watching at home, with all its incumbent distractions?

I think what’s most important is to be able to watch a film with a heightened amount of concentration. As a film fan myself, there are films I’ve always wanted to see but somehow missed when they were in theatres. Now, I’ll stream them or even watch bad-resolution versions on YouTube. As long as there is a desire to watch that film, it is possible for concentration to be maintained. However, undoubtedly it’s true that a film in a movie theatre allows for and creates a situation where concentration is heightened. It’s great to have films streaming, but I hope people are in a situation where they can maintain their concentration.

It’s easy to think of the other film that you released last year, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, as a companion film to Drive My Car. Do you think releasing them so close together in North America benefited the films, or was Wheel perhaps lost in the conversation around Drive My Car?

I don’t think it was a negative thing for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. At the end of the day, it’s an independent film with 10 times a difference in budget between it and Drive My Car. Yes, they have been presented at the same time in various places, but more good things come out of that for Wheel, because there is the ability for the film to be discovered by people who wouldn’t have known about it were it not for Drive My Car. The two films have a relationship of working together toward a positive.

Can you talk about the decision to set the final few minutes of Drive My Car in COVID times, when the preceding drama was entirely mask-free? It was jarring, but I appreciated how it set the tone of the ending immediately.

There was a fundamental question while we were figuring out the wardrobe for that final scene: Should we shoot with masks on or without? We had already shot the rest of the film, and we were in this waiting period in March, 2021, where we were trying to figure out if should shoot the finale abroad or not. But I thought that having characters wear masks was a good way to show the passing of time. We’re all living now in a very different world. And I wanted this scene to feel different than the rest of the film, so I thought it would be great to bring the story into a different zone.

Drive My Car is now playing in select theatres, and is available to rent or own through Apple TV

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