Somewhere, in an alternate timeline, Hidetoshi Nishijima is on the verge of an Oscar nomination. The veteran Japanese actor has earned career kudos for his role in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” including taking Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics. Unfortunately, maybe it’s due to pandemic affected campaigning or being when it comes to FYC media spends, but Nishijima is unlikely to breakthrough. In a conversation conducted through a translator earlier this month, he was well aware of his underdog status and, frankly, didn’t seem to mind.
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Adapted from stories by writer Haruki Murakami, “Drive My Car” finds Nishijima portraying Yūsuke Kafuku, an actor and director who memorizes his lines by playing them in his car while driving around Tokyo. HIs wife, Oto Kafuku (Reika Kirishima), a television executive, records all the lines always keeping her close to him. When she unexpectedly passes away, he falls into a deep depression that is exacerbated by an out-of-town gig to direct an unconventional staging of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya.” Much to his dismay, he is even forced to use a driver, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), to transport him from his lodging to the theater. For Nishijima, the car was undoubtedly one of the main characters in the film.
“I think for Kafuku, this was actually a very important, special place for him, which is why initially he never let anyone else drive the car,” Nishijima says.” Of course, it changes when Oto ends up driving. Then, of course, Misaki is his driver. But you’ll notice that his position keeps changing and that he moves to the driver’s seat. He’s in the driver’s seat, he moves to the other seat. He moves to the back, and then he ends up not being in the car. I think the car itself is a very large symbol in terms of this film. It’s not just a car, it’s actually one of the roles. So I think that in my performance, this is something that I was very aware of.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. There are also some minor spoilers if you have not seen the film.
The Playlist: Congratulations on the success of the film and you winning Best Actor from the National Society of Critics. How are you feeling about the accolades the film has received?
Hidetoshi Nishijima: Thank you very much for saying that. I’m really happy to see that a film made in Japanese, it’s not an English film, is reaching so many people and that they’re really understanding their performance aspect of the film and all the other aspects that they’re appreciating it. That makes me very, very happy. I think that all that acclaim is leading more people to see the film, which I think is also wonderful as well. So I’m just very psyched about the whole thing.
What was your initial reaction when the project came your way?
So, I actually had been saying before I did this project that I would want to work on something with Hamaguchi. So I was actually very happy to be able to make that a reality. When I received the script, I really felt like, wow, this is something that it’s going to be extremely challenging, but at the same time very much worth it.
How challenging was it from your perspective as an actor to have shot all those scenes that you did before the stay at home and then to return over six months later to finish the rest of production?
In terms of Kafuku as a character, we shot before the lockdown up until the point before she died. And then everything that came after would be after she passed away. So for the character himself, this was his whole world had changed. It was a 180-degree difference. In terms of the lockdown, this was something that I, of course personally experienced along with everyone in the world, and it’s something that in my own life, it obviously had a very large effect. I think that this, the breaking off the filming in terms of in real life as well, it’s something that happened to everyone all around the world and it’s actually reflected in this film as well in terms of the way the filming took place. So, I think that’s a special aspect of it.
I heard you’re a fan also of the original author’s books. Did you take inspiration from what he had written, or was the script your only reference?
I’d have to say that both were an inspiration for how I created the character. I think some of the themes we’re talking about is how to deal with the despair and cruelty that happens in the world and in people’s lives. I think for Hamaguchi, the director, he saw the original work as sort of a question that in his film would be an answer, too. So in terms of using the communication and connectivity between people, as well as rebirth as a way to deal with those, the hopelessness and the other themes.
Let’s talk about that communication aspect because you play a director who is directing a film in multiple languages as well as sign language. Was that difficult from a rehearsal, performing aspect?
This actually was a really fulfilling, enjoyable experience for me. All the actors who came on set, as is shown in the film, we do this flat line reading. This is something that in real life, we enjoy, despite the fact that the amount of time we did it for was much longer than it’s shown in the film. We did this over and over, but we all actually really enjoyed learning and understanding each other’s languages. So, for me and the rest of the cast, it was very fulfilling.
Were there additional translators on set so that everyone could communicate, or did most of the actors speak English or speak one language that you all sort of communicated in?
For the most part, English was the language of communication. So we had many interpreters who were using English to facilitate communication. The one exception was for sign language. We were dealing with both Japanese and Korean sign language, which are different. So for those, we had two separate interpreters.
Your character is in such despair and he’s hiding it so much, especially in the second half of the film. As an actor, is that something that you sort of carry with you during production, or is that something when you leave set, you just turn it off?
Hamaguchi’s preference was that even when we left set and went back to our rooms that we would still continue to listen to the recording of our emotionless outline reading. This is something he wanted just keep doing while we were shooting. I think for the Kafuku character as well, this is something he would think about in terms of fully being in character and getting along with the other characters. So, we were not done after shooting. Even after leaving the set, that was something I was conscious of to sort of stay within the character, and this was something that Hamaguchi also wanted. There really was only one time that I went and shared a meal with some of my other co-performers on this, co-stars on this on one of the last days. And again, this was only the one time that this happened. The next time we came to set, Hamaguchi got a bit upset because he was saying there wasn’t enough emotion in our lines. He’s very sharp, and this just showed the level of his perception.
That technique listening to the audio of your lines while driving, jogging or walking, do you think that’s actually helpful for an actor?
In actuality, in terms of this method, this is something that I would and do continue doing. It’s not something that I can necessarily do with another actor, but I can read my own lines, record them, and then listen to them again. And I think by doing the script in this way, in this emotionless reading, it really gets to the heart of what the words mean and they sort of enter you physically, almost.
Was there a scene you were worried about that you thought might not convey the way you would hope for, or that you were worried the audience might not get, that maybe you were satisfied that it worked out?
I think this time in terms of the character, he’s an honest character, but everything he’s feeling is not being conveyed. There are a lot of different reasons for that. But again, it’s not in English. This movie is in Japanese. So I was concerned that the inner feelings of my character, would they really be conveyed and understood by audiences? Especially in regard to this film now, it’s spreading all over the world in all different countries, I had a concern as to whether this would really be conveyed or not via my character. But I’m happy to say that it seems like it is being received very well and people are responding quite positively. This is not to say that I’m talking just about my performance. It’s actually through everyone, the staff, all the camera people, them actually being very attuned to the smallest things in terms of things that are almost imperceptible in terms of Kafuku’s, whether he’s changing his gaze or he’s changing… he’s almost expressionless, and his expression changes slightly. These are all very specific things that I think the audience, they’re concentrating on. They have to pick this up from very slight and subtle changes in the character. Again, this is due to the effort of everyone overall who worked on this film. And I’m very happy to feel like it’s being conveyed. That was something that I was maybe a little bit worried about.
The last time I talked to your director was before the film won LAFCA, New York Film Critics, and National Society. I always knew it would be in sort of the Oscar talk, but are people talking about it in Japan? Is it getting buzz?
Yes. I think little by little, it’s slowly picking up steam domestically as well in terms of attention. In terms of Hamaguchi, the director, his talent and skill were recognized since his student days when he did his graduate thesis. He had received a lot of acclaim within the film world that he was going to become quite an amazing director. This was actually a lot of veteran filmmakers were watching over him during his career. I think it’s just now that his genius is really being recognized in an explosive way he’s being recognized. But it really was him being watched over by many people in the industry during this whole time.
I have one last question for you, and I’m sure you’ve been asked this already many times. But the car itself, was it comfortable, was it a smooth ride? How would you describe it?
Recently in terms of shooting in Japan, it’s not actually the person themself who does the driving. That being said for this film, I was usually the one who did the driving. I was told to drive from the highway service area to the airport, and then to stop at a certain point. During this period, it was about 20 minutes. In the trunk, we had the camera person, the sound recorder, and I was actually the one doing the driving. And it actually was quite comfortable to drive the car. But in terms of the car itself, I really think of it as being one of the main characters in this film, not just when I was actually in the car, but I think for Kafuku, this was actually a very important, special place for him, which is why initially he never let anyone else drive the car. Of course, it changes when Oto ends up driving. Then, of course, Misaki is his driver. But you’ll notice that his position keeps changing and that he moves to the driver’s seat. He’s in the driver’s seat, he moves to the other seat. He moves to the back, and then he ends up not being in the car. I think the car itself is a very large symbol in terms of this film. It’s not just a car, it’s actually one of the roles. So I think that in my performance, this is something that I was very aware of.
“Drive My Car” is in limited release.