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How Japanese DP Hidetoshi Shinomiya JSC brought the rhythms of the road and free-moving actors to Drive My Car

Feb 16, 2022

By Ron Prince

Having earned a trio of prizes at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, and the 2022 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film Drive My Car, from Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, shot by DP Hidetoshi Shinomiya JSC, looks a sure-fire contender for more accolades in the 2022 awards season, including an Academy Award.

With a running time of three-hours, the low-budget (¥150million yen/£960,000/$1.3million), movie was actually adapted and significantly expanded for the big screen from Haruki Murakami’s stark, 40-page short story of the same name. 

The story focusses on Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a successful actor and theatre director who specialises in experimental multilingual productions. Two years after the death of his beloved, but deceitful, wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), Kafuku receives an offer to direct a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival in Hiroshima. As tensions mount amongst the cast and crew, Kafuku is forced to confront painful truths about his past. He forms a profound platonic bond with the emotionally-shutdown Misaki (Tôko Miura), the young woman who is assigned to ferry him around in his cherry-red Saab 900 Turbo, whilst listening to lines from Uncle Vanya recited by Oto.

The absorbing film has been described as a quiet masterpiece of filmmaking, with satisfying layers of storytelling exploring jealousy, love, loss, grief, guilt and the therapeutic power of art. Along with Hamaguchi’s direction, the film has been praised for Shinomiya’s beautifully-composed imagery, with long takes delivering a sense for the rhythm of the road and the quiet energy of the free-moving actors, which enabled them to communicate as much with glances and gestures as with the dialogue.

How did you first get to know your director Ryusuke Hamaguchi?

I first met Mr Hamaguchi after graduating from The Film School Of Tokyo, around 2009, when we worked on a TV commercial, directed by a mutual friend. He was the assistant director and I was the cameraman. It was before I really started working on features, and was still filming shorts. At that point, Mr Hamaguchi had already directed a film called Passion (2008, DP Yûichi Yuzawa), and had made a name for himself as an outstanding young film director. Drive My Car was our first opportunity to work together as director and cinematographer.

What did you feel about the screenplay for Drive My Car?

I had a hunch that this film was what Mr Hamaguchi’s career had been leading up to. Rather than relying on traditional methods of filmmaking, he has built his career on innovating and inventing anew each time. 

One of the most important things for Mr Hamaguchi, when making a film, is to work closely with how the actors express themselves; and the character expression in this screenplay is very direct. So, I felt it was part of my job, as cinematographer, to create a filming environment in which the actors had full reign to express themselves.

The other thing that struck me was how large-scale this film would be, both in terms of time and space. The film is broadly made up of three parts, set in three regions – Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Hokkaido. The first part focusses on the main character, Kafuku, and his relationship with his wife Oto. The next part is after Oto’s death, at the Hiroshima International Theatre Festival, featuring the actor Takatsuki. The final part is about the driver, Misaki, and her past. 

I felt pressure that, unless each storyline was dealt with sensitively, the whole thing might become confused and not come across properly to the audience. However, I was really excited to think that we could draw these elements out carefully and establish them within the film. In order to avoid confusion, I wanted to select the most appropriate expressions from all the footage we were going to shoot, to give the work a sense of unity. 

What were your initial discussions about the look of the film?

I didn’t receive detailed instruction as to the look of the film from Mr Hamaguchi, but we did discuss a plan of action regarding filming and the composition of shots. Also, he did not give detailed directions to the actors either, and they had a lot of freedom on-set. This was because he wanted to actively incorporate the wonderful expressions of the actors, captured by chance, as well as unexpected events, into the film.

To achieve this, there were hardly any rehearsals for the actors, or technical rehearsals, and great emphasis was placed on the expressiveness of the actors in the first take. Therefore, the subsequent takes I needed to shoot often changed according to the first. I think the director’s quick and accurate judgement on-set was because he was always thinking about editing in his head.

How about the colour palette of the film?

What the film needed was for the colour palette to depict the world view and narrative of Haruki Murakami’s original work. The colour needed to be slightly divorced from everyday life, not monotone and easy-to-understand, but something able to express the depths of the human heart.

It was important for me to try to find ways to express time, space and events connected to elements which deeply affect the characters emotionally, such as the period before dawn, the echo of rainfall at midnight, the wife’s betrayal, intimate conversations and the deceased’s voice being played back within the car. It was necessary to strike a balance between the delicate treatment of colour, and respect for the actors, so that the expression was not accentuated to the detriment of the acting and that it did not detract from the enjoyment of seeing or listening to the actors.

“The colour palette needed to express the depths of the human heart”

I referred to the works of the Portuguese cinematographer Eduardo Serra in the look I used in Drive My Car, and to the final three films directed by Claude Chabrol. The images in those films are characterised by pale blue, which gently wraps around the entire film, are clear and realistic, but also mysterious and disquieting. I thought this kind of look would be perfect and used this colour as my base, but developed it to reflect the characteristic landscapes of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Hokkaido.

How much preparation time did you have, and when/where did you shoot?

We made preparations under a pretty tight schedule. I received the screenplay around 2019, and got involved in scouting locations, etc., about a month before the start of filming. We didn’t shoot on any sets. All the filming was done in real locations.

Initially, filming was due to take place over 40 days from the first half of March 2020. However, after filming the first half of the film in Tokyo for ten days, we were forced to stop for nearly half a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Filming resumed in November, but the scheduled filming in Pusan, Korea, was cancelled due to restrictions on overseas travel, so we changed the setting to Japan, and the location to Hiroshima.

Hiroshima, being so historic, international and varied in climate and landscape, brought something wonderful to the film. It made my heart pound when I scouted the location and thought of the red Saab driving through the islands.

Which cameras and lenses did choose?

I wanted, at all costs, to avoid any trouble, in order not to miss shooting a single second of the actors’ finest performances, particularly as filming often took place in confined spaces, such as inside the car, or at low temperatures in the snow, in Hokkaido. With these factors in mind, I chose the Alexa Mini, with its expressive power, as my weapon of choice, along with Ultra Prime lenses. I shot in 1.85:1 aspect ratio because it was the perfect size to express the characteristics of each place were going to shoot, and to achieve a good balance between the people and the background.

Tell us a little about your framing?

In order to convey the unembellished charm of the acting, I tried to cut out anything unnecessary between the lens and the subject. So, I chose to work in a way that didn’t add anything extra to the acting and captured the genuine expression. Other than an ND filter, I just used a Tiffen Digital Diffusion filter to soften the hard impression of the lens. We rented the filming equipment from Sanwa Eizai in Tokyo.

Did you work with a colourist to create any LUTs for the film?

I took some test shots to the lab and graded in DaVinci Resolve to create a LUT that was incorporated into the camera. It was the only one used for filming everything, whether indoor or outdoor, day or night. It is more efficient and less confusing to use one variety of LUT. It was necessary to keep things as simple as possible, so I did not grade on-site.

What was your approach to motivating the camera for storytelling purposes?

It was the director’s policy that the camera only moved when the actor, who was the subject, moved. The movement was also kept to a bare minimum to enable the characters to be seen clearly. This was because Mr Hamaguchi wanted to ensure that nothing else was emphasised other than the actors’ performances and their emotions. For moving shots, the only pieces of equipment used were rails and dollies.

And what was your approach to the lighting?

It was naturalistic. We used HMI, LED and Tungsten sources, rented from Nihon Shomei Inc., and did not use any special items. The premise was that most scenes would be filmed using the natural light at the location, only supplementing it when there was not enough. This meant that shooting largely depended on the weather of the day.

I have quite an emotional attachment to the opening scene of the film, which I shot on the first day of filming, in which Kafuku and his wife Oto are talking in bed before dawn, although we actually shot it during magic hour. It’s a sensitive scene, and the balance between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between reality and fiction, was very important. I wanted to create the magical feeling of the light enveloping the two of them, but felt a lot of pressure because the timing was tricky and it was also the first day.

The scene begins with a take in which a woman’s silhouette appears in front of a large window through which you can see a pale blue sky before sunrise. The woman begins to tell a story, as if haunted, and we later realise that it’s after she has made love to the man who is listening to the story. You can tell that the silhouette is a naked woman, but it is too dark to see the expression right away.

I think the imbalance between knowing she must be naked, but not being able to see it, is deeply related to some of the themes of this film – realising that you are not actually seeing what you thought you were, finding there’s a part of a person you thought you understood, but that you didn’t know at all. 

The view through the window is not a composite shot but what could actually be seen at the time. We decided to film it like this, thinking it might make the acting easier, as the actors shared in the atmosphere and tension of the scene.

I started off shooting several takes towards the window and then began shooting takes without the window in the frame. The silhouette is made of a negative fill using a black sheet in front of the character. I originally aimed to film after the sun had gone down, but the gradation of the sky was at its best during magic hour, balancing perfectly with the dark side of the figure. I feel that I managed to film at the perfect time when what seemed visible was not visible.

Who were your camera crew?

It was mainly a single camera shoot, and I operated the camera the whole time. I usually work with crews I trust and have worked with multiple times before. This time, however, I worked for the first time with gaffer Taiki Takai, who has been the lighting assistant on many films and has an amazing wealth of experience, so I was not worried about working with him for the first time. He was really consistent in his work and contributed lots of ideas and inspiration. 

When we needed a second camera, I chose Ryuichi Shimokawa as the operator. He has worked with me as an assistant for many years, has a great feeling for the lens and framed the film exactly right. Working with Mr Hamaguchi, there are virtually no acting or technical rehearsals, so the focus pullers need to be really skilled. Both Mr Yamada and Mr Tomori improved the quality of the project through their precise focus skills.

“When I am filming, I always remember the expression: ‘God is in the detail’”

There was no grip on-set, so the camera crew had to set-up the camera in the Saab car. It was a painstaking process, setting-up the camera time-after-time with such a small crew, but we made things faster by doing the usual things such as having pre-shoot meetings, sharing information, getting into a rhythm and clearly identifying the role of each crew member.

Where did you do the final DI colour grade?

The final grading was done at Imagica in Tokyo, with colourist Yumeto Kitayama. I have worked with him on many projects before. He totally understood my aims and expressed them, so completing the work was stress-free. The grade itself was simple as it was based on the pre-made LUT, but there was quite a lot of work as the film is 178-minutes long. 

Do you have any other thoughts to share about working on Drive My Car?

When I am filming, I always remember the expression: “God is in the detail”. One of the joys for me is to work with this mindset. It allowed me to focus on the actors and enabled me to draw on their expressions to enrich the film. Also, I want Mr Hamaguchi to become a global director, working on an even larger scale, and for him to get more and more opportunities to exercise his talent.

Thanks to Caroline Buxton and Akiko Wakefield for assistance with translations.

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