Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the Japanese writer-director behind 2021’s epic drama Drive My Car, is something of a renegade: his breakout feature, 2015’s Happy Hour, about a group of thirty-something female friends, carried a fearless 5-hour runtime; and just five months before Drive My Car Hamaguchi premiered another film, the romantic anthology Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. Drive My Car elevates a potentially sleepy premise—a middle-aged widower’s relationship with the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya—into the stuff of cinema history with its intricate dialogue, hypnotic editing, and a note-perfect soundtrack by Eiko Ishibashi.
Eiko is a bit of a renegade herself: her massive discography is littered with masterpieces of every stripe, from the Steely Dan-esque sophisti-pop of 2014’s Car and Freezer to 2018’s unsettling, engrossing The Dream My Bones Dream. There’s also, among many others: 2021’s ambient project countless dream; 2015’s live noise piece memory of a nearby factory; and her most recent release, an experimental jazz record For McCoy ostensibly dedicated to the Law & Order character played by Sam Waterston. Her discography is tied together by her formal mastery, her ear for space, and her quiet irreverence.
Eiko’s soundtrack for Drive My Car is no different, performed by an enviable ensemble that includes Tahuhisa Yamamoto and American-born indie-rock wunderkind Jim O’Rourke. The music bounces between radiant lite-jazz and stretches of ambient piano, aided by sound collage elements lifted from the film. The soundtrack was re-released with two bonus tracks by Newhere Music / Space Shower Music earlier this month. I got to check in with Eiko over Zoom and ask about her process, her understanding of the film’s message, and her ideologies on music and life. She rolled a cigarette during the call, often stopping me to laugh or give recommendations on film and books. We found we had a lot to talk about, much of it abstract or niche; for that I have to thank our translator, Miho Haraguchi, who gamely relayed my stoned-sounding questions and Eiko’s thoughtful replies.
The Film Stage: Long stretches of Drive My Car go without music of any kind. I was wondering if the quiet nature of the film, and Hamaguchi’s aesthetic in general, influenced your compositions?
Eiko Ishibashi: What do you mean by “quiet”?
When your soundtrack isn’t playing there isn’t any incidental music. Long stretches of the film—when characters are practicing the play, or walking—are only diegetic sound.
I feel that, in the film, there are already sounds existing—the sound of the car, the sound of the tape, the recording of Oto reading Chekhov. These are the wonderful sounds existing already in the film. That affected how I wrote the music.
I know you had a pre-existing interest in sound collage and sound editing. Were your compositions based on the sound effects or was it more conceptual?
I was making music thinking about how the music can blend into the sound of the movie, the dialogues. [I don’t] think this film is quiet, actually—the dialogue is really rhythmical and musical. Words in the movie play a big role. It was important for [me] to think about how the music I make could blend into the sounds of the dialogue.
I hadn’t thought about it that way. There’s a scene about a half-hour in where Kafuku parks in the carpark and the alarm buzz is surprisingly loud. The sound design is subtle, but it affects the tone of the film. It isn’t necessarily “quiet.”
Only one part of the film, I think, is quiet: when they go to Hokkaido, the town where Misaki’s mother died. [This is the one] moment where there is completely no sound. And I didn’t realize that until I went to the theater and saw the movie, and that quiet moment made me realize that the silence makes the dialogue have more meaning. That silence makes the dialogue mean more.
And the climax of the film, which is heavily dialogue-based, is ultimately silent, which is interesting.
It makes the silence special.
I feel like you and Hamaguchi share a sense of humor—there’s something silly about how, in Drive My Car, the title card hits 40 minutes in. I also feel like your music has a sense of humor, and your aesthetic, like the cover of your For McCoy EP, which is a drawing of the Law & Order character Jack McCoy. To what extent does humor influence your work? Is there any irony in the Drive My Car compositions?
Maybe this is not humor, but what I tried to do was: I didn’t try to make music that was too close to the characters’ emotions. I tried to make music that didn’t emphasize what the character was feeling too much. I wanted to create some distance between the music and the characters, not try to get too close to the characters with the music.
What do you think is the effect of music that has distance from characters in a film?
One funny episode for me: Hamaguchi told me to make music which is kind of dry. So I made the music dry. And then Mr. Hamaguchi listened to it and said “this is too dry. The movie is dry itself; there’s already a distance existing between the audience and the characters. So I want you to make music which makes the distance shorter between the audience and the film.” So I had to remake the music. [Laughs]
It’s almost the role that music plays in people’s normal lives: it makes people closer to their emotions than they’re willing to get on a conversational basis.
I’ve never thought about an audience when I make music, so when Mr. Hamaguchi told me to do that I was lost for a while. I didn’t know what to do. [Laughs]
Your output is numerous and eclectic; you have a large discography that ranges from art-pop to sound collage. Sometimes I feel like artists are encouraged to work slowly and be obvious in what they do. How do you keep up your work ethic? Do you ever feel pressure to make your work more obvious?
I have no interest in myself. [Laughs] I’m always sick of who I am and what I like; I easily get tired of it. What I want to do is make something I don’t know yet. What makes me happy is making a sound I’ve never heard, finding something I’ve never seen, finding a way to express scenery through music.
Your level of output, and Hamaguchi’s, reminds me of Rainer Werner Fassbinder; I found you’d actually done a soundtrack for his unreleased play Trash, the City and Death, and done music for a Japanese theatrical re-release of World on a Wire in 2016. What are your thoughts on Fassbinder? Also, do you see any commonalities between him and Hamaguchi?
Hamaguchi and Fassbinder have a similar sense of humor. Both of their movies have bars and restaurants which you’ve never seen before; something doesn’t make sense. That’s what they have in common. Fassbinder movies—he’s inspired by Douglas Sirk. I think that they both explore how the idea of love controls us. And how people who try not to be controlled by the idea have difficulty living in this world. Fassbinder is good at showing that kind of world through his movies. Hamaguchi shows that world through his movies as well, I think.
Trash is a play set 20 years after WWII. It’s about a prostitute living there. In the original script there were directions for music cues—“use this music for this scene. Use this track by Wagner. Russian folk.” Only one song was for a composer to create, and so I wrote a song for that scene. I played it onstage as well.
Do you feel that the ideal way of being an artist is to search for work and inspiration, or do you feel that opportunities and inspiration come to you if you’re in the right mindset?
I don’t really believe that something comes to you just by waiting for it. Maybe some artists have talent and ability; they can just wait and it comes to them and they can make music based on something coming to them. I don’t think I have the ability or talent. [Laughs] Even when “it” came to me, it came to me because I tried to look for it, search for it. I always want to find something I don’t know yet. That’s why I want to watch films every day. By searching for it, the ideas come to you. That’s what I believe in.
I’m also a musician that draws a lot from film. What do you think it is about the interplay of music and film?
I think that, in the movies, the music you hear—the sound doesn’t actually exist in the real world. It’s the sound you don’t hear in real life. So the music in a movie has to have meaning, and the meaning changes depending on the story, what the movie is about, what the characters are feeling. So you can’t make music randomly for a film. You have to think of the role of the music, how it can blend into the scenery. That’s how I get inspired by film when I make music. Have you read any books by Michel Chion?
I was inspired by the way he thinks of film music.
One of the themes you wrote for Drive My Car is entitled “the truth no matter what it is isn’t that frightening.” That’s a quote from the film. What made it jump out to you?
I felt that this phrase shows the spirit of the film.
The unveiling of hard truths. Do people go to lengths to avoid the truth, do you think?
I think people don’t want to face the truth sometimes. But sometimes you face a situation where, if you don’t try to face the truth, you can’t move on. I think Mr. Hamaguchi is trying to tell people: it’s fine, even if you have to see the truth. Life goes on, you can move on. It’s fine to face the truth. That’s perhaps the message Hamaguchi wants people to understand in the film.
Is art a good vehicle for uncovering the truth?
I like art because it allows you to escape from reality. But at the same time, by not trying to see reality, art makes you realize what the truth is, actually. You face the truth. Even if you see the truth through the art, you can appreciate the time you were escaping. The art lets you escape from reality for a moment. That encourages you. I like how art works that way.
In Werner Herzog’s documentaries he interviews people, but he never asks them direct questions. So it sounds like it’s got nothing to do with what he wants to know, but by asking these random questions he gets so close to the truth. I think that’s an art.
I felt similarly with Drive My Car. It’s three hours, it’s very conversational. It probes very deep questions about truth and fidelity and how much someone can know another person. And I had this fun experience where I was very involved in the characters’ dramas, so in a way I felt like I was able to forget about my life for a while. But the themes were so deeply expressed, the characters’ feelings so potent, that it made me think about my life on an even deeper level than I normally do.
The film is long, but it requires the three hours.
Anything else you’re working on that you’re excited about?
I want to release an album of vocal songs, and this year I want to go overseas and tour by myself.
Anything else you’ve been thinking about?
[Laughs] It’s a big question. There’s so much in my mind but I can’t express it in words. So I’ll try to let it out with music.
Drive My Car is now in theaters & on VOD and comes to HBO Max on March 2. Listen to Ishibashi’s score below.