Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” defied expectations last week when it nabbed Oscar nominations for best picture, director, adapted screenplay and international feature. The Japanese movie, released domestically by venerable art-house distributor Janus Films, surpassed titles with more robust campaigns, including Amazon’s “Being the Ricardos” and Netflix’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!”

Even Hamaguchi was surprised by the noms.

“I could have never imagined that I would be a realistic contender,” he tells Variety, speaking through Stacy Smith, a Japanese interpreter. “In terms of the campaign, it was a steady effort where people at Janus made these recommendations. They also have very strong connections with the critics and other parts of the community.”

Hamaguchi tells the story of being on a plane with no internet when the nominations were announced, and receiving about 60 text messages when it landed.

Recent changes to the Academy’s membership and voting methods have given smaller international films like Hamaguchi’s a greater chance for recognition. Until a year ago, those releases had to be watched on the big screen in order for members to vote for them, but now they are accessible online. This likely helped Penélope Cruz get a slot for “Parallel Mothers” in the best actress category and Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World” for original screenplay.

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Courtesy of Culture Entertainment

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Seven films have the honor of being nominated for best picture and international feature. If “Drive My Car” wins, it would be the second-longest to ever win at 179 minutes, behind “War and Peace” (1965) at seven hours and two minutes. The Japanese feature already made history after winning the top prizes from New York, Los Angeles and the National Society of Film Critics, one of only a small handful of films including “The Hurt Locker” (2009) and “The Social Network” (2010) have achieved.

Janus Films, founded in 1956, boasts an impressive library of more than 1,200 films, including works from influential filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and Agnès Varda. It stepped back into the distribution game in 2008 with “Revanche” from Götz Spielmann, an Oscar nominee for Austria, and also had success with the Italian Oscar winner “The Great Beauty” (2013); documentaries “Cameraperson” (2016) and “Faya Dayi” (2021) were shortlisted in their respective awards seasons.

You won’t find Hamaguchi packing up and moving to Hollywood now that he’s an Oscar-nominated director, however. “I’m speaking through an interpreter and my English is nowhere near perfect, and to be honest, it doesn’t even feel like something that has any reality at the moment,” he says.

As for what’s next for him as the film expands in theaters: “I want to take some time to get different sorts of input and let it percolate.”