Coming in at nearly three hours, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, an adaptation of author Haruki Murakami’s 38-page short story of the same name, is never ostentatious. Incorporating a natural rhythm to its slow burn, the film asks us to stop and pay attention, and to live with its characters.
During the 40-minute prologue, Hamaguchi explores the life of a methodic stage actor, Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), as he and his screenwriting wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), continuously try to stoke their love amidst the listlessness that has plagued them since the death of their 4-year-old daughter some years ago. Their relationship is put on the rocks even further after Kafuku walks in on Oto having an affair. She doesn’t notice him and he doesn’t tell her of his discovery out of fear of losing her. And then one night, after avoiding coming home, Kafuku discovers his wife dead from a brain aneurysm.
If the first 40 minutes serve as setup, the last 140 are essentially healing for our protagonist. Two years later, Kafuku agrees to direct an experimental multi-lingual adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, a production starring the young actor who his wife had been cheating with. It’s also here where our protagonist also befriends his driver, Watari (Tōko Miura), who takes him to and from rehearsals in the director’s red Saab 900. As Kafuku and Watari commute for two hours each day, the two of them find therapy in their chats along the way.
To convey every rich bit of subtext and symbolism in a simple logline would be impossible. In order to fully explore the beguiling nuance of Drive My Car, one must embrace the three-hour runtime themselves and absorb the material through osmosis, as designed. While Hamaguchi doesn’t pack in much actual plot, per se, he leaves his film open and allows these inherent complexities to seep in.
Exposition is delivered at such a high clip that it would be deemed irresponsible in any other film. But here, the long-winded, yet economic dialogue, written by both Hamaguchi and his co-writer Takamasa Oe, has a smooth, conversational flow that feels embedded into the brains of the actors themselves. Even when the performances miss a beat, the performers still seem to be living out this story firsthand.
The characters are all coded with this genuine curiosity about one another, but also a thirst for relaying their own stories to others – an honesty that only increases the weight of the one secret Kafuku still keeps to himself, building tension in its own way. The refreshing sense of disclosure elsewhere doesn’t detract from the highly interpretive script. As much as is spoken aloud, Hamaguchi allows there to be so many mysteries still waiting to be unveiled.
The standout performance amongst the cast is that of Park Yoo-rim as a mute actress cast as Sonya in the Chekhov play. She doesn’t have as much screen time as the others, but each time she’s there, it’s to provide us with a much-needed assessment of the film’s themes. Hamaguchi refuses to throw up subtitles for her character, necessitating her husband to translate what she says for a protagonist who doesn’t understand Korean Sign Language any more than (presumably) the majority of the audience does.
This added step that’s required to know what she’s saying only punctuates the call for patience and attentiveness of the audience. And the actress perfectly captivates us with her every sign.
Despite the modern technology throughout the movie, Drive My Car has a classic feel. Director of photography Hidetoshi Shinomiya shoots the picture in a way that looks less digital and more like it was filmed in the ‘90s, retaining the authentic look from the camera itself. As we explore the milieus of modern-day Japan, we feel the added impact that the setting has on Kafuku’s recovery that can only be derived through an authentic look.
All guided by the ghost of Chekhov, with a narrative that may have its own loose parallels to Uncle Vanya, Drive My Car holds an interesting meta-fiction relationship with itself, made even more intriguing by a cassette tape of line readings from the play on a near-constant loop throughout Kafuku’s ventures in his car. It’s through Uncle Vanya that many of the themes are, not spelled out, but tangentially touched upon – deas such as the complexities of true love, and the dire consequences of not honestly confronting your pain or standing up for yourself, and how that can have a ripple effect through everyone you hold closest.
It’s tough these days to make a movie with nary a laugh, but Hamaguchi fights the urge to include even a single joke, and still captivates and entertains his audience in a way that resonates throughout an entire crowd – one of the few movies that can touch each viewer, even perhaps those who can’t directly relate to the characters and what they’re going through. For any aspiring filmmaker looking to make a serious drama, this is one to study. Even this year’s Pig or 2020’s Best Picture winner Nomadland – both amazing films – had slight touches of levity. Drive My Car never finds any laughter through the pain. It’s easily one of the best films of the year and one of the best straight-forward dramas in recent vintage.