Drive My Car, 2021.
Co-written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi.
Starring Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura, and Reika Kirishima.
Nishijima Hidetoshi is a stage actor and director happily married to his playwright wife. Then one day she disappears.
Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s 2013 short story of the same name, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s new drama Drive My Car lends uncommon on-screen weight to the souls of the dead, resulting in a captivating – if undeniably lengthy – character study.
Japanese theatre director Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his screenwriter wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) enjoy a seemingly loving marriage, bonded by both the creativity that swells during their passionate lovemaking sessions, and the mutual trauma of losing their four-year-old daughter almost 20 years prior.
But one day, unbeknownst to Oto, Yusuke catches her mid-tryst in their home with a handsome young actor, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Yet before Yusuke has much time to process what he’s seen, or a possibly-repentant Oto can fess-up, she drops dead from the most banal of medical emergencies; a sudden cerebral haemorrhage.
Skip forward two years later, and Yusuke has accepted a directing job helming an upcoming production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” However, due to a previous artist being involved in a gnarly car accident, the production company’s insurance dictates that Yusuke be driven around at all times. Enter Yusuke’s unassuming 23-year-old chauffeur Misaki (Tōko Miura), tasked with driving his red Saab 900 wherever he wishes to go.
And because this apparently isn’t enough of a distractive intrusion for Yusuke, he makes the possibly-twistedly punitive, possibly-self-flagellating decision to cast Oto’s lover Takatsuki as Vanya in the play, hoping to glean a window into the interior life of his late wife in her final days.
Though firmly centered around a brutal act of infidelity, Hamaguchi’s film is still, inexplicably, palpably romantic. Yusuke anguishes over loving so deeply a person who deceived him, and knowing that Oto intended to speak with him the evening that she dropped dead, never knowing for sure if she was preparing to bare her soul in contrition.
The fact that their romantic connection informed their collective creative vitality is also relevant; an early scene in which Oto writes a story verbally while riding her husband exemplifies a unique connection between sex and storytelling. While strange, this practise makes her betrayal that much more cutting, as Yusuke attempts to find joy in art once again.
But the real heart of Drive My Car lies in the uneasily growing bond between Yusuke and his driver Misaki, swapping stories of bereavement which allow each to recognise the other’s suffocating survivor’s guilt. Though the surrogate daughter implications of this dynamic are far too tidy – Misaki is the very same age that Yusuke’s daughter would’ve been – it’s overall a very touching one.
There’s no getting around the elephant in the room that is the film’s 179-minute runtime, though audiences who do take the lengthy plunge will likely chuckle at the “opening” credits not arriving for roughly 40 minutes. It’s tough to ever call it excessively languid, though; scenes are given room to respire and play out organically for as long as they need to, using this large canvas to explore the characters’ inner humanity in beefy depth.
The most unwieldy aspects of that runtime come to bear when Hamaguchi focuses explicitly on the auditions and rehearsals for Uncle Vanya. The parallels of Chekhov’s play with Yusuke’s personal situation will be evident even to those with no knowledge of or affinity for Chekhov, though the point does feel overdone by pic’s end. Still, there is something worthy to be said here for the therapeutic utility of art, to mediate our lives in their trauma, heartbreak, and even our own worst acts.
A few editing nips and tucks wouldn’t have hurt, for sure, but there isn’t much of a feeling that Hamaguchi is disrespecting our time. Even in its more indulgent moments, the dialogue rarely falters; it’s easy to hang on every word of the many dramatically loaded conversations which take place within Yusuke’s car, especially a quietly enervating, insinuation-loaded quasi-confrontation between Yusuke and Takatsuki.
The demanding length is also compartmentalised slightly in act three as the narrative saunters into somewhat darker territory, adopting a more mournful, funereal tone as Yusuke and Misaki attempt to attain closure for their respective losses. Yet these turns of plot never feel melodramatic, and though the ending leaves enough up in the air for audiences to contemplate on the ride home, the title’s true meaning is brought into crystal-clear focus.
The sheer watchability of the story is aided immensely by Hamaguchi’s spot-on casting throughout, particularly leads Nishijima and Miura, whose slow-but-steady chemistry is unsentimental but affecting, each actor giving a slight, un-mannered performance of tremendous restraint.
Cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s lensing may be matter-of-fact – it’s never more beautiful than during an opening silhouetted shot of a nude Oto rising out of bed – but the pointed framing is surely effective.
The driving scenes, of which there are obviously many, aren’t flashy in the slightest, though at least bring the repetitive motorways to life with their wide glimpses of Hiroshima’s enveloping landscapes. Hamaguchi is also smart enough to know when the simplicity of a shot-reverse-shot conversation need not be impeded, especially during some of the more loaded chit-chat. Eiko Ishibashi’s loungy musical score meanwhile appears periodically during dialogue interludes, though the film would be basically just as effective without it.
Drive My Car is certainly a lengthy sit, but Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s absorbing, epic three-hour drama finds a unique, affecting throughline to examine the crushing power of conflicted grief.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.