Drive My Car
Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, this masterful drama is the first Japanese film to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
February 10, 2022
More than four decades have passed since Haruki Murakami's debut novel reached shelves, and since the first film adaptation of his work followed, too; however, the two best page-to-screen versions of the author's prose have arrived in the past four years. It's easy to think about South Korean drama Burning while watching Drive My Car, because the two features — one Oscar-shortlisted, the other now the first Japanese movie to be nominated for Best Picture — spin the writer's words into astonishing, intricately observed portraits of human relationships. Both films are also exceptional. In the pair, Murakami's text is only a starting point, with his tales hitting the screen filtered through each picture's respective director. For Drive My Car, Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi does the honours, taking audiences riding through another of the Happy Hour, Asako I & II and with Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy helmer's layered, thoughtful and probing reflections on connection.
Using Murakami's short story from 2014 collection Men Without Women as its basis, Drive My Car's setup is simple. Yes, the film's title is descriptive. Two years after a personal tragedy, actor/director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima, Silent Tokyo) agrees to bring Chekhov's Uncle Vanya to the stage in Hiroshima, and the company behind it insists on giving him a chauffeur for his stay. He declines— he'd asked to stay an hour away from the theatre so he could listen to recorded tapes of the play on his drive — yet his new employers contend that it's mandatory for insurance and liability reasons. Enter 23-year-old Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura, Spaghetti Code Love), who becomes a regular part of Yūsuke's working stint in the city.
Drive My Car doesn't hurry to its narrative destination, clocking in at a minute shy of three hours. It doesn't rush to get to its basic premise, either. Before the film's opening credits arrive 40 minutes in, it steps through Yūsuke's existence back when he was appearing in a version of Uncle Vanya himself, married to television scriptwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima, Japanese TV's Sherlock) and grappling with an earlier heartbreak. His wife is also sleeping with younger actor Takatsuki (Masaki Okada, Arc), which Yūsuke discovers, says nothing about but works towards discussing until fate intervenes. Then, when he sits in his red 1987 Saab 900 Turbo just as the movie's titles finally display, he's a man still wracked by grief. It's also swiftly clear that he's using his two-month Hiroshima residency as a distraction, even while knowing that this exact play — and Oto's voice on the tapes he keeps listening to — will always be deeply tied to his life-shattering loss.
This prologue does more than set the scene; there's a reason that Hamaguchi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Takamasa Oe (The Naked Director), directs so much time its way. Where tales of tragedy and mourning often plunge into happy lives suddenly unsettled by something catastrophic or the process of picking up the pieces in the aftermath — typically making a concerted choice between one or the other — Drive My Car sees the two as the forever-linked halves of a complicated journey, as they are. The film isn't interested in the events that've forever altered the plot of Yūsuke's life, but in who he is, how he copes, and what ripples that inescapable hurt causes. It's just as fascinated with another fact: that so many of us have these stories. Just as losing someone and soldiering on afterwards are unshakeably connected, so are we all by sharing these cruel constants of life.
The reality that anyone can have a history as complex and as coloured by pain is a lesson for Yūsuke to learn. Although he makes a living plumbing the depths of human emotion through art, and cathartically so, reading those same feelings into the people around him — recognising the same highs and lows in their experiences, as in his own — is a thornier path to chart. But in his daily treks to and from his theatre rehearsals, he starts making the trip towards that realisation as Misaki sits behind the wheel of his trusty Saab. Initially, neither speaks, with Oto's line readings via cassette breaking the silence. Yūsuke saves his words for the International cast he auditions and then directs, each relaying Uncle Vanya in their native tongues (or, in one instance, by an actor who is deaf and signs her dialogue). Slowly, though, the drives find their own language, as Misaki opens up about her past and vice versa.
Forget Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy, American Oscar-applauded films similarly about drivers, passengers and unexpected camaraderie — Drive My Car is in a lane of its own, and not just because it isn't a simplistic and saccharine attempt to weave a heartwarming story out of racial reconciliation. Hamaguchi takes his central pair and his audience on a patient, engrossing and rewarding trip that cuts to the heart of dealing with life, love, loss, pain, shame and despair, and also sees how fickle twists of chance — a recurrent topic in the director's films — unavoidably dictate our routes. Another thing that the filmmaker does disarmingly well: ponder possibilities and acceptance, two notions that echo through both Yūsuke and Misaki's tales, and resonate with that always-winning combination of specificity and universality. Drive My Car is intimate and detailed about every element of its on-screen voyage and its character studies, and also a road map to soulful, relatable truths.
Sitting — while driving and during rehearsals — is a recurrent sight in Drive My Car. It's fitting; this is a film to sit with. The movie's lengthy duration lets viewers take in its gorgeously shot visuals as they might revel in landscape spied from a car window, whether cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya (Ju-on: Origins) is lensing the road as it winds by the Seto Inland Sea, spending time with the feature's core duo or chronicling Yūsuke's efforts at the theatre. Crisp, poetic and revealing even in a visit to a waste treatment facility, Drive My Car's naturalistic imagery provides a striking canvas for its affecting performances, too, with Nishijima and Miura as quietly expressive as any film — and any Murakami adaptation — could hope of its actors. In one of the picture's most stunning sequences, they chat by steps near the ocean, and the camera sees everything about their characters, and simply existing, and also tussling with life's pain, in each emotionally loaded closeup and sweeping, waterside wide shot. These are moments that drive a movie to greatness, and this moving and perceptive masterpiece is filled with them.