Drive My Car (2021)
Written by Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe
Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
There’s just something about filmmakers taking author Haruki Murakami’s short fiction and giving their own spin on them. See Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. This time around, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi gives us a three-hour adaptation of a short from Men Without Women. He certainly takes a lot of artistic discretion and takes the story in a different direction than its original form. Author Murakami has become infamous for inserting “manic pixie dream girl” types in his work, and this film has several women that influence our protagonist but not by forfeiting their own agency or depth as characters. The result is simply one of the best, most moving film experiences of the year.
Yūsuke Kafuku (Tsuyoshi Gorô) is a theater actor who is experimenting with multilingual productions of classic stageplays. Each actor speaks their first language, so rehearsals are partly learning the rhythm of the dialogue and focusing on the emotions your scene partners are exuding. His wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), is a screenwriter who has strange spells where, after sex, she will begin narrating fictions aloud. The following day she has forgotten them, and so Yūsuke will retell them on the drive to work in the morning. Their relationship isn’t precisely passionate, but a warmth still resonates between them after a couple decades. After a flight gets canceled, he returns home only to glimpse her having sex with another man. Yūsuke slips away undetected and never brings up what he saw.
Two years later, a lot has changed in Yūsuke’s life, and he’s taken a two-month residency in Hiroshima where he will direct a production of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. He requests a house one hour away from the theater to practice his lines with an audio cassette Oto recorded for him. However, the theater company has a legal requirement that their director in residence is driven to and from his work. The driver is Misaki (Tōko Miura), a young woman who is very aloof and keeps herself closed off while driving Yūsuke. Complications arise when one of the performers in the production is Kōji (Masaki Okada), the younger man Oto was having sex with. Through their relationship, Yūsuke and Misaki are forced to confront the grief that seems to always linger with them and try to find a way to live with it.
The emotion in Drive My Car is restrained to the point that I would imagine a lot of Western audiences will be turned off from it. It’s a complex story involving the theater world and specifically the themes at Uncle Vanya‘s core. The film’s length also means the director is taking his time, letting scenes play out that may at first feel inconsequential. Things get revealed, and then the movie goes in directions you might not expect, only to return to the consequences of those events an hour or more later.
Drive My Car is mainly about the interior life of humans, how the circumstances of our lives, especially the painful ones, are so hard to communicate with another. There’s an examination of how people cope, in this instance, closing themselves off and passive-aggressively lashing out. Yūsuke intentionally casts Koji in a role he did not audition for, making the young man the titular Uncle Vanya. This changes the dynamics of the actors and the production. It’s clear Yūsuke is doing this out of spite, but even he is unsure where he wants to go with it. He just wanted to spoil Koji’s expectations. The film isn’t so simple as to frame Oto or Koji as villains. By the end of the picture, it is hard to be mad at anyone. Life is so confusing and challenging that it’s hard to begrudge anyone. We’re all suffering in our own ways.
Yūsuke and Oto shared a mutual tragedy a decade into their marriage, which lingers over them. That tragedy revealed how distant they truly were, but it was also in acknowledging that loss that their marriage was forged into something different. Oto has a passionate love for Yūsuke that is hard to put into words, but her own internal confusion leads her to want physical pleasure from other men from time to time. It’s clear that even she likely can’t express why but it’s due to some indescribably ache inside her, the absence of connection to other people. Physical contact is the easiest to get to, as emotional and spiritual connections seem almost impossible. The same gap permeates the working relationship between Yūsuke and Misaki from the moment they meet. What makes the difference is storytelling and art. She begins paying attention to the lines from Vanya, and in turn, this brings up topics of conversation between the two. Yūsuke undergoes a profound spiritual experience in the third act of the movie when he’s forced to step in and play the part of Vanya.
Because Yūsuke’s experimental theater revolves around language and conflict, it serves as a perfect extension of these ideas. It’s not the words that are important but the emotions. At first, the actors simply go through the script in rehearsal in their native tongues, knocking on the table to indicate the end of a line. People speak Japanese, Mandarin, and even one person uses Korean Sign Language. It’s absolutely perfect that one of the movie’s last scenes is Yūsuke on stage as Vanya with the mute actress playing Sonya, Vanya’s daughter. It’s the final scene of the play where she gives him words of comfort about the struggle of living yet how in death we will find peace, that all the suffering will be rewarded with an end. Not a word is spoken aloud between the two, but the weight of those scenes hits so powerfully after the preceding three hours we’ve spent with these characters.
In a time where humanity seems headed toward more suffering with no real end in sight, merely an acceptance of it, it can feel isolating. Drive My Car tells us that we can’t experience what someone else has, but we can be human with them in some meager way. Some people lose loved ones in seemingly random ways; a person is perfectly healthy and then dead the next day. Natural disasters can atomize our lives with such coldness it can leave us wondering if all the beautiful things we’re told about the world are simply pretty lies. We can be betrayed by those we have devoted our lives and love to and feel like we’ll never crawl out of that despair. Yet, these are all a part of living. No person has yet to be born into this world that hasn’t suffered in their own way. It’s certainly not balanced, but a part of all of us knows what it feels like. Yūsuke’s refrain to his actors is that it is not the words that are essential, but that you listen to the emotions of your partner. In that, you will know what to do.