Co-written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car is a cinematic reconstruction of Haruki Murakami’s original short story of the same title. Hamaguchi is an artisan with ennui, wielding suspended moments of tension effortlessly to dramatic effect. Building on Murakami’s template, he has created a story about the innate human tendency to mindlessly move forward, a secret and often hidden desire to continue living despite feeling like we don’t deserve to.
Content warnings: mentions of sex and violence.
Co-written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car is a cinematic reconstruction of Haruki Murakami’s original short story of the same title. Hamaguchi is an artisan with ennui, wielding suspended moments of tension effortlessly to dramatic effect. Building on Murakami’s template, he has created a story about the innate human tendency to mindlessly move forward, a secret and often hidden desire to continue living despite feeling like we don’t deserve to. It’s a living, breathing example of how people use art to save themselves.
The film lets us into its world at dusk through a monologue from screenwriter Oto Kafuku, narrating a story to her husband. This setting of liminality runs at the core of the film, the persistence of the in-between state that backdrops the characters’ lives. Oto’s story become more vivid, a tale of a girl who’s perverse obsession with a boy drives her to break into his home. She lingers in his bedroom, touches his clothes, uses his shower… as Oto says, she wants to know everything about him without letting him know anything about her. Oto’s story gains intensity as she narrates it during sex, building the dramatic arc to climax. Her husband, Yusuke Kafuku, a stage actor and director, retells the story in the morning as she’s unable to remember it herself. She takes notes for her next script, amused by the dark story she wrote the previous night. Evidently, they do this often, creating stories together as Kafuku drives them to work in his car. Thus, their relationship dynamic is set.
Things take a turn when Kafuku, returning early from a trip, catches Oto cheating on him. He doesn’t say a word and leaves. Without a destination he drives, headstrong but aimless and ends up in a car crash. He’s taken to the hospital where a doctor tells him he is losing vision in one eye. Oto holds his hand tightly. Time passes and they sleep together, and Oto continues the story she was narrating. However, this time, the voyeur in her story crosses a line when she masturbates on the boy’s bed. She hears a noise in the home, a burglar is in the house and in a panic she kills him with a pen. Oto collapses on Kafuku who is suddenly still, his soulless, haunted eyes stare at the ceiling as she finishes.
Oto begins to act odd. Kafuku asks her one morning if they can talk when he returns from work but after his rehearsals he instead chooses to drive. Finding comfort in his car, he prolongs the evening, driving aimlessly around the city to avoid the conversation. His soundtrack is Oto’s voice as she reads line prompts from his script, recorded onto a tape in his car. He responds to every prompt as though conversing with a ghost. When he returns home however, he finds his wife dead on the floor, affected by a sudden brain haemorrhage. Bereaved as he is, he has no choice but to move on. Weeks pass, he acts in his play but he breaks down off-stage. It’s too close. He needs distance.
After these first 20 minutes, it is as though a new film begins. 2 years pass and Kafuku drives his 15-year-old, fire-engine Saab, bright against the muted background of the city. He drives to a town in Hiroshima, where he takes up a directorial position at the local arts theatre for a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. He’s assigned a driver, Misaki Watari, against his wishes. He car is precious to him and to someone else drive it is a threat to the distance he’s carefully constructed over the years. This is where the film’s core focus shines through and it becomes a story of grief and transition for the remaining 3-hour runtime. Kafuku has never talked about his feelings, never properly mourned or engaged with his situation; he drives on forwards but is still stuck in the same place emotionally, starting the tape he treasures at a similar point each time.
The nods to Chekhov are anything but subtle, effectively creating the emotional subplot of the film. Chekhov is another master of ennui, described in-film by Kafuku as having words that bring out the real you; an actor’s worst nightmare. Like Chekhov, Hamaguchi structures majority of the film’s tension and drama in character interactions, letting them drive the story through their emotional journeys. Consequently we get frequent monologues, minutes of long-shots of characters talking that somehow never break our immersion but rather pull us in deeper. The liminality of the film shines through once again with setting and plot fading away to spotlight emotion.
Kafuku is placed in further emotional conflict when a figure from his past, Koji Takatsuki, auditions for the play. Takatsuki was a rising star who’d fallen into obscurity after a scandal. He was also the man Oto has cheated on Kafuku with. He is cast as Uncle Vanya, a role traditionally reprised by Kafuku himself who still recites Uncle Vanya’s lines with Oto’s tape in his car. Takatsuki is the opposite of Kafuku; young and driven purely by ego-fuelled instinct, under-currented by self-deluded naivety. Driven by an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, he meets frequently with Kafuku to get closer to Oto’s essence, her work being one of the few moments he’s ever felt worthy. “I believe Oto brought us together.” His identity crisis forces Kafuku to fully acknowledge his wife’s infidelity, and talk about her with someone who was also in love with her.
Takatsuki makes some dangerous choices which result in his dismissal from the play. With limited time before opening night, Kafuku is left with two choices: to either play Uncle Vanya himself or cancel the show. Instead, he drives away with Misaki. They’ve had their own precious connection developed quietly throughout the course of the film, driven by mutual understanding, and a recognition of shared past trauma and loss. Both of them are on conflicting journeys of grief and are well accustomed with running away. They both have spent their years driving, moving forwards but never moving on.
The environment aids us – the viewer – in picking up the change of tone as we enter the final act. Backlit by a sheet of snow we have devastating emotional confessions as the two, through their bond, are driven to reconnect with their own haunted pasts. Twisted into the story of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, our protagonists in Drive My Car share the same desperations that they must live on – that they have to live on. It is an unfortunate reality that those who survive are plagued to keep thinking about the dead.
There is good reason Drive My Car is a critic’s frontrunner for this awards season after winning many notable categories at Cannes Film Festival last year. Eligible both in the Best International Feature and Best Picture Oscar categories, and expected to receive a nomination at the Academy Awards, people are already eagerly anticipating a sequel to Parasite’s success. The film is captivating, a fluid panel of emotional tension that like a trance, spellbinds you whether you’re aware of it or not.
Drive My Car is screening at Cinema Nova and other select theatres from February 10th.