Drive My Car – Film Review

Despite the slow deliberate pace and three-hour running time, I was completely captivated by this beautiful, layered adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story about infidelity, grief, art and the impenetrable mystery of other people’s lives and secrets.

So far I have only read Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, which coincidentally also references a well-known Beatles song in its title. Despite its own distinctive artistic vision, this movie made me recall the quirky, melancholic feel of Murakami’s writing. In fact, something about its rhythm and long individual scenes made me feel as if I suddenly found myself inhabiting a novel – not in a boring sense of watching a series of moving images brought from page to screen, but in a sense of a film capturing the richness of a written word.

Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a successful theatre director and actor, who specialises in experimental subtitled productions in which actors perform in their native tongue. He has a complicated relationship with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a screenwriter who spontaneously comes up with ideas for stories during or right after the couple have sex. The movie opens with such a vignette, with Oto telling a post-coital story about a girl who breaks into the house of a classmate she’s infatuated with. This seemingly random story sets up one of the many storytelling layers that will eventually reflect back on the characters much later on.

In the 40-minute prologue before the credits start rolling and the main story actually begins, Yusuke is confronted with the proof of Oto’s infidelity, and later tragically loses her to a cerebral haemorrhage, without ever confronting his wife. Two years later and still full of unresolved emotion, he takes up a two-month residency in Hiroshima, to work on a new multilingual production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. For his own complex reasons, Yusuke gives the lead role to a young troubled actor who he knows had an affair with Oto. The two men are polite to each other, but you just know that the underlying tension will find an outlet somehow.

At Yusuke’s request, the theatre company rented him a place an hour’s drive away: he wishes to spend that hour listening to the tape of Uncle Vanya recorded by his wife. He reluctantly agrees to have an appointed driver, a reserved young woman called Misaki (Toko Miura). At first, Misaki is an unobtrusive presence on the edges of the story, and Yusuke’s treatment of her is rather abrupt. Professional reticence gradually recedes as the story slowly reveals the affinity between Yusuke and Misaki, who has her own wounds and buried guilt behind the impassive exterior. With the generous screen time, their relationship and Misaki’s growing importance unfold so naturally and organically you barely detect the subtle shifts.

I rarely ever notice a car in a movie, but Yusuke’s bright red Saab, often photographed from a distance as it speeds through the streets, highways and crisply captured natural scenery, is almost a character of its own. It also provides the intimate space for some of the film’s most important and shattering conversations, shot with the up-close intensity in which the outside world fades away and nothing matters except the two people listening and talking to each other.

I’m ashamed to say that I’m not familiar with Uncle Vanya despite being a lifelong Chekhov fan, but you get enough sense of the characters’ unhappiness and regret at missed chances in life to see why it would become a touchstone for Yusuke, who, until the final moments of emotional catharsis, remains an inscrutable, stoic figure. What would have happened if he owned the anger at his wife’s deception, and expressed his true feelings to her? I also enjoyed the behind-the-scenes peep at the play taking shape, as well as the side trips into the lives of its cast members, most notably the luminous mute Korean actress playing Sonya.

Spending three hours with a subtitled Japanese slow-burner that’s not afraid to use long stretches of silence is probably not going to be everyone’s cuppa, but Drive My Car kept me mesmerised from start to the quietly devastating yet uplifting finish.

P.S. It was quite jolting to see a direct reference to the Covid years in the movie’s epilogue. I haven’t noticed much desire to tackle the pandemic in the popular culture as of yet, maybe because of “too soon” or maybe because we’d just like to collectively forget about the worst of it.

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