Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ)

Japan (2021) Dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Aren’t words great? You can use them to make people happy, sad, or angry, make them think or comfort them, you can even put them to music and make people sing! But what is the point of words if we don’t use them to ask questions that need asking or say things that need saying. There is a word for that – regret.

Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a former TV actor now exclusive to the theatre, married to screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima), whose best ideas come to her after sex. Yusuku learns Oto is sleeping with young actor Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) but says nothing for fear of losing her. One night, Yusuku returns home to find Oto dead from a brain haemorrhage.

Two years later, Yusuke is in Hiroshima for a two-month theatre residency to direct a multi-lingual version of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. With a strict rule prohibiting Yusuke from driving himself, he is forced to accept Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) as his driver. The production is fraught with highs and lows, but also personal introspection and resolution, not in the least due to Yusuke’s casting of Takatsuki in the title role.

Chekov and The Beatles. Not a combination you would expect to see but this is loosely based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, so it makes sense. If you are a fan of the Fab Four, their song doesn’t appear in the soundtrack, whilst literary scholars can rejoice knowing Chekov’s classic gets a good going over.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi, like Korean director Lee Chang-dong with Burning, extrapolates a Murakami short story for Drive My Car but this one runs almost three hours! It may sound like a slog but Hamaguchi quickly grabs the audience and immerses them into its gentle rhythms, and beguiles with the curious characters that we barely notice the epic run time.

Despite its inherent narrative simplicity, the story is multi-layered. We can break it down to a bunch of disparate people with lingering issues of one kind or another coming together to put on a play, but this reductive take doesn’t do it justice. It is about regret, missed opportunities, guilt, loss, self-control, ego, and fitting into a world determined to pigeonhole you.

Usually, a story with this many themes would be a pretentious mess, but not here. If, as Sartre concluded, hell is other people, Hamaguchi argues they can also be a tonic to help soothe our souls. Yusuke and Oto had what appears a perfect marriage except they still grieve the loss of their four-year old daughter to pneumonia twenty year ago, causing both to withdraw from the limelight.

Had Yusuke arrived home on time when Oto asked him to, she might have lived and he may have learned why she slept with other men, but we won’t know. Takatsuki proffers his own theory, claiming Oto didn’t do it for love but for a different kind of fulfilment. This is after a lengthy period where we know Yusuke knew about Oto and Takatsuki, but didn’t know if Takatsuki knew Yusuke knew.

It seems the young actor has a problem with impulse, retreating to the theatre after his TV career was derailed following an affair with a minor. Working with Yusuke wasn’t just a last chance to save his career but also to get his own closure by leaning more about Oto from the man who knew her best. This doesn’t stop Takatsuki flirting with Taiwanese actress Janice Chan (Sonia Yuan) though.

Joining the Japanese team and Janice on the play are two Koreans, producer Yoon-Ah (Park Yoo-rim) and mute actress Yoon-Su (Jin Dae-yeon), communicating via Korean sign language. She is perhaps the purest character, reading everyone and interpreting the truth the clearest. In fact, the final scene of the eventual play conducted by her is a moment of exquisite beauty, and a genuine highlight for this writer.

Finally, we have Misaki, the taciturn 23 year-old driver Yusuke begrudgingly hands over the keys of his beloved car to. The predictable “two insular people gradually get closer” trope is subverted, thankfully eschewing notions of romance. Misaki is also harbouring a tragic secret from her childhood that requires confronting, her role as driver being symbolic of her need to be anywhere but home.

Given this review has barely touched on the plot, maybe the 3-hour run time is justified after all, but an argument for a little trimming is still valid. Hamaguchi has managed to throw in the kitchen sink yet it never feels like too much is going on; the only “main” character who doesn’t get an arc is Janice, serving primarily to provide English dialogue to satisfy the multi-lingual aspect of the play.

Elsewhere, the mystery of Oto remains unanswered but in her post death Rebecca role, as an enigmatic voice on a cassette reading the lines from Uncle Vanya for Yusuke to practice with, she becomes a recurring presence around whom some of the cast grow. Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe take us on a figurative and literal journey, with the exemplary cast as navigators.  

Originally due to be set in Busan, South Korea, Covid ruined that, so the location was shifted to Hiroshima instead. For those of us who only know it from the World War II atrocity, this is a nice chance to see what a scenic province it is today, with a bonus trip to wintry Sapporo for Misaki’s redemption. It seems odd there is room for a travelogue portion but the script ensues it is relevant to the plot.

Drive My Car is a film which different people will get different things from it, whether it works as a straight drama, a symbolic parallel to a literary classic, or a character study of flawed, creative people. The ending is admittedly gravid but points towards lessons having been learned moving on, typical of the film’s opaque leanings, but not worth holding against such a cathartic work for both cast and audience.   

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