Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 23rd, 2021
Drive My Car (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2021) 4 out of 4 stars.
Two years after his wife’s sudden death, renowned stage actor Yûsuke Kafuku accepts an invitation to travel to Hiroshima for a theater festival, where he will stage a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a play in which he has previously performed the title role. His particular mise-en-scène stands out by incorporating multiple languages, the actors not only Japanese, but also Taiwanese, Korean, and more; there’s even a character who signs her way through the role using Korean Sign Language. Such is the background for what becomes a contemplative study of grief, recovery and the universality of human connection in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, a loose adaptation of Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s eponymous short story (part of his 2014 Men Without Women collection). The result is a poignant narrative where wounds may be slow to close, leaving scars, but cathartic in their healing.
It takes us 40 minutes to get to Hiroshima, however (the film is almost 3 hours long). First, we meet Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima, Creepy) and wife Oto (Reika Kirishima, Vanished: Girl in the Woods), longtime partners who share creative passions, he in the theater and she in television, as a screenwriter. Their sexual routine includes story development, as well, Oto running ideas by Yûsuke in the post-coital (and sometimes coital) moments. This seeming idyll is broken when one of them spies the other with a new lover. Or is it? No action is taken and life goes on. Perhaps it’s the many years together, including shared sorrow over a lost daughter, that makes infidelity but a minor inconvenience. Just as this part of the film looks to heat up, Oto dies of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving Yûsuke alone and bereft. Only now do the title credits role, announcing the real beginning of the drama.
Once in Hiroshima, Yûsuke discovers, to his chagrin, that because of previous issues with distracted artists causing car accidents, the festival insists he use a driver they have hired. He is loath to allow anyone else behind the wheel of his beloved red Saab, with its steering column on the left (as opposed to the usual Japanese right), yet he has no choice. Enter Misaki (Tôko Miura, Dynamite Graffiti), a 23-year-old woman who would be the age of Yûsuke’s daughter, had she lived. A taciturn sort, Misaki has her own melancholy history which will gradually emerge as she and Yûsuke share hours together on the long drives to and from his rental home. Given how much time we spend on the rehearsals for Uncle Vanya and the dynamic with the actors, Misaki’s emergence as an essential character catches us by surprise, though not an unpleasant one.
About those actors. One of them is Kôji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada, Strayer’s Chronicle), a young, formerly rising, television star whose personal scandals have ruined his career prospects. He also has a connection to Oto that could (and maybe should) raise Yûsuke’s ire. And yet the director casts him, anyway, and in the titular role, even though everyone expected Yûsuke to play it. “Chekhov is dangerous,” he says, and his works take a devastating toll on those who dive into them. He’s had enough of that, for now. Since Uncle Vanya is one of the Russian playwright’s most devastating examinations of existential despair, it is not that hard to understand why Yûsuke would want to keep some creative distance from it. Nevertheless, circumstances may conspire against him.
Or with him, as what happens provides a measure of unanticipated solace, even as tragedy surfaces once more. All the while, Yûsuke and Misaki grow closer, their bond filling the void they each carry within. In gentle fits and starts, the repeating loop of affliction unwinds, allowing them to move on. It’s a beautiful, quiet resolution, buoyed by equally lovely performances and gorgeous, if unobtrusive, cinematography. Slow and long though it may be, every moment in Drive My Car counts. Enjoy the ride.