“Why do you look so sad?” asks a woman’s voice in Drive My Car. The voice is Oto (Reika Kirishima) as she speaks from beyond the grave. She’s reading lines from Chekov’s Uncle Vanya for her husband, theatre director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), to practice while in his car. The question haunts every frame of this note-perfect adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami. Sadness and loneliness do a dance with things both said and unsaid as Kafuku yearns for the connection in life that his characters enjoy so poetically on stage.
A rewarding journey
Don’t let the three-hour running time scare you. Drive My Car is a breeze. This perfectly cadenced drama from Ryûsuke Hamaguchi knows the power of a long and involved journey. Drive My Car, which is Japan’s official selection in the Oscars’ Best International Feature race and a triple-prize winner at Cannes, moves at a steady, thoughtful, contemplative cruise. Yet Hamaguchi never shifts into high gear. Drive My Car is in no rush to arrive at its destination. The pleasure is in the journey and the conversations that arise along the way.
Language is key here as Drive My Car follows Kafuku as he stages an ambitious production of Uncle Vanya. The play features a mix of actors from different East Asian countries. Each actor rehearses and performs in his or her mother tongue. The production is a mix of Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, and even sign language. Actors learn to read their co-stars’ body language and emotions. Kafuku inspires them to look deep within themselves and understand the text so they can share intimate moments with the audience. He draws upon Hamaguchi’s own methodology as a director, which tasks actors with reading their lines monotonously and repetitively during rehearsals. The exercise challenges the actors to strip away their preconceived notions of performance and, in turn, each other as they discover the emotional authenticity of the characters together.
The role of story
This process happens within the film as Kafuku undergoes a spiritual transformation while observing his lead actor, Koji (Masaki Okada). Kafuku suspects Koji of having an affair with Oto two years ago. An unexpected trip back home previously let Kafuku witness his wife being unfaithful. Although he didn’t see the other man’s face, he recognized Koji’s voluminous hair and, more significantly, saw the heartache in his eyes at Oto’s funeral. Letting “the other man” into the play becomes Kafuku’s last connection to his wife beyond the recordings frozen in time.
Koji proves more than he appears. Kafuku openly acknowledges that he doubts Koji’s skills as an actor. Yet in watching Koji develop his vulnerability, Kafuku recognizes the passion that had grown cold in his own marriage. This too plays out in language as he reflects on the bizarre writing process that he and Oto shared—another infidelity she enjoyed with Koji, too. Drive My Car observes the couple as they have sex and Oto recites a story to Kafuku. As she straddles her partner, her mind races and he absorbs the details. She expands the narrative in their post-coital repose. Afterwards, usually in the car, Kafuku recites the story back to Oto and she transcribes it. For these artists, sex is more about storytelling than intimacy.
It’s within the confines of Kafuku’s well-worn and cherry red Saab 900, though, that Drive My Car explores a world of emotions. Kafuku’s theatre residency includes an odd perk that requires him to have a driver. He’s assigned a young woman named Misaki Watari (Toko Miura). Despite his reluctance to share his car while revisiting the lines read aloud by his late wife, Kafuku agrees. Misaki chauffeurs him around the picturesque roads of Hiroshima and they gradually dissolve the servant/client relationship by sharing the intimate space of the car. Seated in the back with Misaki at the front, Kafuku can’t read her expressions or emotions as easily as he might with the actors in his workshops. Instead, the long drive forces them to have genuine conversations. They’re both starved for connection, whether they’re opening up about their lives or merely sharing a cigarette.
The subtle performances speak volumes with the restrained longing that captivates the frame. Nishijima commands nearly every frame of the film with his soulful and introspective performance. Miura, meanwhile, is heartbreakingly good as the driver who doesn’t abide by the artists’ rule for language. She’s forthright and open, and every bit as vulnerable. Okada has magnetic screen presence as Koji. Particularly when Koji Kafuku invites Koji to ride with him the young actor bares his soul in a monologue that may be the film’s defining moment. But then there’s Park Yurim, the mute actress who appears in Kafuku’s play. She commands the final performance of Uncle Vanya with such authority and emotional conviction that it might be the loudest turn in the film. Everyone works in tune.
With Drive My Car, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi crafts an emotional epic. It’s a road movie through the soul and an odyssey well worth taking. You’ll feel transformed by the journey’s end.