Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Stars: Hideotoshi Nishijima, Tôko Miura, Reika Kirishima
Yûsuke (Hideotoshi Nishijima) and Oto (Reika Kirishima) are a married couple in contemporary Japan who both work in the arts. He as an actor, she as a writer of alluring fiction, both short stories and screenplays for television. They are a couple connected by – maybe even suspended in – mourning, having lost a daughter almost twenty years previously. Sex remains a vital aspect of their relationship, though Oto is unfaithful to Yûsuke, something he has come to accept. Unbeknownst to Oto, he catches her in a tryst with a younger actor named Kôji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), but he leaves the discovery be. Just when it feels as though an overdue confrontation is about to occur between the two of them, Oto dies suddenly of natural causes, and Yûsuke is left adrift.
While Oto had other men in her life, Yûsuke’s significant other is his tomato-red SAAB, which he keeps in pristine working order and around which he has developed specific rituals. Flash-forward two years and his relationship to this car – which has become a phantom carriage for the spirit of Oto, whose voice he listens to as he drives – is about to be challenged. Taking up the job of stage director for a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, Yûsuke is assigned a stoic young chauffeur, Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura), who wears a prominent scar on her cheek and evidently cleaves from a lower class set.
Adapted – or more accurately expanded upon – from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour Drive My Car is a tale of grief and processing. It is about the long journey, the steps taken, the work done in the background. It features, as the title intimates, a lot of driving. But here it is both the journey and the destination that matter.
There’s some hard road involved. The middle hour of the picture appears on first approach to dally. We are invited to attend multiple long scenes of table-reads between the eclectic members of Yûsuke’s cast, who are collectively frustrated that their director won’t afford them freer methods of rehearsal. While Yûsuke has previously played the titular role in the play, he feels he no longer can and – in a somewhat perverse gesture – gives it to Kôji. Given Yûsuke’s reluctance and emotional entanglement with the role, this could be read as a bizarre kind of revenge.
All characters – even the peripheral ones – in Drive My Car feel fleshed out and interesting, which is why it can feel a little frustrating when they’re sidelined for these long scenes of a-chronological rehearsal. But it pays dividends in the long run; not just for Yûsuke, but in terms of the wider theme of process. The methodology mirrors something occurring within Hamaguchi’s protagonist. The long change. The chiseled and teased out revelation. Thus the three-hour running time (short for Hamaguchi) justifies itself. By playing this out gradually, by expanding the amount of time spent, we get a sense of Yûsuke’s extended emotional journey.
So while emotional catharsis is on the cards, the majority of Drive My Car takes place within a more sparse and subdued psychological cloud. Though initially diffident to Misaki’s presence in the sanctity of his car, Yûsuke comes to praise her driving and ability to become invisible within the space. Indeed, a phenomenal 10-minute scene in the middle of the picture between Yûsuke and Kôji takes place during a long night drive that feels as though it drifts serenely over the tarmac, hushed and hypnotic, paced to the mesmeric sweep of the overhead lights on the motorway.
Hamaguchi seems to appreciate the difficulties tied inside the human condition. Or, at least, our propensity for making things difficult for ourselves. Call it psychological gridlock if you like. In Drive My Car communication and understanding is almost absurdly convoluted. Yûsuke’s ambitious production encompasses four languages (including sign), but this doesn’t engender an easy flow of information between the performers. It is often only once long-held silences are ended that advancement becomes possible. In a wry inversion of this, one of the film’s – and the play’s – standout speeches is given over to deaf actress Yoon-a (Yoo-rim Park), who delivers it in silent, show-stopping style.
And, great as everyone is, it is Tôko Miura’s tightlipped, terse yet expressive Misaki who lingers most keenly in the mind after. Hers is a performance of calculated give-and-take. Weathered by abusive experience, what Misaki lacks in years she makes up for in hard-won maturity, making her an equal to Yûsuke. Their long drive together toward the end of the picture and the emphasis placed on their eventual destination recalls the intimate and suspenseful finale of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. As there, Drive My Car cruises into an almost uncanny liminal world, conjuring the illicit magic of night driving and the mezzanine spaces we all inhabit before we’ve gotten where we’re going.