Film Review: ‘Drive My Car’ Turns Murakami Short Story Into Not-So-Short Film on Love, Sex, Grief, Morality, and the Human Condition8 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a stage actor and director, still unable, after two years, to cope with the loss of his beloved wife, accepts to direct Uncle Vanja at a theatre festival in Hiroshima. There he meets Misaki (Toko Miura), an introverted young woman, appointed to drive his car. In between rides, secrets from the past and heartfelt confessions will be unveiled.
Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story, “Drive My Car”.
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tôko Miura, Reika Kirishima, Masaki Okada
Runtime: 179 minutes
Haruki Murakami is arguably one of the most internationally-known Japanese authors today. His 2014 collection of short stories, Men Without Women, gives us Drive My Car, about a widowed actor who hires a chauffeur to, well, drive his car. Like Murakami’s full-length novel Norwegian Wood, Drive My Car is also named after a Beatles song. And just like the novel, this short story has now been adapted for the big screen.
The term “adaptation” is used loosely here. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, which won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes earlier this year, is more of an interpretation or visualisation rather than a straight adaptation of Murakami’s short story. While the short story is nowhere nearly as long as Murakami’s novels, Hamaguchi’s film adaptation comes in at a staggering 179 minutes.
The experience of seeing this film will definitely remind you that this is a nearly three-hour-long film. The opening credits roll at around 40 minutes into the film’s runtime and leaves one wondering what more the film has in store if this is only the prologue. While the film is long, it definitely never feels lengthy. At times the film slows down but it is never slow. Pacing is perhaps one of the most tricky yet overlooked aspects of films these days but Drive My Car has clearly given a lot of attention to this detail.
Within the prologue, we meet Kafuku Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a well-known stage actor, and his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a playwright. The film establishes a complicated relationship between Yusuke and Oto. As they make love, Oto rambles on about a story of a girl who breaks into the house of a boy she is obsessed with. Yusuke listens and together with the audience, he puts together the story Oto is trying to weave.
However, the loving couple is not all that they seem to be. Yusuke comes home one night to find Oto having sex with the lead actor from a drama series she wrote. The young, charming actor is Takatsuki Koji (Masaki Okada), who believes that there are certain things about people that you can only learn by having sex with them. The film contrasts the mature and weathered Yusuke against the young and brash Koji, and yes this includes their sex lives with Oto.
In true Murakami style, sex is always used as more than just a device for pleasure. It is a quintessential part of how Murakami characterises the people in his stories in demonstrating their desires and motives. Even for Oto, sex is somehow her way of entering her most creative headspace and coming up with the stories that she would later turn into screenplays.
Although Yusuke knows the truth, he carries on with the status quo because he doesn’t want to change the life he is living with Oto. Between moments, Yusuke takes his car out for a drive, and what better way is there for a film to let you know right away that a car is old than to use a trusty old Saab 900?
The flaming red two-door car stands out amongst the sea of white vehicles on the roads, which is almost certainly intentional. In fact, most of the film is muted and cool-toned, but Yusuke’s car is one of the rare few bright objects of focus in the movie. Even the landscapes are shrouded in tones of blue and grey, with outdoor scenes almost always taking place against the sea, snow-covered mountains, or dark car parks at night. Yusuke’s car is quite literally a splash of colour in an otherwise dull and monochromatic world.
During his drives, Yusuke also listens to cassette tapes of Oto’s voice where she reads his plays and helps him to memorise his lines. One day, as he is going out for a drive, Oto tells him that she wants to talk in the evening. He nods and bids her farewell, but deep down he is afraid that things will never be the same again when he comes home. He returns late that night, but instead of speaking with Oto, he finds her lifeless on the floor. A sudden brain haemorrhage takes her life, and Yusuke is left to pick up the pieces of the mysteries and secrets she leaves behind.
After finally getting through the prologue, the film jumps two years ahead. Little has changed for Yusuke — he is still a stage actor, listening to his wife’s cassette tapes during his drives and still coming to terms with losing her.
He drives to an arts festival in Hiroshima where he has been invited to direct a staging of the play Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov. The festival assigns a chauffeur to him, a young girl named Watari Misaki (Toko Miura), which he is initially very reluctant about due to his connection to the car. He unwillingly hands over his car keys but is surprised by her driving and lets her take the helm. During the car rides, he asks Misaki to play the cassette tapes so he can continue his routine of memorising his lines. This piques her interest and the two begin to open up about their personal lives. On the surface, Misaki seems like just a driver and nothing more. But the film slowly reveals her troubled past with her family, especially her mother.
During the preparations for the festival, Yusuke has a chance reunion with Koji, who is auditioning for the play. Oddly enough, he decides to give the titular role of Uncle Vanya to Koji and the two have a weird back and forth relationship with each other. It is here that the film really highlights how different yet alike the two men are, and how talking about their relationship with Oto unexpectedly led them to learn from one another.
As the film makes clear during its many twists and turns, the relationship between each character is incredibly complex. It would seem too cliche to focus on their missteps, with the film, instead, looking at their perspectives on how they come to terms with their missteps. At times, the film has morally dubious rationalisations for the characters’ actions but, depending on how liberal you are, you might find that the film explains them well enough to be justified.
The film’s story and cinematography are not the only standouts here. The film uses an interesting technique where it tends to let you hear what is happening before you see it. For example, you may hear the shutter of a camera before you see who is taking the photo. This forces the audience to look for cues that hint at where the sound is coming from and what is happening. There is also a mute actor in the play who uses Korean Sign Language to communicate and it is in scenes like these when the lack of sound allows the details in movements to take centre stage.
Japanese singer-songwriter Eiko Ishibashi wrote the music for the film, which is used carefully in a few long, contemplative montage sequences. Ishibashi uses a range of Japanese-style jazz to minimalist piano instrumentals. Although the music is modern in its production, it evokes a feeling of longing for a bygone era, and melancholy from a more simple setting.
Drive My Car is a beautiful film with a fascinating story. The film so meticulously crafts each aspect — the pacing, the colours, the connections between its characters, the connections between the story of Uncle Vanya and Yusuke’s life, the music, the movements. And yet it all comes across naturally and seamlessly, as though every detail was meant to be there.
But despite its minimalistic appearance, Drive My Car is a thought-provoking and profound commentary on the human condition. It forces us to question our simple understandings of right or wrong, of what it means to cheat in a relationship or to leave someone to face the consequences of their actions. It presents alternative perspectives and leaves just enough for us to begin our train of thought without giving us a model answer. Even in its ending, the film is enigmatic yet oddly satisfying.
Drive My Car is now showing at The Projector. Get your tickets at https://theprojector.sg/films-and-events/drive-my-car/