The center of gravity in director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, an adaptation of the short story of the same name in the collection Men Without Women by author Haruki Murakami is the red 1987 Saab 900 Turbo. In an ever-changing world of linear time, the car remains the same, becoming a true north – it stands out on its own without saying a word, just continuously staying in motion, silently, unjudging, even becoming its own character. Within the car, a tape plays a recording of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vaya – the second constant in Hamaguchi’s 3-hour masterpiece. After hearing the words of Uncle Vanya over and over repeatedly, anyone can recite them or hit the cue’s and respond even in a different language.
Reciting his lines to the tape and the owner of the 1987 Saab 900 Turbo is Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima). Yūsuke is an actor and theater director who is married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a screenwriter. Oto gets inspiration from after having sex – stories pour out of her like a flood, adding more to the narrative she comes up with, but she doesn’t remember them the next day. Yūsuke jogs Oto’s memory who builds her screenplays off the memory of her husband. What Yūsuke doesn’t know until returning home after a cancelled flight is that Oto is cheating on him with actors who appear on her series. But Yūsuke doesn’t confront her, he keeps this secret to himself, never revealing what he knows. The two promise to have a discussion but that discussion never happens – Oto is found dead at their home.
Drive My Car features a daunting intimidation factor to it – the film is 3 hours long but if length is not a problem (and it shouldn’t be for cinema, the length of a film shouldn’t determine if a film is good or not) Drive My Car comes virtually out of nowhere and lands a sucker punch directly on the jaw. Just like Bong Joon-Ho’s 2019 masterpiece Parasite, both films themes will stay with you well past the films narrative completes, almost repeating on a constant loop and applying the lessons the characters go through on their journey to the viewers life.
Within the 3 hours, a complete story is told broken up in three clear distinctive acts. The first act establishes Yūsuke and Oto’s broken relationship and the trauma both are put through. We learn they lost a daughter which put the distance between the couple. After her death, Yūsuke takes a job as a theater director in Hiroshima but is required to have a driver by the production company. Yūsuke loves his car, it’s his baby. Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura) is assigned to be Yūsuke’s driver after an interview. And still the tape of Uncle Vanya plays while Yūsuke recites the lines not recorded on the tape.
But it’s the second act where Yūsuke is confronted with his silent regret. The one mistake in his life he may never recover from. Auditioning for his play of Uncle Vanya is Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) Oto’s adulterer.
Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe’s screenplay pushes the uncomfortable moments to their limit. We know what Yūsuke knows but he never lets others in on the secret, only sharing glimpses into his knowledge. It’s what makes the moments between Yūsuke and Kōji crucial to this dramatic epic.
Therein lies the beauty of Drive My Car. Kōji represents the constant struggle of coming to terms with Oto’s betrayal and his regret for not confronting her about it. In the moment Yūsuke is a coward and would rather bury the skeletons than accept the fact that his marriage is broken. Hidetoshi Nishijima plays the role perfectly – at times he’s unaffected by the trauma he went through and at times he’s overcome by it. But the actor’s expressions say more than his words and ultimately what he learns on his journey of acceptance is that he needs to forgive himself for something that was out of his control. Nishijima’s stare into the distance can look right through a person’s soul. He’s in his own head, selfishly thinking his trauma is the only trauma that matters when others are confront their own.
Watari’s regret and trauma revolves around the death of her abusive mother. Tōko Miura Is brilliant in her supporting role, concealing these emotions for three quarters of the film until the right moment and allowing herself to become bigger than the character’s regret.
The biggest theme in Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is regret and confronting these emotions. Without these drives, Watari and Kafuku would never have explored their trauma together. Both blame themselves for the deaths but it’s in their isolated moments together that both come to terms and learn acceptance of the past and letting go of it. The chemistry, like the film itself comes out of nowhere and becomes the spotlight of the film. In its simplicity, Drive My Car is about moving on, accepting that whatever happens is not your fault even if you blame yourself. And Hamaguchi orchestrates this theme of regret brilliantly. It isn’t until we forgive ourselves for something out of our control that we can move on from it.
Within the runtime, there comes a point where the film takes complete control of the wheel, leading us as the viewer on a journey of healing and self-acceptance. It’s as if Hamaguchi is comforting the viewer directly with any past regret the viewer has and allowing us to work through our acceptance of past regrets with Kafuku and Watari. Visually simple and yet breathtaking of the Japanese countryside, the bright red color stands out as Watari effortlessly leads us through – never looking anxious or frightened behind the wheel. Drive My Car will easily sneak up on the viewer an infect them with a range of emotions to either connect with or worth through. Either way, as a human, the story is relatable to a fault as we all have experienced these emotions before at some point.
The journey is worth the calm soothing ride. Bumps along the way are handled with grace but it’s the bumps that make us who we are. All we need is the time and patience and someone to listen.
Written By: Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe
Directed By: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Music By: Eiko Ishibashi
Cinematography: Hidetoshi Shinomiya
Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura, Reika Kirishima, Park Yu-rim, Jin Dae-yeon, Sonia Yuan, Ahn Hwitae, Perry Dizon, Satoko Abe, Masaki Okada
Where to Watch: HBO Max
Release Date: August 20, 2021
Running Time: 2 Hours 59 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
My Score: 5 out of 5
Based On: Drive My Car by Haruki Murakami