REVIEW: ドライブ・マイ・カー [Doraibu mai kâ] [Drive My Car] [2021]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 179 minutes
    Release Date: August 20th, 2021 (Japan) / November 24th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Bitters End / Janus Films
    Director(s): Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
    Writer(s): Ryûsuke Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe / Haruki Murakami (short story)

Those who survive keep thinking about the dead.

The film starts with Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Oto Kafuku (Reika Kirishima) naked in bed, him half asleep and her relaying the latest lightning struck plot bouncing around her subconscious. It’s about a teenage girl who’s so infatuated with her crush that she breaks into his house when no one is there, taking small tokens amongst his possessions and leaving some of her own in the hopes that the transfer would somehow indelibly bond them. The next morning sees the couple in Yûsuke’s car as he drives her to the television studio where she works. He’s telling her what she told him the night before in what appears to be a sort of telephone game, filtering her ideas through his mind to then be written into script form.

Oto works for TV and Yûsuke the stage. Both are actors/creators and yet it appears they rarely if ever allow their worlds to overlap. She doesn’t write for him. He doesn’t direct for her. They instead enjoy their independence and thus long for those moments when they can be together at home. It seems like a happy existence—at least where Yûsuke is concerned since he’s the one the camera follows once they go their separate ways. Only when he unexpectedly returns to the house unannounced to find Oto having sex with another man do we begin to wonder if appearances are deceiving. Soon we discover the two also had a daughter who died young years ago, an incident that led them to decide never to have another.

Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe‘s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story Doraibu mai kâ [Drive My Car] appears to therefore set-up an explosive confrontation that never comes. Yûsuke doesn’t say anything when he calls her that night to lie about his whereabouts. Oto doesn’t say anything when she meets him at the hospital upon his return thanks to a car accident threatening his ability to drive—his happy place and haven to learn the rhythm of his lines opposite cassettes she records with his sides. And when the moment of truth does appear to finally hit the horizon, she’s gone. Her love. Her betrayal. Her defense. Her story. Everything. It’s then that the opening credits commence. Forty minutes in and still two-plus hours left to go.

If you’re wondering how novels can turn into ninety-minute films while this short story needs three hours to do it justice, know that Hamaguchi and Oe have taken Murakami’s work as a springboard rather than gospel. From what I’ve read about the source material, they’ve stayed true to the emotional core at its center and have retained many points of conflict despite building something wholly different as far as setting, complexity, and thematic mirroring. The last tape Oto recorded for Yûsuke is Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and he’s still listening and running lines from it two years later along his drive to Hiroshima. He has a residency there to direct the play at a local festival with his unique style of simultaneously utilizing multiple languages on-stage.

It’s there that he’s forced to use a driver against his will. The stoic Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura) is given the task and ready to keep their relationship as pragmatic and professional as possible (she refuses to use his car while waiting for rehearsals to end despite the cold weather so as not to risk ruining it). Yûsuke is intrigued by her apologetic desire to stay on the outside of his world and slowly works to open her up and learn her story. Misaki’s tragic origins inspire him to share his own, their mutual sense of guilt and regret surrounding the loss of someone close inevitably creating a bond that’s only augmented by the fact he was cheated out of having a daughter and she of a father.

It’s also there where he’s reunited with a figure from his past: Kôji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). A former TV star who’s since been publicly disgraced, the actor may or may not have been the person Yûsuke caught Oto with years ago. Is that why he earns the lead role? Or is it because he’s truly the best artist for the job? It’s tough to know since Kôji feels like a fish-out-of-water during rehearsals. He’s seemingly the only one who doesn’t understand more than his own language and Yûsuke seems to pick on him more than the rest. Maybe it’s out of some deep-seated desire for vengeance or perhaps Yûsuke believes he can get Kôji to deliver a performance as good as the ones he delivered through Oto’s scripts.

The meat of the film is thus the weeks-long process of putting “Uncle Vanya” on. We learn through Chekhov’s words what Yûsuke is going through and the actors learn through his directing style who it is they are beyond the artifice of their outward projections. And it’s through the friendships built—especially with the soft-spoken festival organizer Kon Yoon-su (Dae-Young Jin) and deaf dancer-turned-actor Lee Yoon-a (Yoo-rim Park)—that Misaki is able to lower her own staunch defenses and begin to think about things she has long-since repressed and held onto as anger and coldness. Yûsuke talks about Chekhov having the power to take his readers beyond the veil and into their own souls to uncover hidden truths. He fears that pain, but it rises, nonetheless.

Every new conversation brings with it multiple layers of purpose regardless of the moment. The Chekhov scenes that Hamaguchi plays in Yûsuke’s car are intentional. The fateful meetings between Yûsuke and both Misaki and Kôji create room for present enlightenment as well as context for past actions. They become sounding boards for Yûsuke to get everything he’s held close to his chest for the past two years (and beyond) out while also being keenly positioned to add clarity to issues he’s been too close to fully comprehend. It’s an invigorating experience that never feels excessive in its run-time because we need each new dynamic to grow before its revelations can be earned. We need the actors to buy into Yûsuke’s style and Misaki to trust his genuine kindness.

It leads to more harrowing tales from both the past and the future. Fictionalized accounts of murder find unfortunate partners in reality while accidents and their subsequent inaction courtesy of abject terror acquire a necessary air of cognizance and resonance that move past the crippling guilt of one’s own trauma. Nishijima and Miura shine in large part because they’re the two with the heaviest lifting as far as reconciling what they’ve lost with what they still have, but Okada has his own intriguing path of self-destruction as a contrast. Park and Jin might be periphery players, but their empathy and authenticity transcend screen-time to present yet another image of love that’s no better or worse than the others. Because love is neither easy nor precise. Its complexity demands compromise.

[1] Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura
[2] Hidetoshi Nishijima and Masaki Okada
[3] Sonia Yuan and Park Yurim

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