Early in the three hours of Drive My Car, a movie by Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, the wheels of the movie’s essential automobile transform into the spinning reels of a cassette tape. They blend for a moment, and it feels like the voice on the tape performs as the vehicle’s fuel. And it is true to some extent, as the audio follows the driver along the way like a sonic ghost.
Underrated in its extraordinary rewards, this is the second movie directed by Hamaguchi to be released this year (along with Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy). Drive My Car is the movie adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami in the collection Men Without Women. The movie also marks the director’s breakthrough as it is the first time a movie by Hamaguchi is selected as Japan’s entry for the Oscar’s Best International Feature Film award.
Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor and theater director. Showered with post-coital calmness, he and his wife, screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima) come up with a story for her new television project. They talk about a teenage girl who is obsessed with a classmate of hers, thus breaking into his house to steal some unnoticed souvenirs. With the promising narrative supervision of Hamaguchi and co-screenwriter Takamasa Oe, this spontaneous story becomes one of the storytelling layers and eventually overlay with self-reflexive grace.
Two years after his personal tragedy which fills him with unsettled resentment, Yûsuke moves to Hiroshima, a city much known for its historical disaster, to direct a new stage version of Uncle Vanya (composed by Chekhov). In this production, actors use their own mother tongues. As part of the job, Yûsuke has to accept a condition he is opposed to, having a personal driver. He considers it a ritual to be behind the wheel of his old, two-door car.
With its lights of bright red burning through the roads and highways, the car is where Yûsuke can be free and alone, it is the symbol of the return and departure, the way to come back home to his loved ones and get away from the tragic present. In the quiet atmosphere of the vehicle, Oto’s voice feeds him lines of salvation via the speakers on the tape. Her words may come from some prepared text, or from herself, it just doesn’t make any difference. Over time, both come together into one.
The erased safety of a neglected reflection in the mirror, together with the close intensity of two people listening to each other in a way that the world seemingly fades away, help the movie capture Yûsuke’s inner issue with a kind understanding, not pushing it to harsh but letting it spread at its own pace. Yûsuke crumbles piece by piece, and when given the relief of purgation from Hamaguchi, he finally let out his emotional containment in a stunning, shared way.
The movie as a whole is unassumingly devastating, and it is the unshowiness of Hidetoshi Nishijima’s turn that amazes audiences. He is a sorrowful husband and father who tries to hide his endless pain by working hard, arduously maintaining his composure until he can no longer bear the rage he holds towards his loved one. His stoic gestures act as an impassable fortress to prevent others from understanding him.
His chauffeur, Misaki (Tôko Miura), shares Yûsuke’s energy as she also wants to remain overlooked and unquestioned. This young lady is running far away from her own guilt related to her past. As she watches the main character rehearsing with his cast, which includes the star Kôji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), there is a slowly growing sympathy for Yûsuke. Miura’s modestly confident performance intensifies the confidential and guilty feeling that they share.
At first, all Misaki does to interact is to press the ‘play’ button on Yûsuke’s recording. However, as he praises her mean driving skills at a dinner, the air of the customer-driver relationship finally disappears. Hamaguchi also expresses a non-verbal understanding among people by means of Yûsuke’s multinational actors performing with one another. They merely use their senses and feelings instead of languages.
With cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s abundance of exquisite imagery, the movie digs deep into great visual symbolism in what seems ordinary and negligible. For example, there is a scene in which Yûsuke and Misaki hold cigarettes through the car’s sunroof to not let the smoke fill their sacred vehicle, which acts as an unspoken share of respect. As long conversations take place in the back seat of the four-wheeled co-star, the camera locks on their face, capturing every affirmation and reaction of each one without any embellishment. In this way, both what’s being said and how it’s perceived are honored. That the two being nakedly sincere to each other becomes compelling in its simple setup.
This humanistic three-hour movie has no flashbacks, which fits with its theme of what’s ahead, not what’s behind. The characters become alive, not thanks to their past experiences but their products, which is who they are at the moment. With Hamaguchi’s exquisite and patient directing, those characters are no longer idealized as they were on the pages. They are seemingly transformed into the casts by osmosis, thus conveying not a sense of arrogant wisdom but instead, an understanding revelation that feels comfortable. Drive My Car is a sympathetic and emotional ride which ends in a confrontation with oneself. The movie is both devastating and comforting as it mines, in a poetic way, the sadness we run away from, the hits that wake us up and the healing we get with every hitch along the way.
Drive My Car is now available in select theaters.