Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest project, Drive My Car is nothing less than a revelation. The movie is based on Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name in his collection of short stories, ‘Men Without Women’. So many movies today suffer from an excess of runtime that takes away from the story being told. Drive My Car uses every minute of its three hour runtime so perfectly, that viewers will only come away wanting more.
Drive My Car tells the story of love, loss, betrayal, and the art that binds us all. Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor and theatre director struggling with the loss of his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). He takes a residency with a theatre in Hiroshima with the intent to stage Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. A condition of his employment is that he must be chauffeured in his car, a Saab 900, by a hired driver, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura). Relationships are formed and tested, and the human experience is held to the light.
Immediately, the storytelling is enthralling. We’re invited into screenwriter Oto’s process, as she pitches a Euphoria-esque teen drama after intimate moments with her husband. In Yūsuke and Oto, we see a portrait of a marriage steeped in tragedy. The death of their daughter so young clearly caused such irreparable damage. Their choices in light of that tragedy are both sympathetic and yet deeply destructive in their own ways.
The meditation on the necessity and impact of the theatre is thought-provoking. As Kafuku so rightly says of Chekov, “When you say his lines, it drags out the real you”. It was a stroke of genius to use of various languages to put on a production of Uncle Vanya. The journey the actors go on to relate to Chekov’s words and discover themselves is nothing less than captivating.
Misaki is the absolute star of the show, from her introduction to her reluctant charge. She goes from a supporting character to being a vessel through which we can reflect on mental illness on the impact of trauma. Her reflections on her late mother are poignant. Her mother’s alternate personality, Sachi, was a coping mechanism. In a world where mental illnesses continue to be stigmatized, the acknowledgement that so often these illnesses are our brains way of protecting us and coping with reality was heartwarming.
The use of setting throughout this movie is incredible. So much of it is set in Hiroshima, a gorgeous city with an epic, tragic, and magnificent history. The movie makes use of so much space, and highlights notable spaces within the city including Grand Prince Hotel. On a smaller scale, the car was also used so effectively as a setting. In a way, the car became a character of it’s own in the story. It was the venue for characters to be their true selves, when they had simultaneously been putting on acts for the outside world.
The movie’s score, composed by Eiko Ishibashi is nothing less than gorgeous. At times poetically sinister, it sets the tone for the movie that’s distinctive and gripping. The score is contrasted with the use of moments of complete silence. It’s a jarring effect that works incredibly well, and keeps the viewers attention for the movie’s duration.
The attention to detail in Drive My Car is stunning. The road sign warning of a mudslide risk was a powerful tie-in to the story of the death of Misaki’s mother. Yūsuke beginning to ride in the passenger seat rather than the back seat signals the deepening of their relationship, and Yūsuke respecting Misaki as a daughter figure. The use of the TV during the final theatre performance was a striking visual that added depth to the already powerful stage scene.
Drive My Car is the very definition, from beginning to end. It’s a slow burn that pays off beautifully at the end. The contrast between truth and lies, reality and illusion is mesmorizing. Ultimately, the story is a meditation on grief, loss, and the relationships we all need to survive. It will certainly prompt viewers to explore the source material from Murakami, as well as Uncle Vanya, a truly classic play. That in itself is a worthy and commendable achievement.
Drive My Car is in select theatres now.