“If we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.”
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is built around the power of storytelling—imagined stories, dramatic stories, and personal stories. The film is based on short stories by Haruki Murakami, but also includes a good deal of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, with which the characters in the film have emotional parallels. Drive My Car, Japan’s official submission for Best International Feature Film, has been shortlisted for Oscar consideration.
The film opens with actor Yasuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) listening to his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) tell an evolving story in their post-coital revery, a story that he will tell her in the morning when she has forgotten it. Theirs is a complex relationship, but is clearly built on love for each other. Kafuku does multi-language productions of plays, Oto makes tapes that he uses to run lines. One day when he returns home unexpectedly, he discovers a secret. It is one that he seems to be able to live with, but when Oto dies suddenly, it leaves that part of his life unresolved.
The film moves ahead two years. Kafuku travels to Hiroshima to direct Uncle Vanya. When he arrives, he discovers that because of legal reasons, he must have a driver. A young woman, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), is assigned to him. He is reluctant to entrust her with is beloved bright red Saab 900, but gives in. He has an hour commute each day (at his request), he continues to use the tapes of his wife running lines for the play. Only occasionally do Kafuku and Watari interact at the beginning, but they slowly get to know one another and tell each other bits of their stories.
Much of the film is set in the rehearsals for the play, in which Kafuku has cast a young actor to play Vanya—an actor he suspects had an affair with Oto. His process for doing plays in several languages at once is challenging for the cast, but we watch as the play begins to come together.
Some may be put off by the three hour running time of the film, but whereas many films fill up time with special effects and amazing stunts, this is time that is filled with story. This is a film that peals the layers of story back like an onion. As Kafuku and Watari spend the hours in the car, they open themselves to speak of their traumas and sense of guilt and pain. Finally, they must undertake a road trip that will allow them each to see that life goes on in spite of suffering and sorrow. This is, in fact, the same conclusion that Uncle Vanya comes to. (And when we see the troupe perform the final scene from the play on stage, it is captivating and powerful in the way it is done.)
The sharing of stories, not just in the car, but among actors during and after rehearsals, is not small talk. They are the characters “looking within”, and in so doing discovering their own pain and the pain of others. That allows them to find healing.
It is interesting that filming had to be shut down for eight months. There is a coda to the film in which we see Watari in a supermarket in which everyone is masked. That scene continues to give us an ambiguous vision of how this story ends, but by setting that scene in the midst of the pandemic brings the film’s stories into our story. We too may find ourselves dealing with grief, pain, or guilt. But we too have life to live.
Drive My Car is in select theaters.
Photos courtesy of Janus Films.