Most filmmakers can barely get one film right. Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi directed two this year, and I haven’ seen Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy yet. But it’s safe to say that Drive My Car is near perfect, depicting the length of a section of one’s life and letting its viewers know that its characters have had previous days that feel like the worst they’ve had without making those burdens overbearing. Here, those days come within years of each other, these characters living full lives in between such days. I emphasize those full live to reiterate that these are full characters instead of tropes, regardless of what happens to them and where they go during the film’s almost three hour running time.
It’s only necessary to express those full lives because of what happens more than half an hour into the film. During that time, the protagonist, theatre actor, writer, and director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) comes home. Yusuke finds his wife, TV writer Oto (Reika Kirishima) unconscious, the latter eventually dying. He attends her funeral and so does Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) a younger TV actor whom Oto was having an affair with. He eventually has to return to the stage to play his signature role. That role is as the titular role in Uncle Vanya. But his recent double trauma makes him incapable of finishing a performance.
The writer meets Koji in another city. That city is Hiroshima, where Yusuke is directing a production of Vanya where Koji auditions for Astrov but he gives the actor his signature role. There’s a lot to unpack here. There’s also enough ambiguity that isn’t obtuse and viewers’ interpretations of major things like Hamaguchi’s writing to minor things like costume choices says as much about Drive My Car as it does the viewer. Does Yusuke give Koji the main role to make him fail upward? Are Yusuke’s form fitting shirts and Koji’s flashy running shoes their way of out-alpha-ing each other. This film shows that even artist types aren’t immune to urges like toxic masculinity, as much as they hide those things well or disregard them to find empathy in the people who hurt them.
Nonetheless, Koji is just one of a set of characters in this diverse world. Here viewers meet producers and actors who speak different languages, like Korean, Korean Sign Language, and Tagalog. I have a nitpick that’s not really a nitpick about the film’s use of Tagalog, other than the slight xenophobia that the Japanese actors express to themselves about their non-Japanese cast members. In order for the production’s audience to understand each language, there’s a screen above the stage with supertitles (?) of those languages. The Tagalog supertitles need a few prepositions but its version of the language feels appropriately and hilarious Russian.
Anyway, there are different reasons as to why each character feels a certain isolation from the group. One of those characters is Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), who Yusuke reluctantly hires as a driver. He and everyone prefers to treat her as if she’s invisible, but that changes for Yusuke. One of the things I like about Drive My Car, especially with Yusuke and Misaki’s friendly professionalism, is how the film lets Misaki cross the borders between her and him. She listens to a conversation between him and Koji, as Koji reveals something about his relationship with Oto. After dropping Koji off, she takes his side, telling him that she knows liars and Koji isn’t one.
Misaki adds that believing his truth is enough to make him a good person. Kudos to both Hamaguchi’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story and everyone’s acting. It’s hard to write and say things with the word ‘heart’ and ‘truth’ in them and have that emotional weight. Hamaguchi pulled off something that masters sometimes can’t. And his juxtapositions of wide shots of highways to express how grueling these drives are to the close-ups of Miura’s face reinforces the emotions anyone needs to feel while watching a film.
Drive My Car opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
- Rated: NR, Unrated
- Genre: Drama
- Release Date: 11/26/2021
- Directed by: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
- Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Masaki Okada, Reika Kirishima, Toko Miura
- Produced by: Osamu Kubota, Sachio Matsushita, Yoshito Nakabe
- Written by: Haruki Murakami, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Takamasa Oe
- Studio: Bitters End, C&I Entertainment, Culture Entertainment