Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s third work “Drive My Car” is an adaptation from Haruki Murakami’s 2014 short story collection “Men Without Women”. Named best screenplay at 2021 Cannes and recently best film at The New York Film Critics Circle, “Drive My Car” is Japan’s entry for the 94th Academy Award’s best international feature.
“Drive My Car” takes on an intimate portrayal of a marriage full of passion. It follows Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a prominent Tokyo stage actor and director. He is married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a playwright with whom Yūsuke shares creative collaboration. Oto would articulate new ideas of a story mid- and post-coital haze, with Kafuku sometimes narrating it back to Oto. For the couple, intercourse exists within the erotic context of physical intimacy and opportunities to develop storytelling.
Their residence is large, and it is luxuriously furnished. Their exterior facade oozes success and a fulfilling relationship. Yūsuke is a good-looking, tall man with a heavily layered Korean-men haircut. Oto is slim, flawlessly pale skinned with shiny long black hair and a noticeable hint of heavy eye makeup. They define the recognizable stereotype of a perfect-pitch couple. However, they seem to sustain the charade of monogamous marital bliss for over twenty years while enduring the inner struggle to preserve marital infidelity’s secrecy.
A Quiet Journey from Pain, Grief to Hope
Just when the film is warming up, another mishap comes about. On the way that Oto is arranging an important discussion of their marriage, she dies at an unexpected turn. Following the sudden death, Yūsuke emotionally shuts down and restrains from life.
Yet, the film refuses to immerse Yūsuke into easy escapism. We don’t see him indulge in smoke, drugs, or alcohol. 2 years ahead, he drives his car heading to Hiroshima to begin a polyglot adaption of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”. He is introduced to Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), professionally hired for Yūsuke’s rehearsal trips in his red Saab 900 Turbo.
Yūsuke is a creature of habit; he rehearses lines using the car’s cassette player recorded by Oto. The vintage red Saab symbolizes the physical space of his privacy and creative work. As the theater residency bans him from driving himself due to insurance reasons, he is resistant to passing the steering wheel to another.
As it turns out, Watari is a skillful chauffeur but a woman of discretion. Over time, she cautiously loosens up to Yūsuke, breaking down the patron-client relationship. She tells him about the lifelong guilt following the loss of her mother in a landslide accident – a sentiment that immediately sets about their unlikely kinship.
What was once a private space, the titular red car, is now an intimate space where Yūsuke and Misaki share genuine conversation and connection. The interior of the beloved car steers a tortuous course for the plot. Characters are linked, and emotions are unleashed and overcome.
The obvious examination of the film narrative is how it ponders how tragic events affect the characters and how they venture into these episodic events and different places to seek consolation. Drive My Car delves into the intricacies of pain and guilt while navigating its characters with their vulnerability toward a sense of revelation. A revelation that sets them free and gives a new meaning to hope. As Yūsuke compellingly tells Misaki in their conclusive scene, “We must keep on living. It’ll be okay. I’m sure.”
Drive My Car is a staggering three-hour ‘drive’, but it is a 3 hours duration well spent. If you can’t think of a better way to spend 3 hours of your life, see it.