Reika Kirishima and Hidetoshi Nishijima in Drive My Car.
When I first heard about a new movie called Drive My Car, I thought it was yet another product of the current revival of interest in the Beatles — along with the Paul McCartney/Rick Rubin conversations on Hulu and Peter Jackson’s Get Back, a Disney+ series that recasts and reinterprets the rock group’s 1970 Let It Be documentary.
I know that the song “Drive My Car” — which first appeared in the U.S. on 1966’s Yesterday and Today album — isn’t a first-tier Beatles song, but film directors seem to like their titles to contain semi-obscure cultural references. British director Edgar Wright’s 2017 Baby Driver, for example, takes its moniker from a Simon & Garfunkel B-side.
But I had wrongly pegged Drive My Car, which debuted in limited national release late in 2021 and arrives at the Mariemont Theatre on Feb. 11.
It is a Japanese drama from up-and-coming director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who, with co-writer Takamasa Oe, has adapted and expanded a 38-page short story by the writer Haruki Murakami into a three-hour film. (By the way, in Murakami’s book of stories that contains “Drive My Car,” 2014’s Men Without Women, it is immediately followed by “Yesterday,” which references the Beatles’ song of the same name. So, technically, I suppose, there is a Drive My Car/Beatles connection, after all.)
The film moves deftly and assuredly throughout its duration, first with a calmness befitting its initial observations about those it depicts. But ultimately it reaches an ending that is cathartic for its two central characters — the man who owns the car and the woman who drives it — and for us.
The film works so well in negotiating its journey, and handles its various conflicts so believably, that it won the Best Screenplay Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (plus two other prizes there) and has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, Best International Feature Film and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Like author Murakami’s life, the film’s story is rooted in Japan but very much about the international world of arts and culture, where people from different nations intermingle, sharing a dedication to their creative pursuits.
Drive My Car centers on theater director and actor Yusuke Kafuku, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima with a reticent, distancing nature that gradually gives way to sensitivity and curiosity about others. He is something of a loner, enjoying driving his red Saab 900 so he can learn his lines by listening to dialogue cassettes. But when he arrives in Hiroshima to direct a theater festival version of Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov’s enduring 1899 play, he is told he must use a chauffeur for his driving — insurance requires it because a past guest struck a pedestrian.
This may not be such a bad thing for Yusuke, who has been having his own eye problems. But he’s at first angry about this edict, since driving represents freedom to him. But his interest in the young woman assigned by the theater to drive him slowly grows. They begin to learn about each other from their at-first terse conversations and personal questions. The driver, Toko Miura (played excellently by Misaki Watari) seems to view passivity as strength, but time spent with Yusuke erodes her granite façade.
For his part, Yusuke recognizes and respects an excellent driver, as she is. Director Hamaguchi’s movie is beautifully acted, filmed and scored, so it is pleasurable to watch while you wait for its many narrative surprises to be revealed. This also makes it hard to review in detail, lest I give away any secrets that might spoil your enjoyment of the pleasures that come from its thoughtful pacing and plotting. But keep in mind that this film subtly equates the act of driving with the long, psychologically journey that those burdened with repressed guilt and grief must take to acknowledge that. Further, it treats the theater — and maybe all arts — as an important means for helping us get to that moment of acknowledgement, and it observes and treats the lives of those dedicated to its pursuit very seriously.
Uncle Vanya, about the way a Russian family living on a rural estate wrestles with their angsts and desires, their past and future, has thematic parallels with Drive My Car’s story, although that’s never made obvious. In a way, this film could be called a backstage drama and a road-trip movie. It takes cues from a classic of world literature, Uncle Vanya, but is also about the challenges of contemporary life.
The main story develops after a prologue set in Tokyo, which introduces us to Yusuke and his writer wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), whose sexual fantasies double as brainstorming for her stories, or vice versa. One of the best parts of Drive My Car is the way Yusuke builds his cast for Uncle Vanya’s staging, via tryouts and table readings, without regard to age, nationality or possible disability. However, in one case, he may have an alternative motive — to play Vanya, he chooses the fashionable but impulsive young actor Koshi Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), perhaps because Yusuke suspects Koshi may once have had an affair with his wife.
The scenes where the two meet to discuss Yusuke’s wife, whom Koshi did indeed know, are suspenseful with their cat-and-mouse nature as Yusuke tries to ferret out information. Koshi, in turn, has a confessional dimension, but also is capable of violent outbursts.
To play the key role of Sonya in Uncle Vanya, Yusuke chooses a mute actress who uses Korean sign language to communicate. Park Yurim plays that actress with extraordinary emotion. Watching her “speak” her role becomes a moving experience to behold; director Hamaguchi wisely lets her have his full attention for it and gives her a powerful back story.
Uncle Vanya contains a famous line, spoken by Sonya: “What can we do? We must live our lives.”
That ultimately serves as a theme, a call to action, for Drive My Car.