By Mark Peranson
Published in Cinema Scope #88 (Fall 2021)
Throughout his filmography, tracing back to Happy Hour (2015), Ryusuke Hamaguchi has been intrigued by the place of women in Japanese society: their awareness of how they are supposed to behave and how they either choose to live by the rules or break out on their own, in an arguably Western-influenced way. (Hamaguchi is one of the most Western of Japanese filmmakers, so no surprise he would be attracted to Murakami Haruki, Chekhov, and a car whose steering wheel is on the left.) The societal role of women is explicitly the focus of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and while the protagonist of Hamaguchi’s new film is male, women certainly don’t take a backseat. At the outset of Drive My Car, screenwriter Oto (Kirishima Reika) tells an erotic dream story about a girl who lives by her own strict set of rules, but reserves the right to break them; Oto’s audience is her actor/director husband Yusuke (Nishijima Hidetoshi), who, two years after Oto suddenly dies from a cerebral hemorrhage, takes a theatrical residency in Hiroshima to stage Uncle Vanya, and is forced by the residency’s insurance regulations to take on a driver for the duration of his stay. As the film goes on (and on), the relationship between Yusuke and his laconic driver, Misake (Miura Toko), becomes more prominent, and ultimately, the film gives equal voice to both.
Though it should have taken a major prize at Cannes, Drive My Car was an extremely deserved Best Screenplay winner for Hamaguchi and co-writer Oe Takemasa, as the film is a loose, inventive adaptation of its source (a somewhat sexist, 30-page short story) that pretty much only retains the scenario of an older actor being chauffeured around by a younger woman in a vintage Saab 900 convertible (which in the story is yellow, not red), as well as the protagonist’s bar dates with a younger actor who had an affair with his late wife. (The only dialogue Hamaguchi retained from Murakami is from one of these encounters.) Though Uncle Vanya gets a passing mention via the cassette tape which Yusuke likes to rehearse to, in the film that recording is recited by the voice of his late wife, a constant reminder of his troubled past. Nor, naturally, is there anything in the original equivalent to the lengthy, Rivettian rehearsals and stage performances Yusuke mounts in the film, including the very original and unexpectedly cinematic idea to have each of the characters speak in a different language, including Korean sign language, which itself speaks to the film’s inclusive attitude.
Hamaguchi’s changes bring a real sense of life and, indeed, an entire world that is absent in Murakami’s story; he even fleshes out their tragic backstories, in addition to creating a number of memorable characters from scratch. For a film set in a theatre milieu, almost all of the scenes are brilliantly underplayed, with the drama being generated from honest, thoughtful interaction and spot-on, precise dialogues that far exceed the quality of Murakami—whether in a remarkable dinner scene at the home of Yusuke’s Korean dramaturge, Yoon-sun (Jin Deayon, who, in his screen debut, gives a performance dripping with empathy), or, after enough driving to fill a feature film on its own, between Yusuke and Misake, the latter of whom comes to represent and, eventually, replace Yusuke’s child, who was born the same year as Misake but died at the age of four. A generous film for thinking adults that takes its time to delve into its overflowing ideas and interrelations, Drive My Car makes itself wide open to its audience: this is formally represented in multiple ways, whether by the two empty chairs at the rehearsal table or in every scene shot while a play is being performed, with the camera often perched behind the actors looking toward the audience, whom we can just make out—sitting, intently focused—in the dark.
The emotional clarity of Hamaguchi’s project is such that it comes as a surprise when, after the film’s events play out and Uncle Vanya is finally staged, we jump ahead to a coda set in South Korea during the pandemic, which sees Misake, the red Saab, and the dog belonging to Yoon-sun in a supermarket parking lot, no explanation given. I asked Hamaguchi about this head-scratching ending, and he said that initially the film was to be shot in Korea, which was made impossible by the pandemic, so he rewrote the script to set it in Hiroshima; he shot other scenes that would have given some context to this coda, but he needed to get the film down to three hours. Sometimes a little mystery goes a long way.