Released 2021. Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
IF I WERE TO LIKEN THIS MOVIE TO A CAR RIDE, I'D DESCRIBE IT as a smooth and quiet road trip. The scenery is undramatic and remains similar, but it's the perspective of the passengers that has changed in the end. The destination is an epiphany.
Stage director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has taken up residency in Hiroshima for a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in a theatre festival. Two years prior, his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Shortly before her death he discovered she was cheating on him but he chose to keep it quiet. Many years earlier, they lost their young daughter. Yusuke carries the grief of two deaths and infidelity wrapped up in an elegant stoicism. You see the man is sad, but life goes on.
The festival organiser hires a driver for Yusuke to take him between the venue and his accommodation. Yusuke resents the idea but it’s a rule they’re unwilling to bend. To Yusuke, a very private man, this arrangement is an intrusion forcing him to share a personal space and time with a stranger in his own car. The driver is a young woman named Misaki (Toko Miura) who keeps to herself and rarely speaks unless spoken to.
The version of Uncle Vanya that Yusuke is staging is a multilingual presentation, with each performer speaking in his or her native tongue, including sign language. The performers not only needs to know their own lines, but interact and connect with each other across a language barrier. This communication road bump is a metaphor for the wall of silence Yusuke erects around him. He may know his own lines so well to recite them backwards, but how well does he know how the people closest to him are thinking or feeling? It is his job to direct others to bring out their feelings, whilst he keeps his own under wraps.
Yusuke’s professionalism and discipline hides his own emotional state mirrored in the themes of disappointment and meaninglessness in Uncle Vanya. Out of the dozens of hopefuls who audition, he gives the title role to Koji (Masaki Okada), a young actor who doesn’t feel up to the challenge, because Yusuke recognises Koji as Oto’s lover. Is he trying to punish the young man, or is the director punishing himself?
The artistic process is a necessary means to rehabilitation and healing, whether or not Yusuke admits it. After the death of their child, Oto begins to compose stories, often finding inspiration after sex. She narrates, he writes, and together they work on a script which involves a girl who regularly sneaks into the bedroom of a boy she fancies without ever being caught, each time taking away a small item too insignificant to be noticed.
This story within a story, which is told and expanded gradually, takes the main narrative on a turn when Yusuke, who believes the story has ended with Oto’s death, hears its unexpected continuation from Koji. Like a voice from the grave, Oto’s story gently exhorts Yusuke to look inside and acknowledge his own feelings to move on.
Reaching the movie’s final moments, we learn just enough of how Misaki came to driving as a job, the tragic loss in her past and the guilt she carries. The stories of Yusuke, Misaki and Koji form three sides of a prism peering into the concealed lives in a culture where people generally are not encouraged to open up, preferring to seal shut private emotions.
Drive My Car is loosely based on three stories by celebrated Japanese author Haruki Murakami, exquisitely weaving themes of grief, regret, emotional hunger and resistance to connect into a slow ride of awakening. There’s complexity and subtlety in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s supremely confident directing style. He finds intrigue and sympathy in the gentle interactions between characters who’d rather not verbalise their true feelings. Through the many miles they cover together, the owner of a particular Saab 900 Turbo and his driver learn that finding answers and meanings is a collaborative process, as is life.
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