I know I’ve been lamenting about movies with long running time, even though some of my fave classic movies are 3 hours long or longer. Drive My Car has a 2hr 59 min running time but it’s actually based on a short story collection called Men Without Women. That title is kind of a giveaway as to what happens to the protagonist, Yusuke Kafuku. He’s a prominent stage actor and director who has been invited to direct a Chekov’s play at a festival in Hiroshima.
The films starts with Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his playwright wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), living and collaborating together. It’s a rather um, unconventional creative process as Oto gets most of her writing ideas while she’s having sex with her husband. It appears as if they have a warm and loving marriage, and the fact that they’re both creative people make for quite a playful relationship. But of course things are never what they seem, as Yusuke discovers when he comes home unexpectedly one day. The opening credits rolls about 40-minutes in, and it’s only then that I realize the opening is a flashback of sort as the film pretty much begins two years after we last see Yusuke and Oto.
By this time, Oto has passed away and Yusuke is en route to Hiroshima to begin a two-month program to direct a multi-lingual adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. At the insistence of the theater company, he reluctantly accepts a chauffeur to drive his beloved red Saab 900. The driver is a stoic 23-year-old girl, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), which suits Yusuke just fine as he prefers to listen to the ‘Vanya’ tapes Oto made for him to help him memorize his lines when he played the title role.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who directed the script he co-wrote with Takamasa Oe takes a leisurely approach in his storytelling. There’s slo-burn and then there’s laid-back, and this is definitely the latter. But it doesn’t mean the slow-ness is boring or tedious, at least not to me as I find the premise fascinating. As a big fan of theater, watching the creative process of bringing a play to life appeals to me. As if it wasn’t daunting enough to adapt a Russian play for a Japanese audience, Yusuke is directing a multi-language version. In fact, in one of the rehearsals, I recognize one of the actors speaking Indonesian! The audition process shows actors from various backgrounds, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Filipino, etc. as they recite Chekov’s text in their own language. Even sign language is not off limits, and the film shows extended rehearsal scenes both on and off the stage.
Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), one of the more prominent actors who auditioned for the play turns out to have a connection with Yusuke’s late wife. His interactions with Yusuke is often awkward, mysterious and unpredictable. It’s interesting to see the contrast in personality though, as Kōji is far more expressive, even impetuous than the cautious and stoic Yusuke. Koji turns out to be a rather embittered character who resents his fame, even capable of drastic violence. Yet he ends up offering Yusuke insights about his own marriage that he was blindsided by.
As the title suggests, the heart of the story takes place during the car ride. One could even call this a dramatic road movie where Yusuke and Misaki eventually form a bond as they finally lower their guards down and begin exchanging secrets and confessions of their past. Yusuke has regrets about Oto and Misaki has a love-hate relationship with her late mother, so in a way these two very different people have a lot in common. I feel that Misaki’s character doesn’t really emerge until the third act, even though she plays a key role in the whole story. Still, that final scene of them at Misaki’s hometown is a pretty emotional one.
The cinematography by Hidetoshi Shinomiya is gorgeous with some really stunning night photography. Some of the imagery are quite poetic as well, such as this scene of Yusuke and Misaki smoking in the car and you only see their hands holding a cigarette through the car’s moonroof. It’s the quintessential ‘one perfect shot’ that I absolutely adore.
Sometimes an unexpected encounter can be a cathartic experience that changes one’s life. Drive My Car is a thought-provoking ride that’s enthralling in its quiet intensity. There’s a lot of unpack here that leaves me ruminating even days after I watched it. It’s slow going but ultimately a rewarding experience for patient viewers. I sincerely hope Academy voters would consider nominating this one, not only for the Best Foreign Language category, but also for Best Picture.