As Drive My Car approached its third hour, I banished the thought of a conventional review. The second of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s two 2022 films juggles characters and tones. It’s an exciting movie. I understand the enthusiasm.
1. A startling thing happened fifteen minutes before the end credits of Drive My Car: characters in masks appear in a store. Because most films screened in the last eighteen months were made before the pandemic, to watch one in which our lived reality unfolds without comment or calling special attention to itself is a tonic.
2. Like the South Korean film Burning (2018), Drive My Car treats a Haruki Murakami short story as an idea scratched on a cocktail napkin whose freshness startles more fecund imaginations. Stage actor Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), directing a multilingual production of Uncle Vanya, gets coerced by the theater company into having Misaki (Tōko Miura) chauffeur him around Hiroshima (an artist once “ran over” somebody, his dutiful minders say). A taciturn fellow who conserves his energy for finessing his cast, Kafuku has endured first the death of his child followed by his wife Oto, a screenwriter whose best ideas, well, came during orgasm (Kafuku listens to her recordings in his sleek tomato-colored Saab 900). “She’d grasp the end of a story at orgasm and spin it,” Kafuku remarks.
3. This is a terrible idea. Only a man would think this conceit attractive or workable.
4. The unobtrusive way in which Reika Kirishima as Oto and Nishijima project the deep affection and erotic attraction between two people stunted by grieving redeems it, though. Marooned in his own car while the on-first-glance drab, efficient Watari takes charge, Kafuku watches the world because he wants to relearn how to respond to beautiful things again. Nishijima gives one of the sharper reactive performances in recent memory.
5. Yasujiro Ozu comes up often whenever a Japanese director essays domestic drama. I see little of Ozu’s stylized, fundamentally ironic depictions of men and women for whom a smile functions as signifier of pleasure, a bulwark, and a rapier; Hamaguchi is closer to Naruse, less formally memorable and whose actors give more recognizably “Western” performances. But Hamaguchi is his own man. Asako I & II, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and Drive My Car don’t move or look like other contemporary films.
6. What is it about Uncle Vanya that draws filmmakers? In 1994, Louis Malle directed Vanya on 42nd Street, in which actors puttering before a dress rehearsal of Anton Chekhov’s play suddenly before our eyes don’t transform into their characters so much as ease into them as one does a pair of slippers. Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), the young actor cast as the title character, admits the role is beyond him, which is the point: Kafuku wants him to find the comic bitterness within himself where none exists. A scene from the play rehearsed in a park, the trees filtering the greenish-yellow autumn light, is the film’s most indelible.
7. Park Yurim, using Korean Sign Language to play Chekhov’s Sonya, demonstrates how letting a good director work (Kafuku as much as Hamaguchi) with a putative disability can result in something compelling and new.
8. Why he cast Takatsuki becomes clear when Kafuku, exerting a control over his art like he can’t over his life, alludes to Oto’s numerous infidelities as a way of pricking Takatsuki about his own dalliance with her (Kafuku had walked in on them making love in the movie’s first third). Hamaguchi’s straightforward and relentless narrative drive — he thought flashbacks unnecessary — keeps these developments from shocking audiences. By isolating Kafuku in closeup and filming those repeated sequences of the Saab in motion, Hamaguchi encourages us to merge with Kafuku. We know what is going on; we want to see if his hat trick will succeed.
9. Too often regarded as interstitial, car sequences and scenes are a film’s most fast-forwardable. Not in Drive My Car. Besides looking bleakly beautiful in long shot as it speeds up Hiroshima streets and its rural landscapes, the Saab is Kafuku’s confessional, conference room, and cocoon.
10. Watari offers confessions of her own after what Kafuku regards as his humiliation fades. In Hamaguchi films, the theatricality of the monologues is intentional. In the last act — Drive My Car is a film about and infused with theatre — a gesture of forgiveness after decades of chewed-over hurt takes place. No sense of “closure” in all its psychobabble forms either.
11. That said, that same act is at least fifteen minutes too long. As the film switches from Kafuku/Takatsuki to Kafuku/Misaki, Hamaguchi loses trust in the audience’s grasping of subtlety. Too much is revealed. A lovely symbol of newfound solidarity — a two-shot of Kafuku and Misaki holding their cigarettes over the dashboard — comes close to a salvage job.
12. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, released earlier this year, strikes me as the better film if I had to choose, and I won’t. Why is Drive My Car the consensus favorite? Recency? A critic’s instinctive appreciation for art that comments on the creation of art? Cool car envy?