THE STORY – An aging, widowed actor seeks a chauffeur. The actor turns to his go-to mechanic, who ends up recommending a 20-year-old girl. Despite their initial misgivings, a very special relationship develops between the two.
THE CAST – Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tōko Miura, Masaki Okada, Reika Kirishima, Park Yoo-rim, Jin Daeyeon & Sonia Yuan
THE TEAM – Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Director/Writer) & Takamasa Oe (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 179 minutes
By Tom O’Brien
Can a film about grief be exhilarating at the same time?
That’s only one of the tantalizing questions suggested by director Ryusuke Hamaguchi in his latest drama, “Drive My Car.” The film, which won the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes earlier this year and is Japan’s official selection for this year’s Best International Feature Oscar, runs nearly three hours, a length that one usually associates with widescreen action epics, but in its own way, “Drive My Car” is just as epic in its scope. Here, however, it’s emotional scope, revealing the kind of feelings that may be small and personal at the start but widen to become vast and universal by the time the film reaches its powerful conclusion.
“Drive My Car” is anything but pretentious, so to say that the film is an examination of the human condition ascribes it a misleading loftiness that it does not deserve. But Hamaguchi is interested in people, and through his characters, he has brought to life a wide array of human beings, at times being cruel and deceptive, while at other times loving and kind.
Hamaguchi’s saga is told through the eyes of Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a renowned theater actor and director who is married to successful TV writer Oto (Reika Kirishima). Theirs is a complicated relationship — both are career-driven, but sex is of particular interest for Oto, both in her work and in the casual affairs in her life. In one telling scene early in the film, Yūsuke comes home unexpectedly to find Oto having vigorous sex with another man, a young actor named Kôji (Masaki Okada). Yūsuke just watches for a few moments silently. Is he too shocked to respond? Does he get off by watching? Has this happened before? Or does the couple have an open marriage, and this is just fine? Hamaguchi doesn’t lead us by the hand to any answers but instead allows us to come to our own conclusions about what’s going on inside Yūsuke. It’s just the first of several enigmatic character moments that help to propel Hamaguchi’s narrative.
Two years pass. Oto has unexpectedly died, and Yūsuke is still deep into the throes of grief. Deciding to shift his focus to work, he accepts a job offer by a Hiroshima theater company to direct a production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” Still too overcome to take on the lead role himself, Yūsuke casts Kôji as the title character, a role for which he is totally unsuited age-wise but could give him a big break. Is Kôji’s (mis)casting a kind act of forgiveness on Yūsuke’s part? Or is it an act of revenge against Kôji for sleeping with his wife?
Just as Yūsuke and Kôji begin to circle around each other during rehearsals, so too do the other members of Yūsuke’s stage cast as they must learn to relate both to their director and to one another in order to bond into a true ensemble. Having been directed to speak their lines in their own native tongue, the actors sometimes have no idea what their stage partner is saying but rely on their human instincts to relate to them. How Hamaguchi captures that reliance on human understanding among the actors on stage is a marvel.
Yūsuke’s most unexpected and moving relationship, though, turns out to be with his production-mandated chauffeur Misaki (Tôko Miura), who, when she is first introduced, is strictly business driving quietly. At the same time, Yūsuke runs audio lines from the play using the taped voice of his late wife. As the film progresses and all of the stories from the people who surround Yūsuke have been heard, it is finally time for Misaki to speak her truth, telling of a life that’s far more complex and emotionally wrenching than Yūsuke had ever imagined. “Human beings are complicated,” Hamaguchi seems to be telling us throughout “Drive My Car,” and the cumulative effect only builds throughout the film’s lengthy running time.
Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami (who also authored a short story that was the basis for the 2018 film “Burning“), the screenplay by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe introduces its characters using very meticulous details, then burrows down to explore what makes them tick, yet still allowing us to come to our own conclusions. Yes, there’s that running time, and I’ll admit there were moments when “Drive My Car” almost lost me. (Reading subtitles for three hours in a dialogue-heavy movie can take its toll.) But then Hamaguchi always seemed to come up with something — a line of dialogue, an unexpected character tic — that would snap me right back.
I’ve been trying to find the right phrase to sum up “Drive My Car,” and I find I keep returning to my feeling that it’s the most humane film I’ve seen this year. By that, I don’t mean that it’s kind and nice — at times, the film is anything but — but instead, it always feels real. As different from our lives as the characters in “Drive My Car” might at first seem, at those times when Hamaguchi skillfully connects the joys and struggles that they’re experiencing to those in our own lives (no easy feat), those are the moments when “Drive My Car” truly soars.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” may be a film about grief. Still, it is anything but somber, offering instead an experience where its character work is incisive and its storytelling downright exhilarating.
THE BAD – It’s three hours. No matter how fast the pacing is or fascinating the characters are, reading subtitles in a dialogue-heavy film for that amount of time can take its toll.
THE FINAL SCORE – 9/10