There are certain stories that can help put existence into perspective and even provide clarity. Rarely does one receive such clarity with the most impossibly layered stories. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, based on the Haruki Murakami short story of the same name, is one of those films that envelops you into existential emancipation rather than a crisis.
The story follows theater actor Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), married to a successful, secretive screenwriter named Oto (Reika Kirishima). Immediately, we dive into their unconventional dynamic as a couple. This film is an exercise in close attention to detail in order to discern whether the conversation being had is real or merely a story being told. Quite often, it blurs the lines between what a character says as themselves and what a character says when reciting lines from a role they are playing.
We see a glimpse of their past when they visit the grave of a young child. Eventually, we find out the child is their deceased 4-year-old daughter. This is a marriage spanning over 20 years that has clearly experienced great loss and gone through a journey of healing. However, we are unaware of the nature of this until much further down the road. Kafuku then witnesses his wife’s infidelity in their home without her knowledge. He leaves the scene and distances himself emotionally from Oto as consequence. Turmoil builds, leading up to his wife’s sudden death. This tumultuous first act alone is but a cold open for the journey that lies ahead for Drive My Car.
For simplicity’s sake, the central hook of Drive My Car is the connection that blossoms between Kafuku and his contractually assigned driver, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura). This occurs when Kafuku accepts a directing role for a play at a theatre festival in Hiroshima. He maintains a grip on what little he can control: driving his red Saab 900 as he listens (and speaks) to cassettes of Oto reciting the lines. Simply put, this is the key to his anguish. Henceforth, Kafuku’s initial resistance to being assigned a driver. Their connection is a very slow yet meaningful build. As an introverted individual, Watari retreats to the background until Kafuku pulls her out of her own shell. Battling with directing his wife’s ex-lover in the leading role, his only reprieves are the drives with the young chauffeur.
Kafuku is still so deep in his grief that his interactions carry the shadow of Oto and her stories. The theater director battles with the guilt he carries for not saving his wife sooner. The deep assurance that both carries and restrains him is the illusion that he truly knew his partner better than anyone. Her secrecy in her creative process, even in their most intimate moments, haunts him. Soon, he finds his grip on control slipping once again. A man who’s spent a lifetime playing someone else never seemed to even know himself, and the thought terrifies him. Hamaguchi poses the question of “Do we really need to understand why people are how they are?” through the gracefully human exploration of guilt, mourning, and healing.
The film is naturally reminiscent of Murakami’s style of storytelling, engulfing the reader into a rabbit hole of stories that may or may not have a clear conclusion. This evocative feeling in the source material emerges even further thanks to its pristine visual language. Hamaguchi carries the viewer on a sentimental journey through quiet conversations and panoramic cinematography. Despite the heavy subject matter, it is driven ever so gently through the eyes of a grieving widow. Drive My Car is replete with hauntingly beautiful scenery as a backdrop to tragedy-ridden people that will keep you engaged in spite of its patient runtime. In classic Murakami fashion, the story unfolds into layers of nuanced philosophical discussions of life. More importantly, it dives into how well you truly ever can know someone. It questions if that even matters at all.
Drive My Car premiered at the 74th Festival de Cannes and stars Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tôko Miura, and Reika Kirishima.