One of the most talked-about films in the awards circuit this year is none other than Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. In the past, Ryusuke Hamaguchi has made a name for himself through beautifully understated, albeit lengthy character studies through films like Happy Hour and Asako I & II, but through this adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s story he creates what may be his best work yet. I find this to be his best because it’s a film that finds unity in something that we all love, with how it intertwines with how we live our own lives. But that’s only the least of what makes Drive My Car so special.
Theater director and actor Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is married to screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima). Tragedy befalls as Oto suddenly passes away, leaving Yusuke unable to perform in the same manner. Years later, however, he accepts an offer to direct a multilingual production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, whereupon he is assigned a personal chauffeur in the young and skilled Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) with whom he forms a special bond. Taking inspiration from Murakami’s short story of the same name from his Men Without Women collection, Drive My Car isn’t only special as a film all about art’s impact on how we live our lives, but a special film from knowing how much it states with the ordinary – especially as we deal with personal tragedies as they come by.
Murakami’s words have seen their way to the big screen through films like Burning and Norwegian Wood, but Ryusuke Hamaguchi doesn’t simply approach his words lightly and instead lets them play out like rumination on where one can take their own lives going forth. This isn’t so much a film all about the tragedy that befell Yusuke’s life, but how we overcome that loneliness through the art we both experience and create – as it turns itself universal through sharing it with others. Perhaps this is best felt through its near three-hour running time, yet even with noting the fact that the opening credits of Drive My Car don’t show up until forty minutes into the film, the movie never feels like it drags. In fact, the lengthy running time is best suited to the notion of how tragedies linger in our lives, and continually make us vulnerable.
While Ryusuke Hamaguchi doesn’t always let this movie go for a flashy path, there’s always something beautiful to be found in the simplicity of the imagery. Whether it be the image of cigarettes being held up, or a walk through a garbage facility, they all feel symbolic of a greater unity being found – especially as all your own pains are shared with someone else. Yet considering the circumstances that have befell Yusuke’s own life, as the central tragedy is not the only one that he had underwent, it only fits that Hamaguchi compliments each moment with images that seem so simple, bringing forth the notion that this isn’t so much a singular experience but one that can be felt as we all experience the loss of someone we love, at one point of our own lives or another.
Hidetoshi Nishijima’s performance is one that will arguably go down as one of the best of the whole decade. In his role as the grief-stricken Yusuke Kafuku, he brings out maybe the single most heartbreaking performance from any actor to be seen on the screen through all last year. Whether it is a moment we hear him reciting the lines of Uncle Vanya while in his own car or through every moment he directs the actors for the multilingual performance of the same play. He always feels so delicate, strenuous, and always so restrained – internalizing that pain from first frame to last, and in turn it’s only ever so beautiful. To Hamaguchi, Yusuke isn’t someone who is simply making the art for others’ enjoyment but to share the experiences with people, turning a singular experience into something universal.
For as much as Nishijima’s performance will be the center of non-stop praise, Toko Miura isn’t one to be ignored either: her equally understated portrayal of Yusuke’s chauffeur is just as devastating. But the greatest skills that Hamaguchi brings to the screen with directing his actors can be seen through how each character talks with one another. While most of the film is defined through the talks between Yusuke and Misaki, there’s always a sense of catharsis to be felt in how many layers slowly come undone from one scene to the other, and ultimately where Yusuke says he wants Misaki to take him – knowing everything that the two of them had went through.
But with talking how much of Drive My Car is a meditation on art, grief, and trauma – it’s the way that Ryusuke Hamaguchi allows Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to play into this story. For one, the rehearsal scenes also turn seemingly small roles into characters who leave substantial impact: first the Taiwanese actress Janice Chang who also speaks fluent English, but also there’s the mute character who performs her part in Korean sign language, played by Park Yu-rim. Nonetheless, the way that Hamaguchi frames these rehearsal scenes, and ultimately the final performance, only renders these moments ever so stunning – because of the dedication felt in how we project the actors in our own heads, versus how it ultimately becomes externalized.
Drive My Car is a film that has long been on my mind since I first saw it, and all this time I only know it’s going to be a film that I will be coming back to very frequently. In its daunting length, moments of understated beauty only make this story feel so universal and ever so inspiring. With the template of a Haruki Murakami story at play, Ryusuke Hamaguchi opts to paint a more beautiful picture all around, and in turn, delivers one of the best and most heartbreaking films to come out within the past few years. In tragedy, it always feels so life-affirming, but in how it engages with the way we see art and its effect on the artists, it sweeps you away with relative ease.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Janus Films.
Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Screenplay by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Takamase Oe, from the story by Haruki Murakami
Produced by Teruhisa Yamamoto
Starring Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura, Masaki Okada, Reika Kirishima, Park Yu-rim, Jin Dae-yeon, Sonia Yuan, Ahn Hwitae, Perry Dizon, Satoko Abe
Release Date: August 20, 2021 (Japan)
Running Time: 179 minutes