There is a special charm that accompanies motorway navigation during road trips, where the presence or absence of company gives rise to different experiences. When accompanied by like-minded travel companions, the activity can be a crazy and exciting business focused on fun; alone, it can turn into a personal space of quiet solitude and contemplation.
At the heart of it all, however, is the emphasis on the spirit of travel, which brings Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi to the fore. Drive my car. Adapted from a short story of the same name by acclaimed writer Haruki Murakami, the Cannes Film Festival contestant takes viewers on a heart-wrenching three-hour ride along the lonely shores of grief, regret, love and healing.
The oversized runtime may at first glance seem like a questionable overextension of its original counterpart, but Hamaguchi proves the opposite with his storytelling prowess. Faithful to the scarcity of sources, the film develops the narrative world of Drive my car, bringing additional locations, new secondary characters, and a richer backstory to the big screen.
What is at the end of the road is a delicate work, sincere, poignant and full of heart, even if it spits at times. The story is hosted by Kafuku Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an accomplished stage actor turned director, known for his multilingual productions of Chekhov and Beckett. Marital happiness is a huge part of his life, established by 20 years of marriage to his screenwriter wife Oto (Reika Kirishima).
Mutual affection often sees them stimulate each other both intellectually and sexually, a routine that strengthens their perfect relationship – at least it seems. True to Murakami’s signature art of using sex to convey human contact (especially in Norwegian forest), these sensual moments offer an emotionally charged space where desire, passion and pleasure mingle in a way that recalls true and unwavering love. It is during such periods that Oto is seized with artistic inspiration, while she connects the stories of scenarios in the middle of a coitus with Kafuku.
But the intimate exhibits later prove to be a facade for a marriage rooted in personal disasters, including the loss of an only daughter and certain health issues – including Kafuku’s recently diagnosed glaucoma. This descent into literal blindness later takes on metaphorical form when he accidentally surprises Oto on a sexual date with Takatsuki Koshi (Masaki Okada), a young and handsome acting talent. Before he can clean the air with Oto, however, disaster strikes.
As Kafuku struggles through emotional turmoil, a constant companion stands by his side: his beloved, the red Saab 900. Here, the isolated comfort of a private space is accentuated by the manner of director of photography Hidetoshi Shinomiya, who masterfully juxtaposes well-framed interior shots. against the vast dull expanse of the city’s landscapes. Specifically for Kafuku, the vehicle also doubles as a creative space where he recites his lines, with a tape recording of the piece as an incentive partner.
Although not by choice, this precious space is then violated by a young hired driver, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) after a two-year time jump. Having accepted an invitation to direct a polyglot production of Chekhov Uncle Vanya, Kafuku now works at an arts festival in Hiroshima, but insurance rules prohibit him from driving. Instead, the task is left to Misaki, whose cautious and taciturn personality allows only stilted and laconic exchanges in the car. Eventually, long car rides around town pave the way for a blossoming friendship between the two, as they expose wounds still healing through painful confessionals and confident displays of emotional vulnerability.
Their unlikely camaraderie unfolds against a backdrop of melodrama involving Kafuku’s complicated friendship with Takatsuki, in which they bond over their shared love for Oto, and the constant reminder of Sonya’s monologue from Uncle Vanya: “We will patiently bear the burdens that fate imposes on us. “
It is by exploring Chekhov’s play that Hamaguchi impresses with his creative genius. Murakami’s short story does indeed make a brief reference to it, but the man offers an extra touch of finesse by presenting it as the overarching motif, where the need to move forward and continue living in the face of disappointment, as shown in this above quote, reflects the fate of the characters in Drive my car. In keeping with the theatrical structure, Kafuku and Misaki take on several acts to free themselves from their emotional baggage and past trauma.
Most notably, Hamaguchi changed the premise of Kafuku’s apprehension for a more emotionally nuanced touch. In the original account, he is reluctant to give up his car due to the sexist misconception that women lack mechanical finesse; on the big screen, his reluctance is attributed to an invasion of his fondest memories and personal space.
Another example of Hamaguchi’s depth of creative freedom is the use of Korean Sign Language in Kafuku’s iteration of Uncle Vanya. While multilingual elements highlight the role of the arts in bridging communication gaps, the latter emphasizes the importance of paying attention to non-verbal cues via the rhetoric of silence-is-gold.
Here, stillness and solitude take their best forms in lingering scenes that see detailed and rich visuals balancing the paucity of dialogue and demonstrating human connection, as when an extended shot captures Kafuku and Misaki raising their cigarettes to the sky from the sunroof of the Saab. Despite the expansive space for contemplation and introspection, these moments take the right amount of screen time without losing the viewer’s interest – an impressive feat in itself.
The emotional breadth of Drive my car, meanwhile, is conveyed through Nishijima and Miura’s portrayal of their characters through haunted looks and precise body language to express the angst, grief, and emotional intensity that Kafuku and Misaki keep close to their chests. The two stars have shown mastery in the art of performing not to say, but the tiny variations in facial cues seem particularly compelling.
Functionality, for all its visual and emotional reach, wavers slightly at times. There are times when conversations are more akin to directionless ramblings, and the dramatic flair can get a bit over the top. The lack of unfolding of Eiko Ishibashi’s music is also unfortunate, as her jazzy and sweet notes could have softened the mood in the more domestic sentimental scenes.
At the heart of it, Drive my car is a thoughtful and delicate introspection of what makes us human. He challenges the conventional model of romantic love and explores the process, all the while finding solace in desolation – a commonality that ultimately binds the lives of different individuals together. The longer-than-usual runtime may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who have seatbelt on will find the trip well worth the emotional investment.
GEEK EXAM NOTE
Drive my car is an admirable enterprise of mourning, love and acceptance that offers a poignant experience, complemented by a gratifying emotional reward at the end of the road.
- Story – 8.5 / 10
- Direction – 9/10
- Characterization – 9.5 / 10
- Satisfaction of geeks – 9/10
If Jia is a laid back geek at heart – or as laid back as someone with the Sephiroth theme on their Spotify playlist can be. Fan of movies, games, and Japanese culture, Si Jia’s biggest weakness is the Steam Summer Sale. Or any Steam sale, really.
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