To say that the majority of the drama in 'Drive My Car' takes place through conversations in a car may seem a reductive statement, but in actuality, it says so much about the stage that Ryusuke Hamaguchi ('Wheel of Fortune and Fantasty') constructs his work on. If Shakespeare calls "all the world a stage", then Hamaguchi's world is a red Saab, filled with dialogue of love, hope, truth and grief.
Adapted from the short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami, 'Drive My Car' opens with Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima, 'The Wind Rises') performing a version of 'Waiting for Godot', yet another deep connection to the world of theatre. An actor and director by trade, Yusuke lives with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima, 'Norwegian Wood'), and it's here that audiences first get a glimpse of the deep thinking - but generally introspective - protagonist. Yusuke and Oto have been through a lot, having lost their young daughter only a few years prior, with Yusuke putting his pain into his art, and Oto seeking refuge through her different lovers and screenwriting career.
Two years later and forty minutes into the film, the landscape drastically changes after Oto dies from a brain haemorrhage, and Yusuke is now on his way to Hiroshima to direct a new multilingual version of Anton Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya'. As an added bonus, the opening credits to 'Drive My Car' only begin at this time stamp, and if that's not art, I don't know what is. Now in Hiroshima, the theatre insists Yusuke have a driver as part of their policy, and whilst reluctant at first, the relationship between Yusuke and his driver Misaki (Toko Miura, 'Weathering With You') grows, the one hour commute to and from his home and the theatre the platform of conversation. Their chats are fairly innocent at first, but the more they learn about each other, the deeper their connection, and subsequently, the deeper the revelations about themselves.
Entering the stage of the red Saab at various points is one of the actors Koji (Masaki Okada), who Yusuke believes is one of the men Oto had a love affair with. 'Drive My Car' isn't so much about the tension between these two characters for this infidelity, but rather the vulnerable places they take each other, and what it means to grieve. They both lost someone they love, but what that love means to them is completely different, and through their stories to one another, they start to discover more about themselves.
'Drive My Car' can seem like a string of short human stories put together in a linear fashion to make up a plot, but that is taking away from the poetic rhythm Hamaguchi crafts throughout his film. This film ends up feeling like a poem that was written by someone who has lost, but wishes to rise again. It's a poem of self-discovery and human turmoil, often echoing the very characters they play in the 'Uncle Vanya' production.
And this is one of the many reasons 'Drive My Car' is so memorable and enveloping, as it's so layered within its art. Yusuke explains to Koji at one point that he isn't taking the title role, because he's afraid that "when you say the lines, it brings out the real you". This vulnerability is too much for him to bare at the beginning, even preferring to cast Koji who, to everyone else, is so obviously far too young for the role. This constant struggle threatens to break the fabric of the production, and yet the workshopping space consistently presents new opportunities of growth for both Yusuke and his actors.
This film ends up feeling like a poem that was written by someone who has lost, but wishes to rise again. It's a poem of self-discovery and human turmoil, often echoing the very characters they play in the 'Uncle Vanya' production.
However, it's what transpires between Misaki and Yusuke that really moulds the emotional flows of the film. They open themselves up to one another, thereby opening themselves up to the audience. The benefit of having these conversations in a car means that the characters are only seeing what's in front of them, the surrounding landscapes or the back of a seat. They don't make eye contact, which results in not only deeper conversation, but conversation that moves with foresight, not retrospectively.
Where a Sorkin script showcases theatricality in the rhythm and pace of speech, Hamaguchi displays his in the moments of silence and reflection. The dialogue between characters feels so real and natural, with Hamaguchi purposefully leaving those awkward human slithers of silence amongst the conversations. One scene in particular that takes place at the dinner table includes one the actors in the play who uses Korean sign language, and the quiet moments that break through the expected noise are so pure and tranquil.
Up to this point, I have not had the privilege of seeing any of Hamaguchi's previous work, but that is something I simply have to correct.
Japan's submission to this year's Oscars, and current favourite for the crown of Best Foreign Feature, 'Drive My Car' is an astounding piece of art. As Chekov once taught us about his gun, there is absolutely nothing in this film that is not purposeful and directed at for our benefit. On one hand, this won't be for everyone, as this is a three-hour foreign film that is almost entirely people talking to one another. But on the other, more impressive hand, this is a film that so beautifully posits what it means to garner deep human connections. Whilst it may not be a film centred on its resolutions, it's a film that wears its challenges on its sleeve, and poetically weaves through the silent moments of reflection.