Drive My Car (2021)

a slow-burning contemplation on the complexity of human relationships and interpersonal communication

7/26/20235 min read

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in 'Drive My Car'
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in 'Drive My Car'

Japanese, English, Korean,

and Korean sign language

179 minutes, 2021

Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Reika Kirishima, Masaki Okada, Toko Miura, Jin Dea-yeon

Awards: The film has won 89 awards and was nominated for 149 awards in total. The notable are- Best Screenplay, FIPRESCI Prize, Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and nominated for ‘Palme d ‘Or’ at Cannes Film Festival, 2021; Best foreign Language Film, Golden Globe Award, 2022; Won Best International Film and nominated for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best adapted Screenplay; Best Film not in English Language, British Academy Film Awards, 2022.

The film is majorly based on a short story by Haruki Murakami of the same name and loosely borrowed from his other collection of short stories titled, ‘Men without Women’. 'Drive My Car' is centered around an acclaimed theatre actor and director, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who lives with his wife Oto, a screenwriter. Oto has a thing that she narrates the story as she is having sex and Kafuku memorises it and later narrates it to her because she doesn’t know or remember what she narrated after the sex or at other times.

Kafuku too has a habit of learning and going over his lines in any play while he is driving car while other actors’ lines are said by his wife and recorded. Once, after a show of famous play ‘Waiting for Godot’, Oto introduces a famous young TV actor Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) to her husband who holds Kafuku in great esteem. after few days, Kafuku is invited to a theatre festival organised by ‘Vladivostok Theatre Festival Secretariat’ as a judge but as he reaches airport, he is informed that flight is cancelled due to weather and another flight is booked for next day. So he returns home, only to find his wife Oto is having sex with Takatsuki. He retreats quietly. On returning back from festival after a week, he narrowly escapes a car collision and goes to hospital where they (Kafuku and Oto, both) learn that he has early stages of Glaucoma in his left eye. Doctor prescribes eye drops and they leave. One day as Kafuku is leaving home, Oto tells him that she wants to have conversation with him when he returns. Kafuku returns late only to find Oto dead, collapsed on floor, from brain hemorrhage.

Two years later, Kafuku is invited to Hiroshima for a two months’ residency for staging a play, ‘Uncle Vanya’. It’s a multilingual play and cast comes from various parts of Asia. One of the applicants is also Koji Takatsuki. Kafuku gives him the role of Uncle Vanya whose character is middle aged. Koji objects but Kafuku rules. Koji thinks Kafuku has given him a raw deal.

Due to rules of the committee, Kafuku is given a driver for his commutes from theatre to residence. The driver is a 23 year old girl, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura). Kafuku reluctantly has to agree. As, otherwise reticent and thorough professional, Misaki adjusts to Kafuku’s ways of listening to tape while commuting and Kafuku experiences her smooth and flawless driving, they both talk to each other intermittently to share their personal experiences.

Similarly, as play progresses, Koji wanting to get closer to Kafuku, he attempts to meet him after play rehearsals sometimes. On one such occasion, Koji and Kafuku have a personal and deep discussion in Kafuku’s car in Masaki’s presence as she is driving them. The discussion centres around Oto, where Kafuku tells Koji about Oto’s gift of narrating a screenplay while having sex and other personal anecdotes. He also reveals that their daughter had died quite early and had she been alive she would be around 23 years old today. He confesses that Oto had affairs when she was involved in any series but she also used to love him dearly. Koji advises Kafuku to look and feel deeper into any person’s heart if he loves or wants to understand any person.

During final stages of theatre rehearsals, police come to theatre to arrest Koji for he has beaten somebody a night before for taking pictures and that person has died in hospital. This creates a vacuum as now the organisers mull about who will play Uncle Vanya’s role. Natural choice is Kafuku as he had played that role earlier on many occasions but he is not sure and asks two days’ time to think. In these two days, Kafuku asks Misaki to take him to her village. She obliges and both arrive in snow laden village after driving for entire day. While on the way she had confessed that she is responsible for her mother’s death as in a landslide she came out but didn’t call for help even though she knew her mother was trapped inside. Here Kafuku too confesses that he also thinks that had he returned that night earlier, he could have saved his wife. In front of collapsed remains of Misaki’s house both come to terms with reality and embrace each other underlining that they have to live with their daemons and yet try to live. In the final sequence we see Misaki driving Kafuku’s car with grocery and a dog signaling that she has moved with him.

The performances by Hidetoshi Nishijima (as Kafuku), Reika Kirishima (as Oto) and Masaki Okada (as Koji Takatsuki) are all pretty decent. Hidetoshi Nishijima’s portrayal of Kafuku is poignant and layered, conveying the character's restrained grief and subtle emotional nuances with remarkable skill. However, Toko Miura impresses hugely with her stone faced portrayal of professional driver hiding a ton of bitter emotions that slowly surface as the narrative progresses.

Drive My Car" also delves into the difficulties of communication and understanding between people. The staging of play, ‘Uncle Vanya’, serves as a mirror to the characters' lives, blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and allowing them to confront their suppressed feelings. The film is a cinematic triumph that showcases the true artistry of filmmaking.

About the director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Born in December, 1978 in Kawasaki city, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, Hamaguchi spent his childhood at different places due to his father’s job as a civil servant. He even spent few years in Iran.

He is one of the few directors who worked as assistant director for films and television and made many short films for almost 3 years before formally joining ‘Graduate School of Film and New Media’ to learn filmmaking at Tokyo University of Arts, graduating as ‘Master of Film’ in 2008. He had completed his Bachelor’s degree in ‘Aesthetic Arts’ in 2003.

He dabbled in making short films even while studying for his Bachelor’s program and wrote and directed his first short in 2001 titled, ‘Go to the Movies’. This explains his fascination with films. His first full length feature, ‘Passion’ was made in 2008 which was actually his ‘passing out’ or ‘graduation film’. ‘Passion’ was also selected for ‘TOKYO FILMeX’, an International Film Festival started in 2000 by a leading actor-filmmaker, Takeshi Kitano, which promotes essentially new and independent Asian films.

Hamaguchi, however, got international recognition with his 2015 film ‘Happy Hour’ which became famous in festival circuit. Curiously, the film is a long 317 minute feature revolving around the stories of four middle aged women. The film was borne out of an acting workshop conducted by Hamaguchi, while residing at KIITO Design and Creative Centre, Kobe. The workshop was for non- professional actors and the four leading ladies acting in the film were part of this workshop. The film earned a special mention for its script at Locarno Film Festival, 2015.

Present film, ‘Drive my Car’ is the most feted film of Hamaguchi till date. He is the third Japanese director to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director. The film received rave reviews at Cannes, the mecca of film lovers, where the film was praised for its direction and screenplay.