2021 was a time of deep reflection on collective and personal loss. It led some of us to wonder: how do we deal with the hands fate deals us? More importantly, how do we quieten the nagging internal voice insisting that what occurred due to fate was instead our fault? Drive My Car, a slow-burning Japanese drama directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi and based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, explores these multitudinous spiritual questions of how human beings endure loss.
In recent years, East Asian cinema has done a more interesting job of addressing the deep spiritual and philosophical questions of everyday life than Western cinema. Films like Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, and Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs have taken on an almost mystical quality. Drive My Car possesses that same intangible emotional pull and has swept the festival circuit in the United States.
The film tells a story of the evolving relationship between widowed theater director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his chauffeur Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura) at a Hiroshima festival production of “Uncle Vanya.” The tone is quiet and seemingly-subdued over its three hour runtime. However, Drive My Car‘s calm exterior belies its hidden depths, the past constantly echoing our present.
Initially, Yusuke doesn’t want a chauffeur. He protests until informed that he is required to take on Misaki. Perhaps he wants to be alone with his thoughts—which focus on the death of his wife and creative collaborator Oto (Reika Kirishima) some years before. In any case, as Yusuke and Misaki’s relationship becomes more and more comfortable, his secret thoughts seep out. Bit by bit, Misaki begins to spill secrets from her past, too. Meanwhile, emotions stir further when we see one of Oto’s former lovers among the cast.
The torment of Yusuke and Oto’s marriage is that Oto is unfaithful. Yusuke in fact caught her in the act shortly before her death. But did that detract from her love for him? Or, as Misaki suggests, is this suspicion an oversimplification of love itself? Is it perhaps borne out of male insecurity and misogyny? And does Yusuke feel responsible in some way for what happened? Does he worry that one mistake was enough to change the course of his life with Oto?
Perhaps in his own mind, Yusuke is like the dejected Vanya himself—disgraced and wondering if he can redeem himself near the twilight of his life. That redemption may or may not be possible, for both him and Misaki. A lot is left up to interpretation, including one particularly important narrative ellipsis that comes at the film’s very end.
Stylistically, Drive My Car is one of the most simple, yet hypnotic films of the year. Like Yusuke’s little red Saab 900 Turbo, it’s nothing flashy but leaves an indelible impression on the mind. Scenes of Yusuke and Misaki driving down the highway are shot from a bird’s-eye vantage point, a choice reminiscent of the late Abbas Kiarostami’s films, where the viewer spends a lot of time listening to a character talk, watching their car slowly snake across the landscape. Similarly, Hamaguchi frequently utilizes extended shots and a silent soundtrack.
There’s a ton of emotion in this film, but not so much melodrama. Still waters run deep in this cinematic palette. Drive My Car offers a unique catharsis that feels oddly fitting to 2022’s beginning.