Haruki Murakami is one of those writers whose body of work reflects the deep, dark corners of human consciousness. Whether it is the surrealistic approach to incest relationships in “Kafka on the Shore” or the melancholic ignorance of infidelity in “Drive My Car.”
In my perception, Murakami is one of those artists who capture the existential crisis of a person, be it a lover, an actor, a husband, or a wife. With them, he dives into the depths of consciousness and dives into their buried memories, which are indeed more dense than outer space itself. And when he finds the protagonist entangled in all these complexities, he slowly introduces the nuances of surrealism. Surrealism and magical realism are important in life because they are our escape from harsh reality, the melancholic past, and sometimes from ourselves.
The threads of the past serve as an invisible link between a husband and wife who have become emotionally estranged following a tragedy in “Drive My Car.” They connect with each other, but only through stories that the wife narrates to her husband while they make love. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has adapted this nuance from another short, “Scheherazade,” that also features in “Men Without Women” along with “Drive My Car.” The lead character in the short story, Scheherazade, is directly referred to as the Queen from “A Thousand and One Nights,” who narrates a story to her king to save her head from being beheaded the next morning, as she always left the story open-ended so that the king would keep her alive.
The entire narrative of the original short story (“Drive My Car”) follows the exchange between Kafuku and his new driver, Misaki Watari, to whom he reveals all his secrets about his wife and his past. There is no preparation for the play either, and director Ryusuke Hamaguchi adds these elements in the film to give his characters a journey they go through that helps them redeem themselves. Hence, without any further ado, let’s explore the skin of these characters that steer the film, “Drive My Car.”
He was a professional actor, and shedding himself in the role was his calling, but he knew the irony of the craft. Whether an actor wants it or not, he loses himself a little with each role; the part becomes a part of his soul, and the place he returns to after each performance is never the place he left. However, what is most tragic for an actor is when he starts pretending in real life and, in the process, loses himself. That was Kafuku’s pursuit: to find himself again.
It all began when Kafuku and his wife, Oto, whom he met during a film, lost a child. The two had a daughter, who died from pneumonia on February 25, 2001, when she was just four years old. The sudden death of the child was the end of happy times for the couple, who descended into a dark, heavy void after that. Oto left acting while Kafuku found his solace on the stage, a place where he always belonged.
Oto had no desire for another child, and Kafuku not only accepted her decision but also made peace with it. And slowly, the couple drifted apart. Kafuku believed that it was the loss of their child that killed the passion in their marriage and, thus, Oto started seeing other men. These were usually casual relationships that started with each film production and ended with it, and even though Kafuku knew all about Oto’s affair, he never confronted her with her infidelity because he was afraid of losing her. Thus began an actor’s most toxic role: to pretend not to know about his own wife’s affairs at all. The part that broke down Kafuku and made him hollow from within, but he never came out of character; he was always cheerful. It was a test of his character when he saw Oto sleeping with Takatsuki in his own condo (a scene featured in “Kino,” another short story in “Men without Women”). Kafuku knew about Takatsuki and Oto’s affair, but like always, he kept his num, ignored the reality, and walked out of the condo as if nothing had happened. But why?
At the end of “Drive My Car,” Kafuku revealed his predicament to Misaki Watari, whom he considered a daughter. Kafuku was afraid of losing Oto, and thus, even when she wanted to confront Kafuku about her affair, Kafuku drove his car all day to escape the confrontation. But when Oto died the same day of a cerebral hemorrhage, Kafuku blamed himself for killing his wife and abandoning her in the time of tragedy. The revelations about Oto, her affairs, and her death took a toll on Kafuku’s mental health. He suffered a breakdown during his performance in Uncle Vanya and decided not to play the role again. Yet, he loved driving his red Saab 900 and listening to the lines recorded by Oto before her death. The Saab and the tapes became Kafuku’s only connection with Oto.
Oto leaves behind a man who thinks about his dead wife all the time, and even after two years, nothing has changed. Kafuku was still struggling with the question, “Why did Oto cheat on him?” But now she was dead, and he couldn’t get an answer from her, but coincidentally, he met his wife’s last lover, Takatsuki, during a theater workshop in Hiroshima.
Kafuku looked at Takatsuki with hatred. He scrutinized the man standing in front of him to figure out why his wife decided to choose him. But it was also through Takatsuki that Kafuku learned an important life lesson that helped him find closure in his life. Takatsuki told him that no matter how much we try, we cannot look into another person’s heart with complete clarity. All it can do is cause pain. But what most of us can do is look into our hearts, stay true to them, and make peace with them. It will not end the problems around us, but it will help us cope with them.
Hence, Kafuku realized that maybe a part of Oto fell into his blind spot. Kafuku had glaucoma in his left eye, and like infidelity, the root cause of glaucoma is still known, so it can’t be cured. Like at the end of Uncle Vanya, the play suggests that there is no end to suffering; hence, what we can do best is to ease the suffering and slow down its progression. Suggestively, it was the same thing that Kafuku told Misaki that those who survive will have to bear the void left by the dead, and it will continue until the very end. Thus, it’s better to make peace with it instead of carrying its weight.
For a long time, Kafuku pretended not to notice his wife’s affair, even when his conscience constantly reminded him to confront her. Acting simply became his escape mechanism, and in his character, he ignored reality and ran away from it because of which he lost his wife, the burden he had been living with for two years. But Misaki and Takatsuki helped Kafuku overcome his burden and helped him to finally let go of things that he didn’t quite understand or the answers he could never find. Hence, it was time for Kafuku to stop pretending and become himself again, but before that, he had one more role to play.
Kafuku became Vanya again, probably for the last time, to face the loss of Oto and give her an appropriate closure. At the end of “Drive My Car,” he gave his car, a Saab 900, to Misaki. The car throughout represented the last souvenir of Oto. When Kafuku broke his last tie with his dead wife, he became a new person, probably a person who will not act again or be happy again, but at least he will be the person who made peace with the fact that he didn’t know his wife completely and yet is happy because he loved her with all his heart. And at the end of it all, it’s his own loyalty and sincerity that matter the most.
Takatsuki was a young actor who rose to fame but was not talented enough nor had a strong strength of character due to which he often lost control of himself, yet he was much more self-aware of his flaws than Kafuku himself. In simple words, Takatsuki was the opposite image of Kafuku. He was young, passionate, famous, rich, and impulsive.
Kafuku’s wife, Oto, became a screenwriter after she started getting stories while making love with Kafuku, but soon forgot it all the next morning. Hence, Kafuku became the link between Oto and her stories that not only helped them to overcome their child’s death but also helped Oto to build her screenwriting career. During the production of one of the dramas written by her, she met Takatsuki.
Though Takatsuki was not talented enough, he was always aware of his flaws and thus felt empty doing those television shows. But in Oto’s screenplay, he found himself and thus fell in love with the woman who wrote it. Their affair was short-lived because Oto died suddenly, and therefore Takatsuki yearned for a desire to know more about this woman, which was why he auditioned for the theater workshop conducted by Kafuku in Hiroshima. He wanted to feel the spark again while working with Kafuku, but he never achieved it again. What was lost was lost forever for both these men in the story.
The flaw in Takatsuki’s character was revealed when Kafuku pointed out that Takatsuki had no control over himself. It might be true that, in his impulsive youth, Takatsuki slept with Oto, dated a minor, and assaulted Kazuya Yamauchi for clicking his pictures.
It can be argued that Takatsuki came to Hiroshima to find more about Oto, and he believed that working with her husband would bring him closer to her. But it didn’t happen, and Takatsuki was as lost as when he arrived. Takatsuki could be impulsive and reckless, but he wasn’t a liar. He was always self-aware of his actions, feelings, and flaws, unlike Kafuku, who neglected them and tried to escape them. Hence, when Takatsuki assaulted Yamauchi, who died in the hospital, he didn’t try to defend himself but instead pleaded guilty, just as he told Kafuku to always be true to his own heart. After Oto’s death, Takatsuki had already submitted to fate, while Kafuku was still on the road looking for answers he might never get.
In the end, Takatsuki was convicted of the murder of Kazuya Yamauchi. He didn’t play Vanya in the play, and thus Kafuku was compelled to take the role again for one last time.
Misaki’s last name was Watari, which she got from her estranged father, who left her mother when Misaki was very young. The surname is quite common in Shimane and Hiroshima, and thus she came to Hiroshima looking for her father after her house in Kami-junitika village (in Hokkaido) was destroyed by a landslide that also killed her mother when Misaki was just 18 years old.
Even after spending five years in Hiroshima, Misaki didn’t find her birth father, but she found a person who symbolically acted as her father figure. In Kafuku, Misaki found a father, while in Misaki, Kafuku found a daughter, as he confessed to her that if his daughter had been alive, she would have been of the same age as Misaki.
In “Men Without Women,” Misaki tells Kafuku at the end of the story that maybe Oto didn’t love Takatsuki, and that is why she slept with him. According to Misaki, people can be wired like that, and it is like a sickness, just like Kafuku’s Glaucoma. There is no logic involved in it, and thinking about it will not do any good to anybody. At this point, the book also introduces Misaki’s abusive childhood, which director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has explored further in “Drive My Car.”
Misaki’s mother had a split personality disorder that probably resulted from trauma that originated when her husband walked out of their lives. It compelled her mother to work in a nightclub in Sapporo, and maybe she blamed Misaki for her miseries. Her mother abused her as a child, and in fear of her mother’s beating, Misaki learned to drive. However, there was another personality of her mother, Sachi, who first appeared when Misaki was just 14.
Sachi was Misaki’s mother’s guilty consciousness that acted as if she was eight years old and often appeared when she beat Misaki brutally. Misaki’s only friend was Sachi, and Misaki believed that her mother’s other personality was her escape from the harsh reality of the world. A surrealist approach to Murakami’s tale and a common theme depicted in all the characters featured in “Drive My Car.”
When the landslide hit Misaki’s house, she was able to crawl out of the debris, but her mother was still stuck inside, and at that moment, she consciously made a choice not to help her nor call for help for her. She left her mother to die in the accident because she wanted to get rid of her assaulter, but it also gave her a grief that weighed on her heart throughout. From the accident, Misaki got a scar on her cheek, which she never got operated on as it reminded her of guilt. Like Kafuku blamed himself for killing Oto, Misaki blamed herself for killing her mother and Sachi.
The last visit to Kami-junitika village acted as a closure not only for Misaki but also for Kafuku. Misaki’s search for a father figure finally came to an end with Kafuku, and thus she opened her heart to Kafuku and shared things that she had never shared with anyone. She told Kafuku that she had made peace with her mother’s illness and that he should also make peace with Oto’s infidelity and just let it go instead of pondering the question that has no answer and probably will never have any.
The two finally shed the burden that weighed on their hearts for a long time. The ending sequence of “Drive My Car” depicted Misaki driving a Saab 900 car in Korea with a dog sitting at the back seat acting as her salient companion. The scar on her cheek has also faded, which probably means that she got it operated on.
The car was Kafuku’s reminder of his guilt of killing his wife and also his last link with Oto, while the scar was Misaki’s memory of killing her mother. In the end, both of them got rid of the things that reminded them of their guilt so that they could finally have a new beginning.
The reflection of one’s character is in the stories that they narrate to the world, and thus, to understand Oto, it is important to understand the stories she told to Kafuku, and Takatsuki.
“Drive My Car” begins with Oto narrating a story to Kafuku after making love to him. She told him about a girl (Scheherazade) who used to sneak into her classmate Yamaga’s house. The girl wanted to know more about her crush, Yamaga, but didn’t have the courage to talk to him, so breaking into his house became her way of getting to know him more. In these visits, the girl experienced an indescribable passion and thus became obsessed. She even picked up a souvenir of Yamaga on each visit and left behind a token that represented that she was really there.
In the book, Kafuku tells Misaki that he believes that the loss of their child somehow reawakened his wife’s intimate desires. Even in the film, Oto starts narrating these stories only after the death of their daughter, so it can be surmised that either the tragedy left a mental scar that resulted in a split personality disorder like Misaki’s mother, or Oto started looking for love outside of their marriage. The tragedy breaks apart all the ties between the two people, and Murakami’s character often yearns for that kind of freedom.
The argument for a split personality disorder is more viable because Oto never remembered the stories the next morning, but she knew that she narrated something because maybe Kafuku told her about it. It can also be surmised that the girl who broke into Yamaga’s house was none other than Oto herself, as in the original story, “Scheherazade.” Misaki told Kafuku that her mother’s other personality, Sachi, didn’t age a bit and was always pretending to be eight years old, and hence maybe Oto narrated stories of her past (which even Kafuku inquires about in the opening sequence).
For the time being, Kafuku believed that it was only him to whom Oto narrated stories, but then it was Takatsuki who knew the end of Yamaga’s story. As a result, either Oto adored Takatsuki in the same way that she adored Kafuku, or she loved all of her lovers in the same way and told them stories while love-making. There is yet another possibility that maybe Oto finished the Yamaga’s story on her own, because in “Scheherazade,” the lead protagonist never faced a burglar who tried to rape her. She just stole Yamaga’s shirt and suddenly found a new lock on the house during her next visit.
Before her death, Oto ended the story on a cliffhanger in which someone enters the house while the girl is lying on Yamaga’s bed. Kafuku didn’t know the end of the story because Oto died the next day, but somehow Takatsuki knew it.
The man who came up the stairs was a burglar who tried to rape the girl, but the girl, in her defense, stabbed the man. After the incident, a surveillance camera was set up outside Yamaga’s house, and the key was missing from its hiding place. Maybe the family found the burglar’s body and hid it, or perhaps it was just the girl’s imagination. In my opinion, the burglar in the story is Kafuku, who watches her own wife making love to another man in his own condo. She killed the man by cheating on him, which is why in Oto’s story, the girl looks into the lens of a surveillance camera and screams, “I must take responsibility for what I’ve done.” In her last moments, she wanted to take responsibility for what happened and wanted to confess that she cheated on her husband and killed the man, but it was too late. Oto died before she could confront the Kafuku.
Oto even told Kafuku that the girl (or she) used to be a lamprey in her previous life. Usually, lampreys are parasitic eel-like creatures that prey upon other creatures. But in Oto’s story, the girl was a noble lamprey. She didn’t leech on fish, but instead fastened herself to a rock on the riverbed. She didn’t want to be noticed, and so she hid herself among the weeds, pretending not to exist.
Kafuku told Takatsuki that after the death of their child, Oto stopped acting and became lethargic for a period of time. Maybe she didn’t want to exist and thus became a noble lamprey in the real sense. Or perhaps, Kafuku became the stone to which the noble lamprey attached herself and, from time to time, preyed on other fishes to survive. Lamprey’s only link to the real world was Kafuku, and when she sensed it was fleeting too, she died.
The girl wanted to escape the karmic fate from her previous life, but is there any escape from it? We hunt, we prey, and we die. The cycle never ends. It goes on and on like a monotonous wheel, spinning the same for every human being. The size, the speed, and the intensity can be different, but in the end, they all reach the same destination.
Neither Murakami nor director Ryusuke Hamaguchi tries to give any logic to Oto’s stories or her entire character, and thus, through Misaki, they sum up the entire surrealism in a single line that says, “there is no logic attached to it.” Logic will only cause pain, and hence, instead of trying to understand the actions of other people, it is always better to look deeper into your own heart and try to make peace with your own actions. Hence, Oto is just a character in the play who touches Kafuku’s life to help him find himself in the end.