Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Japanese drama “Drive My Car” has been picking up accolades all around, having been in the nominations for the Palme d’Or as well as the Best Film at the Academy Awards. Mostly based on Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name, Hamaguchi’s cinematic adaptation takes moments from and pays tribute to Murakami’s entire short story collection, “Men Without Women.” Talking, very literally through dialogues, about the various complexities of the human heart in dealing with loss, the film’s unusual pace, poignant acting, and remarkable climax make it a wonderful and rare watch.
Yusuke and Oko have been married for some time now, and they are accustomed to a practice where Oko narrates a story while they have an intimate moment but forgets it afterward—Yusuke repeats the story to her later and she writes it down, often using it in her profession as a screenwriter. Yusuke is a theater actor and director who loves driving in his red car, where he also practices the lines for whatever play he is acting in at the time. Once, as his flight and further engagements are delayed by a day, Yusuke drives back home to find Oko passionately in bed with a younger actor, Takatsuki. He leaves the scene unnoticed and does not make a mention of it to his wife. A few weeks later, Yusuke is in a car accident while practicing his lines for the staging of “Uncle Vanya” while driving, and he is diagnosed with glaucoma in one eye, which will undoubtedly result in a loss of vision as he ages.
It is revealed that the couple also had a young daughter who passed away some years back, when she was four. Returning from the yearly memorial that they hold for their daughter, Yusuke and Oko reignite their passion, and Oko continues narrating a story of a teenage girl who would break into the empty house of a boy from her school every day and leave something of her own every time while taking something away from his room. A few days later, Oko tells Yusuke that she wants to talk to him about something serious when he returns home from work. That night, when Yusuke returns, he finds his wife lying dead, as she suffered from a brain hemorrhage.
Two years later, Yusuke, now widowed, enrolls in a residency theater program in Hiroshima, where he decides to direct a multi-lingual production of “Uncle Vanya.” As part of the program’s regulations, he is no longer allowed to drive his own car but is instead assigned a young woman, Misaki, to drive him around. Initially very hesitant about the idea, Yusuke is given a test ride by Misaki, and finally accepts the regulation. As preparations for the play go on, of which Takatsuki is also a part, Yusuke discovers more about his actors, his driver, Misaki, and the deep-hidden grief and guilt that he carries within him.
“Drive My Car” beautifully expresses human acceptance and the painstaking yet important act of forgiving oneself. Despite being abruptly and cruelly taken away by fate, Oko lives on in the memory of those few who loved her. Yusuke continues to play her voice on the recorded tape in his car that reads out the script in “Uncle Vanya”. It is through the very absence of Oko that the two men express their respect for each other. But the bigger emotional catalyst is undoubtedly Misaki, who initially keeps to herself and to her duties as a chauffeur. But then, when Yusuke gradually opens up, Misaki too shares her past with him, telling him of her own grievances and regrets.
The film’s main concern is with individuality, and it gets more prominent through the concept of the multi-lingual play. Yusuke appoints a cast of actors from all over Southeast Asia who perform in their own native languages, and even a mute actress who uses Korean sign language. Not every actor understands every language that is spoken, and they do not understand their co-actors’ speeches or signs, yet they manage to act the play out solely based on their own individual knowledge of the play.
The splendor of “Drive My Car” continues in the cinematic aspects as well, with the film using editing to its best advantage. With a slow and gradual pace, it indeed allows viewers to comprehend the time and effort that Yusuke needs to first bring out the full extent of his grief and then learn to accept and live with it. This whole setting of taking time only makes the final parts of the film even more heart-touching and overwhelming. While the basic plot is from Murakami’s short story by the same name, director Hamaguchi takes bits and pieces from the other stories in the collection, and truly brings out the worth and the idea of men without women. Combining this with the creations of Beckett and Chekhov, and the historicity of Hiroshima in terms of not just the narrative but also thematically, “Drive My Car” is a profoundly emotional film that deserves the honor (and perhaps more) of being the first Japanese film to be nominated for the Best Film award at the Oscars.
“Drive My Car” is a 2021 Drama film directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi.