This review contains spoilers
With “Drive My Car” being both a foreign language film and having an almost three-hour runtime, it checks off two boxes that a large number of successful Oscar-hopeful films have had in the past few years (like “Parasite,” “Roma” and “The Irishman”). But to say that “Drive My Car” is merely a combination of previously successful elements would be almost an insult as Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film seems to defy all definition and explanation. Even with a runtime of almost three hours, “Drive My Car” never lets off the gas.
Hamaguchi has slowly been making waves throughout the indie film scene ever since the 2015 film “Happy Hour” garnered him international attention. The writer and director had two critically acclaimed films released in 2021: “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” and “Drive My Car,” with the latter becoming the first Japanese film to be nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards; Hamaguchi snagged nominations for directing and best adapted screenplay.
The film follows actor Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima) as they navigate their marriage and their careers. Oto orates stories to Kafuku while they have sex, and she turns these stories into her screenplays. Hamaguchi establishes that the couple exists within a delicate balance with each being happy in the relationship, perhaps not out of love but out of necessity.
Nishijima brings a silence and mysteriousness to Kafuku, one that directly contrasts with his presence on the stage when we see him in plays like “Waiting for Godot” and “Uncle Vanya.” Kirishima’s Oto is neither self-assured nor self-doubting, existing in a content middle ground that would appear on the surface to be entirely satisfied with where she is in life.
The film is an adaptation of a short story of the same name by the legendary Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Hamaguchi brilliantly takes Murakami’s words and translates them for the screen, and Nishijima and Kirishima uplift the subtle and quiet words into something poetic and sublime.
The gentle cycle of Kafuku’s marriage comes to an end, however, after Kafuku discovers Oto having sex with another man. The flood waters only come down harder after Kafuku finds Oto unconscious on the floor of their apartment after suffering a brain hemorrhage. Oto eventually dies, and Kafuku suffers a breakdown on stage while performing “Uncle Vanya.”
Although these events make up what one could call the introduction to the film, Hamaguchi takes his time with each scene, leaving the viewer hanging on each piece of dialogue and slow camera movement.
There are many scenes of Kafuku driving his beautiful red Saab 900. Driving is, as indicated by the title, an important metaphor in the film, and we spend a majority of the film with Kafuku in his car practicing his lines from “Uncle Vanya” using a cassette tape recorded for him by his late wife.
The cassette manifests another vital exploration within the film: the things we keep with us from those who have passed. This idea comes further into view once Kafuku takes a residency in Hiroshima to direct an adaptation of “Uncle Vanya.” The theater hiring Kafuku requires him to be driven by a driver because of an accident in the past that the theater was liable for. The driver, an equally silent and mysterious character named Misaki (Toko Miura), has a scar on her right cheek from a landslide that killed her mother.
Hamaguchi gently and methodically unfolds the relationship between Kafuku and Misaki, relying much more on the environments the two are placed in rather than direct interaction to develop their connection. If it weren’t for these continuous situations that Kafuku and Misaki find themselves in, they probably would never speak to each other.
This is the lesson that Hamaguchi wants Kafuku, Misaki and the audience to learn. He takes the backbone of Murakami’s short story and crafts a visual exploration through grief and loss, demonstrating the relatability of loss and how even the greatest tragedies can bring people together.
The film is nearly three hours long, but you’ll never find yourself checking your watch. If you are willing to give yourself to the film entirely, to simply watch and absorb what Hamaguchi has placed upon the screen, you may find yourself reaching out to a stranger sitting next to you and discover some genuine human connection. Or perhaps you’ll browse Craigslist hopelessly searching for a used red Saab 900 to try to gain some semblance of control in an utterly uncontrollable reality.
John Scott is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @JScott050901