Wholly original and about so much more than everything presented, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car has pieces of a ghost story, repression of grief, and loving someone despite their faults to deliver a patiently beautiful film.
Hidetoshi Nishijima stars as Yūsuke Kafuku, a theater actor and director married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), who is a film screenwriter. The couple share story ideas during long car rides, though Oto frequently comes up with stories during the couple’s sexual encounters. One day, Yūsuke accidentally discovers Oto having an affair with a young actor Kōji (Masaki Okada), but he says nothing to confront her.
After returning home late one night, Yūsuke discovers Oto dead on the floor due to a brain hemorrhage. Two years later, Yūsuke accepts an offer to direct an adaptation of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. Yūsuke requests housing an hour away to immerse himself in the audio of the text, but the theater company insists on him having a driver. Despite his protests, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura) is assigned as his driver.
Yūsuke begins auditions and rehearsals, including casting Kōji in the title role. As he wrestles with the adaptation and his feelings of grief, he grows closer to Misaki, which allows her to share her own painful story within the confines of Yūsuke’s red Saab Turbo.
Patience is the name of the game; both for the viewer and the film itself. Six weeks of rehearsals and two weeks of performances are not something that should fly by. The time taken up by these rehearsal sessions as well as the one-hour rides that bookend each session are each felt. Relationships in the film are not immediately created. New bonds have to be formed over long periods and the film knows this. Little inroads are made until a true connection is forged.
The rehearsal sessions themselves are a microcosm of what Yūsuke is going through. The director wants each actor to just read what is on the page because it reveals the truth through the text. He wants only instinct to come through without any creative choices. His own journey is reflected the same way. If he repeats his routine, his life will continue as he has wanted it. But, that continual repetition eventually breaks through to the truth of his unhappiness.
Yūsuke and Misaki begin to bond over their shared loss. Misaki eventually opens up about the death of her abusive mother. The pair share confusion over why they gave their love to someone who didn’t reciprocate that love in a clean, healthy way. At the same time, each expresses regret at the steps they could have personally taken to prevent each tragedy. How much are you to blame for seemingly innocent actions that lead to potential tragedy? At the same time, what is your obligation to fully love someone who doesn’t fully love you back?
Nishijima is in complete control of his character. Yūsuke is a difficult guy to figure out. Though he is in obvious pain over the loss of his wife, he keeps all that emotion bottled up. Unlike Kōji, that emotion is not expressed in occasional angry outbursts but is self-contained. He doesn’t talk to anyone about it, so it can’t be let go. Nishijima keeps everything calm and collected until it can’t be any longer, which allows the emotion to flow.
One of the advantages of the three-hour runtime is allowing the relationship between Yūsuke and Misaki to develop naturally. Miura is more than up to the task with her similar emotions. Her job does not allow her to be freely expressive, so she does not volunteer her opinions unless expressly given permission. Yūsuke and Misaki are kindred spirits, but it takes each other’s presence to bring out the truth of that connection. The film doesn’t work without either actor’s commitment to Hamaguchi’s patience.
Okada gets the more morally complex role as a man who has no idea what he is supposed to be feeling. He teeters between sociopath and diva, with all sides feeling cohesive. There is a standout scene midway through the film where Kōji tells Yūsuke the ending of one Oto’s stories that is utterly captivating in a way like few films can be. Kirishima is equally as memorable, playing more of a ghost of memory more than an actual person. She is essentially flawless, with the notable exception of her infidelity. This lends Yūsuke’s conflicted emotions additional weight.
Surrounding the film with dark subject matter doesn’t mean Hamaguchi is content to bathe the film in darkness. In fact, everything has a bright sheen on it. The multitudes of driving scenes, whether within the car or far away, whether in the bright mornings or lamp-lit nights, are all clearly presented. The most striking color is the eternal shine of Yūsuke’s red Saab Turbo. The car serves as a gateway between holding on to Oto and the future and it might as well be a supporting character.
Despite a three-hour runtime, Drive My Car clings to the viewers who are willing to go on the ride. Deeply emotional and eternally patient, Hamaguchi and a stellar cast deliver one of the most achingly beautiful film experiences of the year.