At fewer than forty pages, one might expect a film adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story Drive My Car to be similarly succinct. Not so with Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, who spins out Murakami’s fable of a theatre director and his chauffeur into an intimately detailed, three-hour study of grief, loss and acceptance.
Yûsuke (Nishijima Hidetoshi) is a renowned actor and stage director, while his wife, Oto (Kirishima Reika), is a screenwriter for television. On his way to a business trip, Yûsuke’s plane is cancelled so he returns home, only to find his wife sleeping with her new acting protégé, Takatsuki Kôji (Okada Masaki). Yûsuke leaves in silence, returning later to find Oto dead, having suffered from a brain haemorrhage. Two years later, Yûsuke is developing a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya and, in a bizarre decision, casts Takatsuki as Vanya, telling the actor that after his wife’s death he has been unable to perform the role himself.
On paper, Drive My Car is leisurely in the extreme, taking more than forty minutes just to get to the opening credits, with a prologue before Oto’s death that most films would have dispensed with in the first five. But Drive My Car is not most films, its story told in minute, passing details that cannot help but grip the attention to the point that the emotional tension and catharsis feel so effortless that hours seem to pass in an instant. That very little happens in the way of narrative action speaks to how brilliantly Hamaguchi harnesses the emotions of his characters into compelling drama.
Drive My Car never explicitly tells us the reasons behind Yûsuke’s decisions, while Nishijima’s stoic performance offers mere glimpses of his unfathomable depths of feeling. But in his meticulous fostering of relationships and near-imperceptible layering of emotional revelation, Hamaguchi allows us to come to our own understandings of the reasons people in pain act the way that they do. Central to this mode of gradual emotional revelation is Yûsuke’s relationship with his driver, 23-year-old Misaki (Miura Toko), who lost her abusive mother in a landslide when she was 18. They are never quite friends but more than colleagues, and in this uneasy space they develop a deeply-felt companionship that mutually guides them through the complexities and paradoxes of their individual grief.
That strange space between the professional and personal is constantly conflating amidst dialogue-heavy scenes framed so simply and meticulously that their pure cinema is vital. Never is this clearer than in the way that Yûsuke rehearses his lines of dialogue to a tape (for a role he has allegedly forsworn), while Misaki drives his battered old red Saab in silence. The effect is to reveal how much of our public-facing lives are performative, driven by inner emotions which may also be their own performances. But in performing our roles, and in stripping ourselves of affective displays of feeling, Hamaguchi suggests that if we can’t fully get over the knots of our pain, perhaps we can find our way through them.