This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
David Wheeler’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
My third Hamaguchi, fifth overall.
Novelist Haruki Murakami's short story "Drive My Car," upon which the film is based (and situated in a collection of stories judiciously titled Men Without Women), opens with a dissertation on two types of women drivers: those that are either too aggressive or too timid.
Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a stage actor fast approaching his middle years, had been living with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) for several long and fruitful years, but where her perfections were plenty, she was nonetheless wanting in her role as a driver. In the short story, she had no license, but in co-writer and director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's adaptation (one of two films of his released this year; the other the yet unseen Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy), she is made a slack driver. Later, Kafuku would meet a for-hire female driver, Misaki (Tōko Miura), that is neither aggressive nor timid.
Behind the wheel, Oto Kafuku was too timid, resulting in some gentle but unflattering remarks from Kafuku, playing the backseat driver. She was otherwise flawless. An artist herself, a screenwriter who regaled her husband post-coitus with detailed stories that may have the potential to turn into a script. She relied on her husband to remember the stories the next morning so that she may write them down. If he forgot them, a rare occurrence, she felt them welcomingly expendable. But as she was a timid driver, she had another flaw, one far greater.
It's interesting that three of Murakami's short stories ("Burning," "Tony Takitani," in which Nishijima narrated, and now "Drive My Car"), two of them transposed into two-plus hour dramas, have had far greater success than any of his full-length novels, many of which still unadapted to screen. Many of them bizarre and idiosyncratic, no less; likely the symptom to dissuade studio executives from sanctioning them. Not to mention how comparatively threadbare the stories are in terms of word length. Small stories making big films. But to underestimate a story's staying power due to its length would belie the potency of them, something Hamaguchi (alongside Lee Chang-dong and his adaptation of "Burning") understands fully. Following his success with Happy Hour and Asako I & II, his is the long-form auteur at his most refined—with Drive My Car he is at the height of his powers.
The surname "Kafuku," as I wondered early on in the film, and as it later discusses, is written with the characters for "house" and "good luck," something Misaki deems auspicious—an ill-favored, ironic reading. Kafuku discovers his wife is cheating on him with one of her younger coworkers, something he reacts to, returning home unannounced due to a canceled flight, with a nonreaction. He sees his wife curled around another man on their couch, but as soon as he sees them, he's left, soundless and without violence. His name betrays him: his "house" is crumbling and his "good luck" is in absentia, with a diagnosis of glaucoma in his left eye. The nearly undetectable condition, due to the other, unaffected eye compensating for the other's inability, is made a cruel parallel in his failing to realize his wife's infidelity. What's more the slow loss of vision in his left eye may mean he soon may not be able to drive his well-maintained, red Saab anymore.
But Murakami-Hamaguchi create another merciless parallel for Kafuku and his declining romantic life, that of Kafuku performing the title role in Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, also a narrative about a middle-aged man crossed by another man he feels is disrupting his home life. Running correspondingly to the film, Uncle Vanya is another version of what is almost the same story; an alternate telling, a showing of the different path the film's narrative could have taken had violence been to the fore.
During his car rides with the disheveled yet deceptively empathetic and professional Misaki at the wheel, he rehearses his lines from a cassette tape recording of the play. A woman's voice reads lines between extended moments of silence, empty spaces meant to give room for Kafuku to respond with his own lines. With the woman's and his dialogue mirroring his role as the cuckold, the lines allow him to say what he couldn't, or wouldn't, say to his adulterous wife—especially because it is his wife's very voice on the cassette tape, rendering a conversation that they never had and couldn't have as she abruptly died from a brain hemorrhage.
They share in their final days together in extended prologue, days suffused with sad secrets coming to light but also of love: despite Oto's affair, she is nonetheless deeply adoring to Kafuku. Then she dies. Then opening titles appear (in minute 40!), Then two years pass, and Kafuku, now a theater director adapting Uncle Vanya from behind the stage, meets again the young man who played the courier of his misfortune. But so too does he meet the woman of his salvation, twenty-three-year-old Misaki, a chance surrogate daughter that he at first meets with deep apprehension.
The cassette recording later again plays the oracle of Kafuku's feelings, saying "You're my foe... my bitter enemy," as Kafuku, annoyed by his denial to drive, quietly disapproves of Misaki's role as his chauffeur. Yet Misaki is serendipitously revealed to be the same age as his long-lost daughter had she lived beyond the age of four. In the short story, Kafuku is said to have been the same age as Misaki's father; and so we arrive upon the conclusion that these two souls need the other, proxies of the respective element of their lives they had lost, two halves of a cleaved circle. What's more, Kafuku's "house" having been dismantled by his wife's faithlessness is made literal in Misaki's tale from her childhood: her house was demolished by a landslide, resulting in the death of her mother.
Drive My Car is full of these correlations: Vanya and Kafuku, Kafuku and Misaki's histories, theater and real life (the short story, again, ends with a sort of call to the notion of "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players"), communication and miscommunication in marriage and on stage (exemplified in Kafuku's multilingual adaptation of the Chekhov play, and in his seeing Korean Sign Language used in a happy marriage), and one other: that in Kafuku, Misaki, and Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada, the previously mentioned "younger coworker" who slept with his wife and who now is set to play the title role of Vanya under Kafuku's direction; a voluptuous but morally compromised young man, as we later find) being inadvertent killers.
Kafuku feels Oto may have lived had he returned home to her sooner. Misaki left her mother to die in the house washed away by a landslide. And Takatsuki, well—he has a less than flattering corollary. Interesting, however, that both Kafuku and Takatsuki end up playing Vanya. As if to say that Oto had essentially fallen for the same man twice, despite their distant ages; which may explain her appearing to deeply adore Kafuku seemingly without remorse for her actions. Hamaguchi, and, for that matter, Murakami as well, do not condemn her, but they of course do not acquit her either.
This is a story of complicated people with vague moral compasses. They are no villains. Nor are they virtuous. Simply... people. Hardened by the everyday walks of life, the misfortunes that accumulate and transform them. Some come out the other side still as "good" people, while others let their past consume them, or steer them onto a path of self-taught tyranny. Often are we invited to look down upon these characters in distant, overhead long shots as they drive down a highway or across a stretching bridge, to see ourselves perhaps. The best films often do.
Hmm, this review is feeling slipshod enough as it is, but Hamaguchi has undoubtedly made his masterpiece. A focused and deeply confident work, poised for greatness and occupied extensively by emotionally overcoming import. A condensed sledgehammer of melancholy. Alas, we all have our roads to drive on.