This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Alexander Wood’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Part of me wants to keep this short for fear of getting way in over my head in attempting to connect all the dots of this literary behemoth, and part of me wants to dive in head first and claw my way through this viscous, dense forest of a film. Ideally, this review meets somewhere in the middle.
DRIVE MY CAR is a slow-cooked beauty. Ryusuke Hamaguchi takes a plethora of literary ingredients: Murakami’s excellent short story series Men Without Women ; Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya ; Ozu’s intimate “speak and look directly at the camera” confessions ; and of course, his own auteurist obsessions, and concocts something truly singular. And this is in spite of an “art imitates life” trope that many, myself included, feel is sort of overcooked at this point (that is not to say anything against the truth of this trope, which I believe does hold up.) So, what sets it apart from the vast sea of meta- and inter-textual films out there? Well, it’s how all these ingredients blend together. They’re not cake-like in their assembly. The layers aren’t stacked one on top of the other, covered in some sweet glaze or frosting. No, though the film is deliberate, it’s not sweet nor excessively stylish. Running with the food metaphor (lord knows why, I think it’s because I just watched TAMPOPO), to describe the literary concoction as onion-like wouldn’t work either. Nor would the word concoction I suppose. DRIVE MY CAR is more like a dense chunk of gelatinized flavors, something that you’d find out of a food-science kitchen in the realm of fine dining. The ingredients are all simultaneously on top of, underneath, inside, and around each other, metastasized and atomized in one gorgeous, yet arduous and highly technical dish. A flavor bomb if I’ve ever seen one.
On the surface, we see the obvious corollaries between Kafuku and Uncle Vanya. They exist as parallels, but also as foils, their fates similar, yet one decided through silence and the other through violence. Of course, there is also Takatsuki, whose violence similar to Vanya’s, but is otherwise made out to be (outwardly) different (though internally tethered.) At the same time, Oto’s story acts as a surrogate for her own struggles with Kafuku, her repeated cheating in the real world and her imagined violence in fantasy being metaphor for her desire to be actively loved. She has had enough of Kafuku’s silence. She wants jealousy, because jealousy is a subversive version of desire. When Oto’s surrogate screams into the security camera, “I killed him! I killed him!” it is a pronouncement of her desire for her actions to have meaning, tangible effects on the stoic Yamada / Kafuku. Therefore, Kafuku exists in multiple planes, simultaneously foiled and compared with Vanya, Takatsuki, Yamada and the elephant in this review’s room, Watari’s father. Watari’s inclusion is another doubling (or coupling?) in a film full of them: Sonya as both Yoon-a and Oto, Oto as both Sonya and her surrogate, Kafuku as previously described, and now Watari as herself, Kafuku and Oto’s daughter, and Yoon-a's portrayal of Sonya (as found in Kafuku’s production of Uncle Vanya) as well. And these thematic doublings and allusions to a multitude of literary works aren’t just some fun Hamaguchi has with the screenplay. They have tantalizing things to say about the nature of identity, perspective, and who is culpable for what and how. Kafuku’s production of Uncle Vanya being multilingual also gives credence to an array of stale themes since refreshed here: intention, feeling, and art itself can speak more than any language barrier can restrict.
Before I get too wrapped up in DRIVE MY CAR’s intricacies and masterful blend of form and function, I want to divert and comment a bit on the ending. For both Kafuku and Uncle Vanya, their particular stories end with urges towards life, work, and the value of forward momentum. Despite the misery and melancholy, of which both characters are enveloped by, there’s a beauty here. In figuring it all out, or not. In struggle and sacrifice and the just the general complications of life. Through providence (Uncle Vanya) or interpersonal connection (DRIVE MY CAR), the ride becomes worth it. That’s what I think these endings are trying to say. Curiously, Uncle Vanya’s script is flipped in the real-world reenactment of this scene. Instead of an outwardly optimistic (yet I can’t help but feel inwardly challenged) Sonya urging Vanya to keep going, that everything is going to be okay, it is Kafuku speaking in similar language towards Watari. Watari, who is thematically similar to Yoon-a’s Sonya, is now the one being soothed by Kafuku, who is thematically similar to Uncle Vanya. Have they reversed roles? “It will be O.K.,” he says, holding her in the way Sonya does Vanya at the end of the play. I found these two moments, when coupled together (lots of coupling going on here,) to be just indescribably beautiful. Kafuku grows, and shows passion offstage for the first time in the entire film. Watari makes peace with her mother and accepts another’s caress for what feels like the first time ever, too. Together, they both overcome their grief and guilt. But, and this is what’s most beautiful, their growth is presented not like something that’s exponential or layered like a cake, but something that exists both parallel, perpendicular, inside, outside and all around all these other characters, both fictional and not. It’s such a beguiling and confounding and moving ending that really sums up DRIVE MY CAR in its totality.
So that’s it. Enough layers, food metaphors, and coupling for you? Yeah, me too. I don’t think I’ve fully figured out all of the charms of this one just yet, but that’s part of the beauty of it. It’s such a dense film (please someone tell me their interpretation of the very last scene! I still have NO idea what to make of it!) that will reward multiple watches. Just beautiful.