Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Writers: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Takamasa Oe
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tôko Miura, Reika Kirishima, Park Yu-rim, Jin Dae-yeon, Sonia Yuan
Cinematographer: Hidetoshi Shinomiya
Editor: Azusa Yamazaki
Streaming on: Mubi
Can you ever really know someone? In Ryusuke Hamaguchi's last two films, Asako I & II (2018) and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021), rife with moments between companions reluctant to share their secrets, and strangers who spark seismic shifts in each others' lives only to drift apart just as fatefully, the writer-director underscores the futility of this endeavour. Drive My Car, his exquisitely moving meditation on grief, miscommunication and the transformative power of art, revisits this idea but resists easy interpretation. If the film feels like an enduring mystery by the end of its three-hour-long runtime, Hamaguchi creates the distinct impression that it's only because people themselves often are.
While his characters are bestowed with the kind of inherent contradictions that the people in their lives might fail to reconcile, they're rendered with such care that the audience comes to accept them as they are anyway. Drive My Car, based on Haruki Murakami's short story of the same name, gradually establishes the life of theatre director and actor Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) as one of artifice. Onstage, he pretends to be someone else. At home, he pretends that he isn't doing the same. Yūsuke's wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), is loving and affectionate, but he knows that she's been cheating on him since the loss of their young child years earlier. That Yūsuke develops glaucoma early on is a pointed metaphor for the limits of his perception, all the details about his wife he'd rather not acknowledge.
How then, can two people hope to share a genuine connection when one of them is willfully blind? The film opens with Oto narrating the premise of her television show pilot, in which a schoolgirl sneaks into the home of a classmate she harbours feelings for, leaving behind tokens of her affection and pocketing some of his belongings in return. This narrative sets up the idea of discovering someone intimately through the items they possess, which the film then proceeds to demolish. On his daily drives to and from work, Yūsuke rehearses his lines from the Anton Chekov play Uncle Vanya with an audio cassette of Oto delivering the rest of the dialogues. The Oto on the tape knows him well. She's studied the pace at which he says his lines, she accurately anticipates his every pause. But by now the audience knows better than to rely on one of Yūsuke's possessions to form an impression of Oto as just the devoted wife. That 'Oto' means 'sound' in Japanese is yet another bleakly ironic touch that will come back to haunt him by the end when another character chides him for failing to respond to her silent cries for help.
When the story skips forward to two years after Oto's abrupt death, Yūsuke has moved to Hiroshima to stage a production of Uncle Vanya. His ineffectual methods of communication still persist, which the film illustrates through his relationship with Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura), a young driver assigned to ferry him back and forth from the theatre. Even in a space as confined as a car, Hamaguchi creates the effect of an invisible barrier between driver and begrudging passenger. Recurring shots of Yūsuke's red Saab gliding down freeways heightens the effect of loneliness in a crowded city even as it suggests that similar stories are taking place in the next vehicle over.
Turning Chekov's play into some sort of masochistic ritual, Yūsuke repeatedly rehearses dialogues such as, "That woman doesn't deserve forgiveness for her infidelity." It's fitting that borrowed words lend themselves more easily to his situation, given his past inability to confront his wife and his current inability to articulate his grief. Slowly, however, the film pares the ability to communicate down to its bare essentials through scenes in which his multilingual troupe, not all of whom speak the same language, must feel their way through the material by developing an understanding of their castmates' speech patterns and body language and intuitively figuring out when to step in. It reinforces this idea during a dinner scene with four people, in which three speak Japanese, two speak Korean, two speak Korean Sign Language and yet there's a shared warmth that's more tangible than any spoken assurance. Ultimately, as Hamaguchi demonstrates, it isn't the words you say as much as it is about who's willing to listen.
Grief doesn't change people so much as it reveals them in Drive My Car, as a tender bond between Yūsuke and Misaki develops. Both characters, forged through suffering, realise that the years spent attempting to escape their grief have only left them looking in the rearview mirror. Their friendship is the soul of Hamaguchi's emotionally dense, yet delicately crafted world, in which even garbage, when shredded, resembles the softly falling flakes of snow. Yūsuke, striving so hard for control, learns the act of letting go. Even the title, Drive My Car, comes to signify his first big act of surrender.
Hamaguchi deploys all these revelations with restraint, letting them sneak up gradually on unsuspecting viewers, allowing silence and stillness to underscore the film's most affecting scenes and staging lengthy conversations that build and build in emotional intensity even as the characters keep their voices steady. "She speeds up and slows down so smoothly, I hardly feel gravity," Yūsuke says of Misaki's driving at one point. The same could be said of Drive My Car, a gossamer wisp of a film about the lies we're told and the truths we conceal from ourselves, unfurling like a long night-time drive with an emotional gut-punch of a destination.