‘However Much We May Love Them…’: Drive My Car (Hamaguchi, 2021) Review
“After all, it’s just a matter of flesh and blood. No more than a pile of bone and ash in the end right? There has to be something more important than that?” - Haruki Murakami, Men Without Women
Let's talk about Haruki Murakami! I love him. Lot's of people do. Murakami is a novelist who accentuates simplicity. His narrative style is stripped back to make way for some amazing storytelling, immersive worldbuilding and striking characterisations. You feel a Murakami story. With a major cult following, perhaps moving beyond this now with such impressive renown as he is one of biggest selling living international authors, his strange stories have caught the imagination’s and hearts of many. Magical realism, unusual characters, lots of cats, even more jazz (classical music too, encyclopaedically logged) and left-field scenarios, he’s become beloved amongst readers.
So he is a tough one to adapt. His style has made way for some outstanding adaptions in various forms in cinema, theatre and even upcoming animation projects. But it’s easy to lose what makes Murakami so Murakami in this translation. Especially on celluloid, often struggling to capture the atmosphere and oddities that make his works so engaging. Look to Tran Anh Hung’s 2010 adaptation of his powerful novel Norwegian Wood. Despite a visually sumptuous take with a great casting of its main character, Watanabe, the film itself lacks the spell that Murakami wove within his writing. Although enjoyable, it doesn’t hold up to its source material.
But his short stories lend themselves to something more. Immense extension, interpretation and, let’s just face it, runtimes. Take Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 feature Burning, a dark twisted tale exploring the notable class structure in South Korea and the inexplicability, the hollowness of evil. It’s bleak and beautiful. Taken from Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, featured in his collection The Elephant Vanishes, Lee manages to use it as a blueprint to withdraw a visually and thematically rich film, equally beautiful and ominous. Can you guess I liked this one? (I've written all about it before, check it out here). Even Tony Takitani, Jun Ichikawa’s 2004 effort is in many ways a creatively and emotively more impressive addition to the adapted works (it’s short story can be found in the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman) than the high profile Norwegian Wood. Less really is more. Less can be more.
And now Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s had a go. And a go he did make of it – his best screenplay at the Cannes film festival reflects the making of it he did go (and the nomination for the Palm d'Or). He took Drive My Car. Based on the short story of the same name from the collection Men Without Women, it was a favourite for many from the compact book and one of the less uncanny works of the author. The story is as follows: an ageing actor, Kafuku, who, unable to drive his treasured Saab by himself, is recommended a twenty year old girl for his chauffeur. A relationship blossoms between the two whilst he reminisces about his deceased wife, a woman he loved dearly but who kept many secrets from him. With this, Hamaguchi formed something more. An epic odyssey. I ain’t kidding.
With a runtime on the cusp of three hours, you’d think it would be a massive task to manage. Well, I hardly noticed. I always notice. I fidget, I ache, emotionally unravel like a toddler way past its bedtime. I get really hungry, too. But not this time. Squeezed between two fellas on a soggy Monday evening, I forgot they were there within minutes, and could have endured far more. It exceeded my expectations, finding so much to be reaped from the seed sown by Murakami, to the point that I envy the mind that could find so much there. In doing so Hamaguchi almost (ALMOST) blew Burning out of my top spot for Murakami adaptations. How can this be? twenty year old girl for his chauffeur. A relationship blossoms between the two whilst he reminisces about his deceased wife, a woman he loved dearly but who kept many secrets from him. With this, Hamaguchi formed something more. An epic odyssey. I ain’t kidding.
“Can any of us ever perfectly understand another person? However much we may love them?” - Haruki Murakami, Men Without Women
A silhouette of a woman against the dawn, the colours of the blues and oranges burning behind her, the urban outlook framing her mysterious frame; this is how we begin. Part of me wonders if the opening shot is a nod to Lee’s impressive work; I certainly recalled it as the woman tells a story. The storyteller is Oto Kafuku (played by Reika Kirishima). A strange tale; a schoolgirl breaking into her crushes house and leaving little gifts for him there. Yet the story remains unfinished. This woman is the Yūsuke Kafuku's (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima) wife, and following sex she recalls a tale that comes to her. The next day she asks Kafuku to tell her the story again, asks if it is worth writing down and then turns it into a script for the television company she works at.
There is a harmony and balance between them that endures, it is revealed, despite being struck by the tragedy of their daughter passing many years before. They are still together. Kafuku hears her stories. Oto recites his plays on a tape, monotonously performed, a beat that she understands to be his in which she can leave his lines unread, yet met in the ebb and flow of the works he is rehearsing. They are in sync and they are close.
Kafuku's latest performance will be as the titular role in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the story of an elderly professor returning to his estate, his second wife in tow, unsettling those that call the house their home, a play in which the actor not only performs but directs. Behind the players is a screen translating the dialogue into various languages, shredding the barriers of nationality and communication; for he is interested in language, and the deconstruction of it, and the inclusivity of storytelling with his audiences. Following this, Oto introduces him to a young man who is excited and eager to meet him. The newcomer is about to star in one of her scripted works.
More happens, of course; diagnosed with glaucoma following an incident in his Saab (the one from the books), called to rehearsals away from home and a missed flight later, Kafuku is unsuspecting of the events about to unfold. So are we. Resigned, accepting but troubled, he remains introverted and withdrawn, all the while questioning the woman he is married to and himself, what he missed. When tragedy strikes, he is never able to get the answers.
And then the credits begin. A crooning original jazz track plays composed by Eiko Ishibashi (a great score all around), the first music we have heard, non-diegetic that is. The diegetic classical piece that played earlier announced the startling treachery that plays out during one of the films inciting incident. Two years on from the prologue we see Kafuku arriving in his Saab, to the city of Hiroshima. It is here he plans to direct a new performance of Uncle Vanya for the festival theatre there. He will not reprise his role. Despite his protests, he is forced to accept a chauffeur (played by Toko Miura), relinquishing his freedom and personal time alone with his thoughts (and the tape he still plays recorded by his wife). He has nothing to worry about. Her name is Misaki Watari. She does her job, he does his.
“Words, they felt, could only cheapen the emotions they were feeling.” - Haruki Murakami, Men Without Women
Hamaguchi tweaks the original plot. Kafuku’s wife passed away rather abruptly, whereas before she suffered a long illness. This lends itself to the melancholy and confusion that the actor is experiencing in the years that pass. Language, Chekhov, lies, perceptions and more are flaunted and challenged here under the director it all works so well. Drama layered upon drama, easy to follow but interwoven seamlessly; and he spent the first hour simply setting up the premise.
But this is what makes Hamaguchi’s film so marvellous to experience. He plays around, not so much with narrative storytelling as the majority of the plot is linear, but with the stories the characters tell one another. Each significant scene is carried through a story. Yet the audience and the characters are looking for what’s in between. It’s a story about stories, about what we can say without words. About the people we know and what they are beyond the being we see in front of us. Murakami’s’ story was all about the words that we could not say.
One of the best devices Hamaguchi uses is the execution of language. By having his Kafuku direct a play but cast a variety of people with different nationalities, it parallels the challenges for the actors with regard to the Kafuku's own life. Because language is barrier. And in Hamaguchi’s film, it’s the ultimate opposition to all. Actors who only speak Japanese, actors who can speak English and Japanese, English and Mandarin and the most interesting of all, an actress who can hear but is mute, communicating only through Korean sign language. Kafuku's cast have to find a way to communicate the text of Chekhov without following the usual prompts of dialogue. The cast must springboard from feeling. It’s tender to watch and feels very poignant and relevant now. One begins to recall the sentiments of Bong Joon-ho at the Academy Awards, of the little subtitles one must overlook, and can see warmth in the side narrative the Director has constructed. It’s that inclusivity again, gets me all mushy inside.
“What can we do? We must live our lives... We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile—and—we shall rest… we shall rest.” - Sonia in Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov
The use of Chekhov’s text is a delightful addition. Having seen and read rather a lot of Japanese fiction, it is clear that Russian literature is a huge influence on their works and I can’t say I blame them. I’m rather inclined to it myself. Filled with turmoil, produced during times of unrest and political overhauls, Russia’s history is complex and often harrowing, far too intricate to go into here but well worth reading up on, and despite this they produced some of the greatest authors of all time. The works are hard going, heavy but bleakly funny. Their vision is unique. Akira Kurosawa adored Fyodor Dostoevsky even adapting The Idiot in 1951; Shimei Futabatei who was credited as the author of the first modern Japanese novel Ukigumo in 1889 admitted to being heavily inspired by the likes of Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev; Osamu Dazai pretty much lived his life like a Russian nineteenth century novel. Thank goodness is all I can say because some of the most wonderful interpretations of the texts are found in Japan.
Hamaguchi is another fan, clearly (how can you not be?). The scenes in which the Watari and Kafuku sit silent are filled with the wonderful dialogue of Chekhov, sharpening the scenes. Not only is Hamaguchi using the lack of language but also the lines from an old but often performed piece of theatre to fill the space in between what goes unsaid. There is an urgency in the dialogue, a hundred years on still as poignant as ever. As much another language, Chekhov’s words become something else one must learn beyond what is actually being said. For me, I was heart-breaking in the monotony of the Oto's voice on the tape; though linking it to his work, the main character is stuck on a loop, over and over searching for an answer as much as stability that comes from lingering in the past.
What is lost in translation is found through action. Yet the story asks us to see even beyond that, to the depths of emotions that joins people together. Kafuku is emotionally stunted. He opens ups with the help of his Watari, the young woman who left her small rural village after tragedy to Hiroshima and never quite went beyond. She is just as stuck, dwelling on a past that weighs heavy on her mind, feels unresolved but impenetrable. She is happy to talk very little with him. It suits them both. Yet it is this relationship that is closest of all within the film as they find understanding between one another. As he says, she’s the best driver he’s ever met. She has plenty of secrets of her own. Like him. Watari finds comfort in the voice of Oto on the tape he still listens to. That it is Chekhov does not matter, she is listening beyond the words. Despite being a figure filled with tall tales and secrets, it is the deceased wife who is the thread that mends.
The connections between the people he meets gradually unravel the bindings on his wounds. It’s what has kept him safe, kept him from having to face the actions of his wife and all they never got to say to one another. The story Oto never finished for her husband. The questions he wanted to ask. The answers, the truths he knew would hurt but should have sought out. The things he always wished he said. When the Watari and Kafuku hold their cigarettes up through the skylight of the car, driving silently down a lonesome street late at night, what they are feeling for, reaching for, it comes to them in that moment of silence and smoking; they find some understanding, if only with each other.
“So in the end maybe that’s the challenge: to look inside your own heart as perceptively and seriously as you can, and to make peace with what you find there. If we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.” - Haruki Murakami, Men Without Women
What was managed with this short story was wonderful. Hamaguchi captured the soul of Murakami and bottled it perfectly so it shines and glitters in all the right places. It is long, but not a minute is wasted. The character studies, the incorporation of words, the visuals and the patience it carries itself with are all totally engaging. Perhaps I would even be so bold as to say it’s the best film I’ve seen this year (besides Violet Evergarden: The Movie… we don’t talk about the oceans shed with that film).
We have plenty more awards contenders to go, but Hamaguchi did something special. He himself is making a statement about the inclusivity of our worlds and he’s also handled a very human story that the themes of this story rotate. It’s powerful, even funny in places. But most of all, it’s a road trip though regret and grief. I loved it. I hope you all do too. If you’re willing to give it a go, it’s something rather cathartic and, I can confidently say, unforgettable. Just as a Murakami piece should be.
There is, unfortunately, a suspicious lack of cats.