“Drive my Car”, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, and co-written with Tukamaso Oe, is an adaptation of a story by Murakami. It won the screenwriting prize at Cannes, 2021, but no prize, interestingly, for acting or direction.
We first meet Kafuko, a theater director in his forties, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, in bed with his wife, Oto, played by the beautiful Reika Kirishima. After lovemaking, she tells him a story that she intends to turn into a screenplay. We hear that it may be about her mother, when she was a girl, or, perhaps, herself.
The story is about a teenage girl who has fallen in love for the first time, but is too frightened to even speak with the boy, who attends her school. She knows his parents both work, so she is able to enter the empty apartment during the day so she can lie on the boy’s bed.
Oto breaks off the story at this point. Then, one day, Kafuko comes home early and finds Oto having sex with a man whose face is hidden. They do not see him, and he leaves silently.
From the beginning, Kafuko seems a man who is composed, and shows little emotion, even when he comes home late one day to find Oto dead from a brain hemorrhage. At the funeral, he sees a handsome young actor, Koji, played by Masaki Okada, who had once been introduced to him by Oto as her “protege”.
All of this, at least a quarter of the three hour film, is the pre-credit sequence. I summarized it because it is, by far, the most rewarding part of the film. Its most memorable scene, in fact, is Oto’s resumption of the story, again while in bed with her husband, when she tells of how the girl brings herself to climax on the boy’s bed and, in the telling, Oto reaches it herself.
We are soon sorry that Reika Kirishima, as the bewitching Oto, has left the film for good. The main story begins two years after her death, when Kafuko is hired to direct Checkov’s “Uncle Vanya” for a theatre troupe in Hiroshima. But a condition of the job – explaining the film’s title – is that Kafuko has to be chauffeured by a paid driver. While pained to see his beloved Audi under another’s control, he agrees.
The film then takes several paths to resolve its central dramatic crisis, which is how people eventually overcome their own feelings of guilt from the past, and are able to resume a normal life. Hamaguchi alternates three separate story lines that he designs to converge at an emotional climax.
The most important is Kafuko’s relationship with the driver, Misaki, a young woman of twenty three, who carries a secret burden of guilt in her own mother’s death. Much of the story concerns the slow, faltering steps they have in acknowledging their growing feelings for each other.
The second story line concerns the production of “Uncle Vanya”. Kafuko listens to recorded rehearsal scenes of the play while riding in the car, and Hamaguchi intends for us to relate Kafuko’s tortured feelings about the past to the struggles of Vanya and Sonya in the play. Mostly, however, we see the actors in actual rehearsal, always seated, as they read from the text. In line with Kafuko’s non-traditional approach, he casts a mute actress, who performs entirely in sign language, as Sonya.
The most intriguing story line, however, is Kafuko’s odd relationship with Koji, Oto’s “protege” who attended her funeral. We have been prepared for Koji to join the cast, but when Kafuko casts the twenty-five year old as the much older, tortured Vanya, all eyebrows shoot up. Koji is understandably mystified, and seeks out Kafuko for an explanation. Moderate suspense is built over what Kafuko’s intentions are, especially since he suspects – but never states outright – that Koji was his wife’s lover. Our interest is rewarded, eventually, in one long scene of confessions by both men, seated in the car with Misaki.
But the film’s emotional climax is precipitated by Koji’s arrest for assault, when it becomes essential for Kafuko to play Vanya himself if the production is to be saved. Kafuko is torn about playing the role, and to help him decide, he entreats Misaki to take him to the far-off village where she witnessed, and indirectly contributed to her mother’s death. The trip is successful in that Kafuko’s decision about the role is made, but also his guilt over Oto’s death is confronted, and conquered. When Misaki similarly confronts her own guilt, the two embrace in kinship.
When seen in outline, the story seems a coherent and dramatically plausible drama, from which we might be moved, even to tears. But it didn’t work for me. Nishijima’s acting is adequate, but the character of Kafuko is a bore. A central character’s refusal to confront his feelings is well-trod territory, but Kafuko seems an essentially passive type, preferring a life of predictable order over risk. The basis of his success as an artist is missing. Likewise for Misaki, who is mostly a dull presence until her final, dramatically unconvincing breakthrough.
Much of the three hours is spent watching a few potentially interesting characters talk out their problems, but this is not drama. For that, a story needs to capture people in the moment of life, which is never something they expect. And we must be as surprised as they are. It is what happens when I spend even a few moments with Checkov’s genius.