“Drive My Car” is, at once, a very literary and a very cinematic movie. It is a movie about grief. How our lives can be destroyed by grief but also how we can accept grief and live with it. It is adpated (by Hamagushi and Takamasa Oe) from the titular short story by Haruki Murakami interweaved with a second Murakami short story “Scheherazade“. The former originally appeared in Freeman’s Biannual while the latter was originally published The New Yorker.
In the opening scenes, we are introduced to couple living in Tokyo, Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Otto (Reika Kirishima). Both are in the entertainment industry. Both are successful. He is an actor and director of plays, and she writes for television. They are beautiful, yet a little strange and with an air of sadness about them having lost a child to pneumonia in the past. At night, when they have sex, Otto recites the plot of whatever she is working on, and in the morning, Yusuke offers his suggestions. Otto’s latest story involves a female high school student who has a crush on an older boy in her school. Each day, after school, she visits his house on her own, lays on his bed, where she may or may not masturbate, and always leaves something of hers behind for him to find. Then, one afternoon, she hears the front door open . Someone has arrived home early….
Each time Otto reaches the conclusion of the story she climaxes. Mirroring the story, one day Yusuke comes home early to find Otto in bed with another man. He leaves quietly and does not tell her that he has seen them together. He withdraws to the sanctuary of his car, his beloved red Saab (the movie’s real star) where he drives and drives around Tokyo listening to tapes of his latest play which Otto has recorded for him.
One day Otto says, ominously, that she would like to talk with him after he gets home. When he gets home, he finds her dead. No suspicious circumstances. She has died of a brain hemorrhage.
After her death he is in mourning not just for her but for her unfaithfulness toward him and for their lost child.
Two years later, Yusuke accepts a two-months residency with a theatre program in Hiroshima where he will direct a multi-lingual adaptation of Chekov’s famous play “Uncle Vanya”. As he drives into Hiroshima, the opening credit’s role forty minutes into the film and we realize that what we have seen so far is just a prelude to the main story.
At the workshop he is told that, for insurance reasons, he cannot drive his own car. He must have a driver. He is reluctant at first but, eventually, he acquiesces. The driver is a taciturn young lady, Misaki (Toko Mura, outstanding), who has had her own tragedies and her own grief to deal with. Gradually, with both of them listening to Otto’s tapes as they drive around Hiroshima (very beautiful), Yusuke and Misaki start to talk and get to know one another.
Meanwhile, at the workshop, the production of “Uncle Vanya” is underway and we follow the gestation of the play from a straight reading around a table to the complexities of a multi-lingual production (the role of Sonya goes one step further since she is played by mute Korean actress using Korean sign language).
For a movie that is all about words, there are surprisingly few of them. In fact, there are long stretches where there is no dialogue, just Yusuke, Misaki and the Saab. In these sequences, the film is as hypnotic as “Vertigo” . In the workshop, one the students is a disgraced TV actor Koji (Masaki Okada) who knew Otto. Yusuke and Koji have a scene in the car where Koji reveals that he too had an affair with Otto and that during their sexual encounters, she had presented him with an advanced version of her “story”. It turns out that the person entering the house was not a family member but a burglar who enters the room where the young girl is lying on the bed and proceeds to molest her but somehow… Okada tells all of “the story”, and more, in one extended closeup with no cutaways to the listener Nishijima. What might have been a simple act of confession turns into one of the most memorable scenes of the film and it’s riveting!, The car also serves as Misaki’s confessional as she gradually unburdens herself of her tragic past and Yusuke decides that the two of them will drive, in a stunningly edited sequence, to Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands, where she can confront her demons. There, the film’s two major characters Yusuke and Misaki, and the audience, reach a kind of closure.
Meanwhile, bringing all the plot strands together, is the opening night of “Uncle Vanya” in which, because of some later plot developments, Yusuke himself is playing the lead.
Why do Murakami’s short stories make for such interesting movies – there has been a bunch both Japanese and American. His ability to mix the mundane and the mysterious? But with “Drive My Car, “ Hamaguchi, and his superb leading man Hidetoshi, has elevated Murakami, in a cinematic sense, to a whole other level.