People Who Stare at Streets
Yusuke looks out the window. Under the voice of his late wife houses, trees, and the sea fly past him. He doesn’t notice that another person is sitting in front of him in the red Saab 900 Turbo, while he fills in the sentences’ gaps with his own words. Misaki will soon get him to a place where he can finally find himself.
I watched Drive My Car by Ryusuke Hamaguchi last night for the second time now. The Oscar-winning Best International Film, based on the short story of the same name from Haruki Murakami’s 2014 book Of Men Who Have No Wives, recounts the experiences of two people whose fateful encounter no one could have foreseen - least of all themselves.
Yusuke Kafuku, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, is a successful stage actor and director who is married to the mysterious Oto, embodied by Reika Kirishima, a beautiful playwright with whom he shares a peaceful life despite a painful past. When Oto suddenly dies, Yusuke is left with unanswered questions and the regret that he couldn’t - and didn’t want to - truly understand her.
Two years later, Yusuke, still struggling with Oto’s death, accepts an offer to direct a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. He drives to the big western city in his beloved fire-red Saab 900 Turbo, where he learns upon arrival, to his surprise and disappointment, that for legal reasons he is forced to have Misaki Watari, brought to life by the magnificent Toko Miura, a young chauffeur hiding a traumatic past of her own, drive his car.
Rehearsals progress, and Yusuke and Misaki eventually develop a routine, with the Saab increasingly becoming an unexpected confessional for both driver and passenger. Less pleasant for Yusuke, however, is the decision to hire Koji Takatsuki, played by Masaki Okada, a handsome young television actor with an unwanted connection to his late wife, for the lead role.
As the premiere approaches, tensions between the cast and crew grow. Yusuke’s increasingly intimate conversations with Misaki force him to confront uncomfortable truths and uncover haunting secrets left behind by his wife.
I’m glad that I have seen Drive My Car for the second time now. Because with each new encounter, we put different expectations into the characters whose thoughts and actions seem to be reflections of our own understanding of humane coexistence. Misaki’s character, for example, now vaguely reminds me of someone I only recently met. Her sober, disarming, and perceptive manner invites me to want to know more about her. What does she think? Why does she think that way? And who or what made her who she is today?
The flowing conversations in Drive My Car are like intimate dances with the purpose of building bridges to other people. Stone by stone, inch by inch. With each new day that dawns in Hiroshima, the chance arises for two people to open up a little further to the other, only to be rewarded with new insights - no matter how painful they may be. And these insights are not only for the other person but often also for themselves.
Only those who haven’t even begun to try to understand Drive My Car would describe it as calm. Every scene is seething. Yusuke, who can’t forgive himself for his wife’s death, searches for answers that may not exist. Misaki, whose observations only become trusting words when she thinks the chances of further injury are slim. And Koji, whose search for meaning can only save others but not himself.
Eiko Ishibashi’s sporadic music dispels the absolute silence at the right moments which is broken only by glances, touches, and conversations. Sweeping tracking shots over the autumnal Japanese backdrop make the characters appear as if in a diorama and their wishes, hopes, and dreams seem small and lonely.
A meta-level flows through the entire film: the story of Uncle Vanya, who is confronted with his life and missteps in the world-famous play by Anton Chekhov. The character of Vanya represents someone who has spent his life working towards something that never became reality. It’s a reflection of time and emotions wasted, a theme that both Yasuke and Misaki grapple with throughout the film as both deeply regret their past relationships.
Drive My Car is adult in the truest sense of the word. Its characters have shed any childishness, any banality, indeed any trace of joie de vivre, and try with their last ounce of strength to maneuver themselves safely through the thicket of painful memories, only to have to admit to themselves at the end that they cannot drive away from the past - not even in a red Saab 900 Turbo.