One of the things that happens in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s remarkable film Drive My Car is that we get a final reveal of what all the preparation in the film has been leading up to: a staged version of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, enacted by a cast of Asian actors who don’t speak one another’s languages.
Subtitles flashed above the stage give the lines in Japanese (or English, if you’re watching as a foreigner) but what director Hamaguchi — or Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the theater director character in the movie — wants to convey is the slipperiness of language, how we can’t rely on it to tell the whole story or the whole truth. We are like citizens of Babel, whose tongues never really connect. Acting breaks through that.
Interestingly, none of this directorial rumination nor even much Chekhov appears in the short story “Drive My Car” by Haruki Murakami, which appears in his collection Men Without Women, and which is the source for the over-three-hour film (Murakami’s story is a scant 30 or so pages, but it contains the skeleton, the backbone, and possibly the tone of Hamaguchi’s film adaptation.)
Murakami is a beguiling literary phenomenon: his hugely popular stories and novels are both intrinsically visual, with strange, surreal imagery, and also largely interior.
Adaptations have been known to go astray into something that neither the author nor the reader would even recognize, but 2021’s Drive My Car — said to head the upcoming Oscar’s international film category — manages to honor the peculiar consciousness of Murakami, while extrapolating a story about human mysteries that is deeper in some ways than the source material.
Or maybe it’s just different. We meet theater director Yusuke early in his life, married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), an actress who also contains mysteries: in the opening of the film, after making love, she recites fragments of a dream, or a fantasy, and Yusuke tries to provide details to move the narrative along further; is it a kinky sex game they play? Only three hours or so into the movie do we get answers.
Hamaguchi takes the microcosmic slice of Murakami — a short story about a widowed man who requires a driver, and reluctantly hires a woman chauffeur — and expands it into four parts, slowly revealing bits about character and human bonds, acting and truth.
The main bond develops between Yusuke and his youngish driver, Misaki (Toko Miura), inside the director’s Saab — at first because she drives him to and from rehearsals and is willing to remain stone silent while he listens over and over to a cassette tape of his wife running lines from Uncle Vanya, but later because of their very different yet somehow interlocking traumas.
There are a lot of silences in Drive My Car, allowing us to gaze into the characters’ emotions. No easy answers there; just a different way of seeing people.
With her dutiful reticence and mournful looks, Misaki becomes a kind of mirror for Yusuke’s inner searching and musings. But she becomes more than a mere reflection as the film goes along.
At the Tokyo International Film Festival 2021, Hamaguchi sat down with jury captain Isabelle Huppert to discuss the film and acting in general. The French actress praised Hamaguchi’s films such as Happy Hour and Drive My Car for “touching on something very fundamental that cinema offers us, which is what happens between expression and silence.”
There are a lot of silences in Drive My Car, allowing us to gaze into the characters’ emotions. No easy answers there; just a different way of seeing people. Like the director holding table readings for Uncle Vanya in the film, Hamaguchi says he’s searching for something elusive in his actors: “Actors are not just there to act; they bring an idea, a spirit.”
The mixed cast for Uncle Vanya includes actors who are Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, a deaf woman who uses Korean sign language — and a Filipino. (That Filipino is actor Perry Dizon, who’s naturally ecstatic to be included in a film likely to be an Oscar front-runner. As he told Rappler, a local Philippine talent scout from the project looked him up on IMDB; COVID slowed down the whole shooting schedule, but Dizon auditioned through Zoom and eventually got clearance to travel to Hiroshima, where most of the film was shot.)
The mixed cast idea was not included in Murakami’s original story. The “truth” comes from how the actors read each other’s emotions onstage, more than just listening to the lines. Trust, for Hamaguchi, becomes key: whatever an actor brings on the shooting day can be useful. “The important thing is to trust that there is something to capture in the body. There’s something worthwhile, and I’m waiting for it to appear.”
Hamaguchi often incorporates rehearsal scenes and role-playing in his films. Maybe it’s a vehicle for the emotion to finally reveal itself, after so much internalization. In Drive My Car, the emotionality of Chekhov bursts forth in a final performance. It brings an extra layer of emotion to the characters.
Murakami, of course, is a beguiling literary phenomenon: his hugely popular stories and novels are both intrinsically visual, with strange, surreal imagery, and also largely interior — told through memories and first-person narration. Perhaps that’s why Hamaguchi took on the challenge of adapting this very “interior” writer by setting much of his key dialogue within the “interior” of Yusuke’s Saab.
Movies based on Murakami are rare things. There was the interesting adaptation of Norwegian Wood (his works often reference the Beatles, particularly the “Rubber Soul” era) with a score by Radiohead boffin Jonny Greenwood. And there was a good version of Tony Takitani, another short story, with music by Ryuichi Sakamoto. But the larger novels — the labyrinthine Wind-Up Bird Chronicles or 1Q84 — seem to elude filmmakers.
With Drive My Car, Hamaguchi has taken the opposite tack: adapting a very small-scale work, with tightlipped emotions, and expanding it into macrocosmic dimensions. It’s a long drive well worth taking.