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“Drive My Car” tenderly traverses art and life on the steadiness of the road

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s highly lauded and multifaceted epic drama has its Madison premiere at UW Cinematheque on January 28.

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s highly lauded and multifaceted epic drama has its Madison premiere at UW Cinematheque on January 28.

Header Image: After an untimely revelation, uniformly dressed theater director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) glances at his driver Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), who returns his gaze in her plainclothes and cap. Kafuku’s carefully maintained cherry red Saab 900 Turbo convertible separates them.

Editor’s Note: Read more about “Drive My Car” this week in our interview with composer Eiko Ishibashi, who scored the film.

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The works of author Haruki Murakami have encompassed the sphere of world cinema in recent years, but in only terms of loose pages—those of Barn Burning that were used as the template for Lee Chang-dong’s searing mystery, Burning (2018), and now Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s transformative drama, Drive My Car (2021), borrowed from a short story of the same name in Murakami’s 2014 compilation Men Without Women. The release of Drive My Car and the preceding three-part anthology feature, Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy, made 2021 Hamaguchi’s most publicly praised and prolific year to date. With Drive My Car, he and co-writer Takamasa Oe use Murakami’s dramatic ideas in the abstract to explore narrative nuances that can only be assembled in the scope of a slow-burning epic.

While Lee’s Burning perpetually drifts towards absence and ambiguity, Hamaguchi’s turn in Drive My Car persistently focuses on presence and riveting revelations over the course of nearly three hours. UW Cinematheque will be presenting the film uninterrupted for its local premiere at 4070 Vilas Hall on Friday, January 28, at 7 p.m., as part of its recurring Premiere Showcase series. For those who may be along for the ride, Drive My Car is a linear, absorbing contemplation on the artistic intersections and theatrical reproductions in cinema—from French auteurs like Louis Malle, Jacques Rivette, and Olivier Assayas, to American indie pioneer John Cassavetes and grandfather of modern art cinema, Ingmar Bergman.

Hamaguchi and Oe retain the framework of Murakami’s story, but ultimately rebuild most everything beyond its premise about widowed middle-aged actor and theater director Yūsuke Kafuku, who is unwillingly chauffeured around by a younger woman, Misaki Watari. On the surface, Drive My Car charts a man’s literal and symbolic journey toward self-acceptance. But the two co-screenwriters forge infinitely more texture and inclusivity in every relationship throughout this adaptation. It’s even apparent between Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his beloved cherry red Saab 900 Turbo convertible. The car doubles as a rehearsal space, pristinely preserved despite nearly two decades of lengthy commutes. In its hushed confines, he trades lines with a cassette tape that has immortalized the voice of his screenwriter wife Oto (Reika Kirishima).

The film’s 40-minute prologue essentially resembles a television pilot with Hamaguchi establishing this couple of creatives in their mid-40s. Yūsuke is perhaps in the midst of a falling-out with Oto, or so it would seem when he walks in on Oto with another lover in the first 15 minutes. However, the Kafukus’ relationship is apparently an open one that serves as a titillating method for spinning stories “from the edge of orgasm” (as Yūsuke puts it.) When Oto suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies, their curious partnership is broken, leaving Yūsuke to his artistic pursuits on the stage without her.

Two years later, he is called away for a two-month residency at Hiroshima Arts and Culture Theatre to direct an interpretation of Anton Chekhov’s 120-year-old play, Uncle Vanya. The festival director and dramaturge Yoon-su (Dae-Young Jin) require Yūsuke to be escorted from his island lodging over an hour away, and so they assign him a driver in her early 20s, Misaki (Tōko Miura), to prevent liability. This intermediary cuts Yūsuke off from his routine preparation and moments suspended in time with Oto’s ghostly voice, who has come to embody the soul of the Saab itself. But Yūsuke quickly grows to admire Misaki’s professionalism and resilience.

The intense observational detail in Drive My Car‘s dialogue is excessively generous, a reflection of the manner in which the film’s manifold stories are told, recorded, and repeated. This takes on renewed meaning as Yūsuke begins six weeks of rehearsals for the play with a multilingual cast from all parts of Asia (including Japanese, Mandarin, and Korean speakers). In making the final casting decisions, Yūsuke ends up putting Oto’s former lover Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) in the titular Vanya role rather than himself as an act of, let’s say, “punishment.” Yet, the spaces in-between all its traditional dialogue are just as critical to the landscapes of Drive My Car. Whether in the form of Korean Sign Language by actor Lee Joon-A (Park Yoo-rim) in the role of Sonya at the table reads, field audio of the Saab’s acceleration that softly hums underneath conversation, or pure unadulterated silence, nonverbal communication is a universal language that has deeper reverberations through the film’s travels.

This ineffably elegant tension tugs at each strand of the larger story, as the film foregrounds the deliberate work involved in the idiosyncratic process of adapting a play according to Yūsuke’s austere methods of pacing. Co-screenwriters Hamaguchi and Oe have taken much the same approach in translating the structure of Murakami’s pages into a feature. At the same time, cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya isn’t shy in his efforts to paint this as a scenic road movie. Aerial shots of interstate highways and Narita high-rises punctuate the first half; and the snow-capped slopes of Hokkaido come into view as Yūsuke gets closer to Misaki to learn of her history as a driver for her own mother in Kami-junitaki Village. The stark, yet never overwrought, emphasis on silence and the studied image is remarkable for such a garrulous film about verbal storytelling and confession.

Hamaguchi sets up this dynamic in the opening scene where Oto sits upright in the half-light of dawn to begin her monologue about a girl sneaking into her high school crush’s house. Composer Eiko Ishibashi scores the moment with an ambient shimmer that pierces the quiet and lilting birdsong beyond the couples’ bedroom window. “She breathes in. She listens carefully. She hears silence. An amplified silence, like the sound through a hearing aid, fills the room,” Oto recites. She articulates the girl’s thoughts as an extension of her own, and as an extension of Ishibashi’s soothingly subtle sound design, which uses plaintive variations on a few piano melodies to rhythmically externalize Yūsuke going through the motions. (You can read more about that here.)

While it doesn’t offer the same levity and range of emotion of Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy, Drive My Car is a triumph of transmutation, reinforcing cinema’s role in the symbiotic relationship between art in its form and content itself. In a seeming snub to some of the chauvinistic narration in Murakami’s original text (and further associations to that Beatles song), Hamaguchi instills Misaki with a steadiness and significance in the film’s epilogue, inverting Murakami’s Men Without Women to become, simply, woman without man. The film clutches the complex narratives that artists and performers share, but it’s equally about how art and performance encourage us to press on, elevating everyday life above inevitable hardship.

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