Written by: Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe
Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tōko Miura, Masaki Okada, Reika Kirishima, Park Yoo-rim
The personal nature of art signifies everyone will have a different attachment to it and their own way of creating and experiencing it. Drive My Car allows art to be used as a processing mechanism for each of its characters and when it gets into the ideas of battling grief, it succeeds in enveloping the audience in the most engrossing 3-hour slowly paced drama ever put to film.
Following the death of his wife, Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) gets offered a two-month residency along with the opportunity to direct a multilingual theatrical presentation of “Uncle Vanya.” As he tries to set up his actors for success, he reckons with his grieving process, specifically with his driver.
The biggest challenge in getting others to watch Drive My Car is describing it as a slowly-paced 3-hour drama about grief and art. Most individuals when told about this would run for the hills which would obviously be a mistake considering Ryusuke Hamaguchi creates something absolutely astounding with this feature. An examination of grief in a way never quite captured in narrative storytelling before through the power of dialogue between individuals. Nothing in this film goes for the big swings emotionally simply because these characters do not have anything left in the tank to express their feelings in a heightened manner. Instead, they must process their experiences in only the way they can, through text and dialogue.
One of the larger revelations made in the film comes from uncovering Yūsuke’s relationship with his wife before and after her passing along with the things he did to help her and his career. With Yūsuke working in theater and his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima) applying her trade in television, they find the power of storytelling and dialogue to be integral to their identities. It makes the reveal that Oto discovers her stories through the act of sexual intercourse all the more intriguing. It becomes something not inherently obvious from the start but as the narrative progresses, it brings plenty into perspective about how these characters operate in their everyday lives. After all, getting to the core of Yūsuke and his decision making, particularly with his casting makes for such an intriguing journey where eventually the difficult questions will be answered.
Narratively, most of the story revolves around the construction of the “Uncle Vanya” play and Yūsuke, as the director, trying to get his actors to successfully portray their characters. A challenging proposition considering their performances require needing to communicate in different languages to the point where the actors cannot understand each other. From those speaking Japanese, sign language, and other languages of the continental region. I just cannot fathom the difficulty of this tactic, especially when the actors need to connect with their colleagues to sell the scenes for the audience. However, as Yūsuke states on multiple occasions, they must just focus on the script, which assuredly has nothing to do with the grieving process he must undertake with what occurred to his wife.
Much of the emotional processing in this feature occurs in Yūsuke’s red car, which works directly with the title but the way the vehicle gets utilized as a storytelling device becomes more apparent as the narrative goes on. From the reveal of Yūsuke’s developing glaucoma to the position it puts him when his driver, Misaki (Tōko Miura) operates the vehicle for him, it all becomes part of the process of making these characters vulnerable. Literally giving the wheel to someone else allows for a different level of concentration and reflection not available when thinking of traffic patterns and making the next appropriate turn on the journey. It truly speaks to the power of what can occur when stuck with someone in a metal box for a significant amount of time and it just works incredibly well in this feature.
Without ever being showy, Hidetoshi Nishijima puts on such an emotionally devastating performance as the protagonist of this feature. He leaves an unreadable face for much of the story as we try to read him as audience members. Nishijima does such a great job masking this character’s emotions in order for everything about him to leak out as the story goes along. It makes for the reveals later on to be all the more well-earned. Quite the treat from an acting perspective, which made me glad this feature introduced me to this tremendous actor. He remains the beating heart of the film, even when the truly painful moments of discovery occur. We feel his pain and go through this process with him and Nishijima proves to be such a tremendous guide through it all.
Meditative in its approach and incredibly potent in its emotional resolution, Drive My Car works on so many levels and manages to tell an engrossing story about art and grief. It demonstrates the wonders that can occur within a car, which many can appreciate seeing as the open road allows for some tremendous conversations between individuals within it. The emotional complexities handled here only build more intrigue as the narrative goes along and I beg anyone scared away by the runtime to not make the mistake of missing out on this wonderfully crafted and moving cinematic achievement.