Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Haruku Murakami, and Anton Chekhov walk into a theatre … and the result is three hours of quietly anguished soul-searching and a lot of driving. Drive My Car is a Special Presentation at the London Film Festival.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi has had a busy time of late. Not only is Drive My Car the first of two films which he has written and directed which are playing at London Film Festival in 2021, but he also co-wrote Wife of a Spy with his mentor Kiyoshi Kurosawa which premiered earlier this year.
Make no mistake, Drive My Car, inspired by a short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami, is a long film (one minute short of three hours) – but it is worth every single second.
The opening 40 minutes are what amount to a prologue centring around stage actor Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a TV screenwriter. Their relationship is close yet complex, and what we see of their conversations take place either while they are having sex or while driving to work and revolve around the telling and repeating of stories. In their line of work, perhaps not unusual.
Two years later, following a tragedy, we catch up with Yusuke who has taken on a role as director of Uncle Vanya in a theatre in Hiroshima. The play’s cast is international; Yusuke’s ‘thing’ is to cast actors from different countries, with each actor delivering their lines in their own language (including Mandarin, Tagalog and Japanese). The theatre audience has a large screen with many subtitles to assist them – but the actors have to pick up on each other’s energy through the intense rehearsal period in order to mesh as a cast.
Yusuke is assigned a chauffeur (Misaki, played by Toko Miura) to drive him anywhere he wishes. Although at first reluctant to accept having the introverted young woman drive his beloved car, he gradually becomes to appreciate her, and the car becomes the stage where some past secrets are revealed.
The use of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya as the play at the centre of the film is key. Yusuke keeps his feelings reigned in for most of the time, but at one point admits that he has declined to play Vanya in this production as “Chekhov is terrifying because his words drag out the real you”. Vanya himself is a character who realises that his own life has passed him by and who finds himself in a fug of joylessness, jealousy and disillusion, and Yusuke is battling internally with not being able to move on from his own traumas.
His taciturn chauffeur, Misaki, is also emotionally burying her past, and it is in the car that their conversations eventually allow them to tell the truth to each other. One of them remarks that the living seem to be constantly thinking about the dead, and the location choice of Hiroshima – a city which cannot ever be uncoupled from death – is apt, to say the least.
Facing up to the realities of our own past, and learning secrets of those whom we think we knew best, does not come easy. Perhaps an actor, used to putting on a façade, may be able to play the role of themselves in public to cover up grief and anger which they don’t want to – or don’t know how to – deal with. But eventually, truth will out.
Drive My Car delves into these hidden places by getting other people to do it for us – either characters in a play, or the actors playing them. The film, as often with life, takes quite a while until we are ready to face the truth, but when it is all over “… we shall rest”.