For a film superficially about a passenger and a chauffeur, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s exquisite Drive My Car weaves intimacy into its fabric. Characters exist firmly in their own inner worlds, governed by grief, before their lives and the lives of others eventually, vibrantly, overlap. These intersections awaken something internal — curiosity, admiration, desire, knowledge, understanding. In crossing paths, something shifts the air; the mask of individuality peels away.
Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same title, Drive My Car bears many notable Murakami tropes: existential melancholy, isolated characters, and urban settings. We follow Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a widowed theatre actor and director who stages ambitious multilingual productions such as a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanja at a theatre in Hiroshima. There, he is introduced to Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura), a timid young woman and his assigned driver. Yusuke and Misaki drive from place to place: Misaki in the driver’s seat, Yusuke in the back listening to and studying his screenplay through the car’s sound system. In this distant yet somewhat close arrangement — notwithstanding its formality, sharing a confined space for hours at a time is certainly intimate — the two drive around Hiroshima, between hotel bars, rehearsals, parks and through tunnels lined with yellow lights. Their journeys together form the skeleton of Hamaguchi’s film and reveal its emotional texture.
Departing from the conventions of fast-paced road-movies and their typical sense of adventure, Drive My Car has an enchantingly sedative effect. The familiar lull enables a drift of the mind; a car’s steady motion and its magnification of scenery and dialogue at once soothes us and focuses our attention. The film is a gentle, nearly three-hour portrait of an artist nurturing his work into fruition, and its pace mirrors that of a long drive under the control of a veteran driver. Chiefly, the very positioning of a driver and a backseat passenger enables a confessional dynamic; their conversation floats from courteous small-talk to private confessions, eliding the vulnerable confrontation of direct eye contact. Without the indignity of directness, Yusuke and Misaki are able to open up more expressively, and thus learn about each other profoundly.
To the same effect, Hamaguchi relishes the use of flashbacks edited seamlessly into the narrative. Memories of Yusuke’s late wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), who was a successful writer and dramatist, cut into the present: the film begins rather onerically with her silhouette against a window and a view of a dusky sky as she thinks aloud lines for her screenplay, all whilst having sex with Yusuke. Starting with Oto’s monologue, stream of consciousness is an alluring element of Hamaguchi’s storytelling. Characters reveal themselves in reticent doses, as if speaking only to themselves, or perhaps to an anonymous audience — us. They confess themselves to the back of a driver’s head, during the privacy of sex, beneath the lines of a character to an audience of hundreds on opening night. Confessions find their way to the surface through safer means; nothing is explicit, feelings emerge through daydreaming, thinking aloud, and playing a role.
If the 2020 BFI London Film Festival captured the art of confession by way of theatrical monologue (I am of course referring to Pedro Almodóvar’s dazzling The Human Voice), the 2021 festival sees confession as a moment of quiet connection. Elaborating on Murakami’s authorial philosophy that people exist in an archipelago, Hamaguchi’s film illustrates a yearning for human contact par excellence; the interconnected lives of others are visualised magnificently in the adaptation from text to film. By nature of its arresting visuals of sweeping landscapes and Cassavetes-style devotion to performers and storytellers, Drive My Car expresses an interest in themes such as loss and reconnection that is not rooted in the study of the self, but in the universal impulse to be seen and heard. Drive My Car tunnels out the ways in which we all disparately navigate the burden of individuality; it sees human contact as an act of respite from oneself, as a moment of relief.