You’ve probably heard by now of Drive My Car, the Ryusuke Hamaguchi film based on three stories from the Haruki Murkami short story collection Men Without Women, and the fact that it has made history as the first Japanese film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. But if you’ve yet to find the three hours necessary to see it, you may be wondering what’s so special about this film.
Bringing Murakami’s story to life
One reason for the film’s Oscars success is not Japanese, but Korean. As Hamaguchi himself noted in a recent interview with The Guardian, his movie is simply cruising through the door that Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite kicked open with its historical Academy Award wins for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay, as well as the award for Best International Film, in 2020.
Like Parasite, Drive My Car has been nominated in all four of these categories (albeit for Adapted rather than Original Screenplay). But even more so than Bong Joon-Ho’s playfully dark and punchy thriller, Hamaguchi’s film feels like an unusual choice for the Academy – an introspective, three-hour drama which leans heavily on Chekhov and holds the audience at a cool emotional remove for much of its epic runtime. It is neither a heartwarming crowd-pleaser like fellow Best Picture nominees Belfast or CODA, nor a gripping thriller like The Power of the Dog.
What it is, however, is a masterpiece.
Drive My Car focuses on Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a middle-aged theatre actor and director who rehearses lines for Uncle Vanya using tape recording of the play read by his wife, Oto, while driving his red Saab 900. Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a writer with an even more idiosyncratic creative process – she forms ideas for stories during sex, reciting disquieting narratives in the middle of the act as though possessed.
The light and shadow of this marriage is beautifully depicted in the film’s opening scenes. Oto and Kafuku enable one another’s creative lives, sharing a powerful physical and emotional intimacy. And yet so much hurt exists between them, too.
We learn that the couple is mourning the loss of a young daughter, that Kafuku struggles to respond in kind to the words “I love you,” and that – perhaps for both or neither of these reasons – Oto pursues affairs with other men. It is this betrayal which haunts Kafuku when, suddenly, Oto dies.
At this point the movie still has more than two hours of its journey to go without Oto, but her ghost lingers, most notably in the form of the tape which, two years later, Kafuku is still using to rehearse for a Hiroshima-based revival of his Vanya. Into the Saab also comes Koji (Masaki Okada), Oto’s hot-tempered lover, whom Kafuku has masochistically cast as the lead in his new production, and a young driver named Misaki (Toko Miura), who will listen to all of these people’s stories in taciturn silence before finally revealing her own narrative of grief and regret.
Unsurprisingly, much of the film’s power lies in its dialogue, the characters’ words overlapping with lines from Uncle Vanya to the point that life and art become almost indistinguishable.
This magic is really a blending of three voices – Chekhov’s, Hamaguchi’s, and Murakami’s – and it is true that Hamaguchi has come closer than any other filmmaker to preserving Murakami’s unique literary atmosphere on screen. Events and conversations slide by as effortlessly as Kafuku’s car gliding down the highway, and without quite registering the distance you suddenly realise you have crossed vast emotional terrain and arrived at the heart of so much that matters – love and loss, the mystery of self and others, and the healing power of connection.
Special mention for this act of adaptive alchemy must also go to the composer Eiko Ishibashi, whose jazz-infused score surprises with its smooth gear-shifts from breezy to yearning, and is worthy of any Murakami protagonist’s record player. Likewise, Hamaguchi’s original additions to this story are so good that Murakami himself said he couldn’t recall which ideas were his and which were the director’s, such as the fact that Kafuku’s stage productions are multilingual, including several profound scenes featuring Korean Sign Language.
If all of this sounds like a lot, don’t be put off. Each moving part blends seamlessly into the next, and the overall effect is of minimal rather than maximalist, light instead of heavy, so that when the climactic moments of revelation and catharsis come, they are all the more powerful for the restraint that came before.
Hidetoshi Nishijima’s grounds the film’s considerable length and breadth in a central performance of gentle gravitas and withheld vulnerability, which somehow makes him the ideal foil for every other character Kafuku encounters – the sensual Oto, the capricious Koji and – crucially – the pricklishly reserved Misaki, whose growing bond with Kafuku lies at the heart of the film.
Whether Drive My Car will have further cemented its place in Japanese cinema history by winning any Academy Awards beyond Best International Film remains to be seen as of writing, but it certainly deserves to. Having watched the majority of the Best Picture nominees in this year’s Oscar race, I can say that Drive My Car outshines them all with a combination of cinematic craft and emotional wisdom that can only be described as transcendent.
Oscars or no, it’s more than worth your time to climb in, and let Hamaguchi take you for a ride.
Rachel Crane is an English teacher living in Tokyo with a background in publishing.