Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car opens by showing us intimate, peaceful moments between Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). Like a musing poet, she poses elegantly in their bed spinning a tale about a girl so infatuated with a boy she breaks into his house just to feel closer to him. Yûsuke listens in a dream-like state. Oto’s storytelling seems to be their custom after making love. Later we understand how healing and intimate Oto’s stories are to Yûsuke, especially after her sudden and unexpected death.
The bulk of the film takes place two years after Oto’s death. Yûsuke takes a residency job in Hiroshima to be the director of a theater production of Uncle Vanya by Anton. Chekov. It’s a long drive to Hiroshima but Yûsuke seems to enjoy driving in his outdated red Saab. Driving around town alone is when he usually runs his lines, aided by a cassette tape, with a recording of Oto reading all the other lines. At times it seems her voice is what propels the car forward.
However, part of Yûsuke’s new gig in Hiroshima comes with a driver. Yûsuke is hesitant at first, but after meeting Misaki (Toko Miura) and letting her drive him to his hotel, he allows it. Misaki is a scrappy young woman with a scar on her left cheek and a cigarette in her mouth. She prides herself in her ability to drive, her one skill that she says her mother gave her.
Within the play Yûsuke directs, is a young man from his past with Oto, Kōshi Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Takatsuki is a famous movie star, but some missteps in his personal life has complicated his career. Yûsuke decides to cast Takatsuki with the lead role, but can the young man hack it? More importantly, can these two work together despite the tension between them and their unspoken past with Oto?
What Drive My Car is at its core is a subdued, long hard look at repressed grief, guilt and loneliness. Yûsuke uses his work and his car as a shield, hiding his grief, trying to remain professional, diligent and constantly moving. But when other characters enter that car with him, they penetrate his shield, participate in his grief and share their own. It’s haunting, healing and metamorphic what can happen inside that red Saab.
Drive My Car is nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, best international film, and adapted screenplay. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is nominated for best director, his first nomination.
While Drive My Car is three hours long, has multiple story arcs, including a play in multiple languages and handles heavy subjects like guilt, grief and loss, it does not feel like a chore of a film. The beautiful cinematography soothes, the movement of the car and winding roads hypnotize. The stories never feel drawn out or bogged down, but flow so naturally as they connect. Drive My Car is a brilliant film, thoughtful film and worth the 3 hours to sit and absorb this quiet, beautiful testament to suffering and continuing onward.
“Those who survive keep thinking about the dead. In one way or another, that will continue. You and I must keep living like that. We must keep on living. It’ll be OK. I’m sure we’ll be OK.”