Drive My Car
In the 1970s, I enjoyed making audiocassettes from
films I particularly loved, and then listening to them over and over – Alfred
Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959)
was among those I minutely studied in this way. I do not simply mean the disc
of Bernard Herrmann’s marvellous orchestral music score; I am talking about the
entire film from start to end, with voices, noises and everything else blended
– the complete sound design, as we say today.
Do the young cinephiles of the 21st century
still do this? Back then, plugging a tape recorder into a video player or TV
set was a relatively simple procedure. Today, there’s something about the
everyday configuration of laptop, streaming and Spotify that discourages such
wholesale sampling. The effort it takes to create an mp3 audio file from a
movie soundtrack and then get that into a listening device is just not as much
fun as the old, DIY audiocassette culture.
Of one thing, however, I am certain: if I was still a
15-year-old kid making my cherished movie tapes, the Japanese film Drive My Car, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, would go right to the top of my personalised
Again, it’s not just because of the pleasing musical
score – relatively sparsely used across the three-hour running time – by Eiko
Ishibashi. It’s because the whole film is structured as a soothing sonic bubble that wraps us in the gentle
noises of traffic, water, wind, room atmospheres, and very calm, controlled
speech patterns. Even, in a memorable scene, the sound of a vast garbage
disposal factory is rendered as a sweet, lulling hum!
Over the past two-and-a-half decades, a bunch of films
have investigated – in very different cultural situations and in starkly
diverse ways – the possibilities offered by scenes staged in cars. David
Cronenberg emphasises the icy alienation of car travel in Crash (1996) and Cosmopolis (2012). Leos
Carax treats the custom cab as a space of incessant, near-magical character
transformation in Holy Motors (2012).
Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002) and Claire
Denis’ Friday Night (2002) focus on both the
customary formality and unexpected intimacy that can be shared by a driver and
Drive My Car is quieter and
less ostentatiously virtuosic than any of those, but no film has ever been
quite so alive to the delicious ambiguities and changing moods of automotive
The nominal hero of Drive My Car, Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), happens to share my
old-fashioned love of audiocassettes. He uses them not for movies but for
plays: he records the complete text of whatever playscript he is set to act in
and listens to it while driving, leaving spaces blank for him to recite his
lines. What he – and we – get to hear a lot during the film is the Japanese
translation of Anton Chekhov’s 1898 classic, Uncle Vanya.
This is not merely incidental; like the Argentinian
director Matías Piñeiro, Hamaguchi builds his story and characters upon the
shifting, fleeting resonances between the world he films and the world embodied
within a well-known literary work.
Kafuku is a middle-aged guy who doesn’t like
surprises, but is constantly encountering them. One nasty shock – his
uncontrollable surge of emotion, one night, while playing the role of Vanya on
stage – has convinced him to give up acting. Instead, he leads intensive performance
workshops that culminate in public productions. One such workshop in Hiroshima
takes Uncle Vanya as its subject.
Even in this strictly regulated environment – Kafuku’s method depends on his
cast members simply sitting and reading the text repeatedly for weeks, without
evident emotion – not everything will go exactly to plan.
First, Kafuku finds out that, while in Hiroshima, he
is not allowed to pilot his own, beloved, red Saab that has served him
faithfully for 15 years. He must yield to a hired driver, Misaki (Tōko Miura),
who is in her early 20s.
Misaki is a hypnotic figure: she’s a mystery (what’s
that scar on her face?), she doesn’t give away much, and her physical bearing
advertises an unmistakeably punk “go away and leave me alone” attitude. Luckily,
she transforms every ride – and there are many in Drive My Car – into a serene glide. Eventually, we will discover a
great deal about Misaki – alongside the crucial fact that she is the same age
that Kafuku’s daughter would be if she had lived beyond early childhood.
Second, Kafuku discovers, to his discomfort, that a
young, aggressive, TV actor, Takatsuki (Masaki Ikada) – who happens to have
been his wife’s final lover before her sudden, untimely death – is keen to
participate in the workshop. With a mixture of curiosity and perversity that
recalls the premise of the Dardenne brothers’ The Son (2002), Kafuku, knowing what Takatsuki doesn’t know that he
knows, assents to the tricky situation. Takatsuki is an immature hothead, and
sometimes a darn fool, but he, too, is allowed an extraordinary soliloquy – an
almost miraculous flash of compassionate wisdom.
My Car is not exactly what many people would describe as a highly dramatic
film, a great deal happens in it, and its multiple threads are gradually
interwoven with enormous skill by Hamaguchi. It is, in fact, an ingenious
adaptation, by the director and Takamasa Oe, of three unconnected short stories
by Haruki Murakami, all of which appeared in his 2014 collection Men Without Women. By drawing on this
expanded field of Murakami’s fictional worlds, a long, linear narrative has
been constructed for the original Kafuku in “Drive My Car” – including, in
early scenes, the intriguing trance-like, post-sex storytelling technique of
his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), which is borrowed from the story
“Scheherazade”. (The hard edges of Takatsuki’s character, likewise, are derived
from the Murakami story “Kino”.)
Wisely, Hamaguchi – whose previous work, such as Asoka I & II (2018), has not
impressed me half as much as Drive My Car – eschews the obvious temptation of an embedded flashback structure. He wants
spectators, he declares, to have their own flashbacks, to discover the subtle
rhymes and reversals between incidents or elements across the long haul – and,
in this, he is the true heir to Taiwanese master Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day, 1991), who died
at 59 in 2007.
Hamaguchi’s film unfolds, indeed, like a leisurely,
linear, smooth drive – everything about it corresponds to the sonic bubble
quality I noted above.
Ah, but there’s a catch – and it relates directly to
this humble prop of the audiocassette. In perhaps the film’s only concession to
overt symbolism, a striking superimposition places the spinning wheels of the
Saab atop the turning spindles of the tape replaying – long after her death –
the voice of Oto. Hamaguchi has said, somewhat mysteriously, that this is what Drive My Car is all about: rotation.
I believe he means that, for all the forward motion on
the road, for all the kilometres travelled, Kafuku is, effectively, running on
the spot, not advancing. To achieve genuine progress into a future, he, like
all the characters, will need to arrive at a successful equilibrium of
memories, thoughts and emotions – and for that, as the film shows in its
utterly beautiful, penultimate scene, Uncle
Vanya serves well.
Did I mention that, in Kafuku’s stage productions, the
actors speak different languages – including, here, Korean sign language? At
the outset, this can seem an oddly avant-garde aspect of Drive My Car – an affectation, even. By the end, I came to regard
it as a mirror of how Hamaguchi works with his uniformly wonderful cast: by
proceeding slowly and steadily, by dampening down the temptation of
melodramatic escalation, by working through the filters of different cultures
and languages, he (like Eugène Green) achieves a special kind of dramatic – and
cinematic – truth.
© Adrian Martin February 2022