In some of the most effective storytelling, there is precision. Not just in the details, dialogue, and settings, but also in how a tale is told. In Drive My Car, celebrated filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi emphasizes the “how”, creating an elegant, reflective movie that moves beyond plot and conversation to examine – and enjoy – the very process of storytelling. The results and the film are fascinating.
Adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Drive My Car begins, appropriately enough, with a key character telling a story. A couple are in bed, bathed in a sensual tone and minimal exterior light. Oto (Reika Kirishima) recounts the adventures of a high school girl who repeatedly sneaks into the house of her romantic crush. Her husband, Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), listens as the story becomes more elaborate and riskier.
We soon learn they are a storytelling power couple. She’s a former actor and now screenwriter, he’s an accomplished stage director and actor. During their shared morning commute, he adds feedback and flavor to her most recent tale. They volley questions and details back and forth.
For us, this is all a cover of sorts. For Oto and Kafuku, their communication is most dynamic and familiar when they focus on fiction, like Oto’s story. We gradually learn their reality is not a happy one, with Hamaguchi revealing specifics with incredible skill, adding impact at various times throughout the flowing narrative.
Oto passes away by the end of the first part of Drive My Car. What follows is both a quiet study of a man without an emotional home, and a remarkable exploration of how people tell stories. This is comfortable territory for Hamaguchi. His excellent five-hour Happy Hour follows the lives of four women through relationships and self-realization, and his recent Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a triad of stories about connections found and missed (With Wheel, Hamaguchi is enjoying nearly universal acclaim for two films in the same year.)
Kafuku agrees to direct an adaptation of of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a theater residency in Hiroshima, where a young woman is assigned to drive his car, shuttling the director from his temporary home to his temporary job. Any potential connection between the two seems so unattainable as to perhaps never happen (but it does). From the back seat, Kafuku focuses only on practicing the rhythms of Uncle Vanya by running lines with cassette recordings of his deceased wife. It’s a subtle, brilliant piece of melancholy: the couple continues their in-car exchange, never to talk in person again. The driver (Tôko Miyura) is only a bystander, an unwilling eavesdropper.
The most engrossing moments of Drive My Car are in the making of Uncle Vanya. Kafuku insists on presenting the play at an exact tempo, with each actor speaking their first language and the cast memorizing every line and beat. The audition sequence is a thrilling mini-orchestra of languages, an occasionally tense blur of action and reaction. The subsequent casting and rehearsal scenes are even better, Hamaguchi crafting a study of the rhythms of speech and the complications of communication. Most of the play’s actors don’t understand the rest of the cast, as they gently cue one another by tapping on the table (It’s impossible not to wonder if the film’s actors also didn’t understand one another.) Hamaguchi’s direction is crisp and to-the-point, lacking dramatic flourishes that would distract from the mostly verbal action. We do get to see the on-stage result and the play’s finale is nothing short of a knockout.
Nishijima plays the widowed theater director like a man content to float from one world to another, refraining from thought beyond the here and now. He even vocalizes his preference for inertia, complimenting his driver that he sometimes forgets there’s a car under him, that she’s just smoothly moving him forward. Nishijima’s temperament suits that mood and makes his more engaging moments that much more satisfying. Hamaguchi confidently understands moments like those come and go for everyone, that we all have stories that drive us.