It sounds simple: two people sitting in a car, talking aimlessly, or maybe not saying anything at all. The red vintage Saab that Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) owns and worships in drive my car provides the main framework for an epic cinematic tale of life, loss, art, and the unexpected connections that bind tragedies and triumphs. The bright color and narrow interior of the car keeps us focused on the drama inside. There is no problem.
Or at least it appears that way. In reality, this car was moving, not yet in the studio or towed, as most films would be. Getting the cameras in the right position took hours with each setup. Director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi crouched in the trunk of the car with his tape recorder, listening to every beat of the jack, scribbling notes. Scenes were dozens of pages long, with difficult technical logistics causing frequent interruptions. But they went through it, then started all over again. “Hamaguchi would come out of the trunk looking incredibly happy every time,” Nishijima said with a laugh. “Then he would say ‘Oh, wonderful. Let’s do it one more time’ – and he’d come back and spend another 10, 20 minutes in there.
So goes the rigorous commitment of drive my car. The three-hour Japanese film, adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, balances airy naturalism with extraordinary detail, a testament to its finely tuned craftsmanship. Every element feels in perfect harmony, from its subtle performance to its layered script.
For those who have seen the film, it’s no wonder it became the arthouse toast of awards season. drive my car came quietly after winning a screenplay award on its Cannes debut last summer, but went on to sweep American critics’ awards – voters in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and the National Society of Film Critics all named it the best film of 2021. Currently playing in select US theaters, it is Japan’s nomination for the Oscar for best international feature film, and has real potential to shake up the season of movies. awards, even beyond this category. It beautifully tells a universal story, just as the Oscars are going more global than ever.
“My films, in the past, have never been accepted in this way,” says Hamaguchi, who made his feature film debut while still in college with Solaris, in 2007. “People are able to see it and say, ‘This is about me too. “”
drive my car is breezy and unpredictable, propelled by dialogue as its hero navigates grief, regret, and ultimately some kind of rebirth. Hamaguchi opens the film about Yūsuke and his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima). Both are storytellers—he is a theater director; she’s a screenwriter, and their lives, intimately captured in the film’s opening sequences, seem sexually and romantically fulfilling. He is also haunted by the death, before the film begins, of their 4-year-old daughter, and later by Oto’s infidelity. However, this is all kind of an extended prologue, punctuated by Oto’s shocking death at the start of the film. The story then takes place two years later, with Yūsuke away from his home in Hiroshima, where he is about to direct a production of Uncle Vanya, by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Against his will, Misaki (Toko Miura), a quiet young woman who takes the helm of her beloved red Saab, is named as her driver. It turns out occupying such a sacred space means that “pilot” is the least of the roles she will continue to play here.
Hamaguchi and co-author Takamasa Oe broadly flesh out Murakami’s story, which ranks among the least surreal in its catalog, by borrowing from other plays by the author, particularly via the opening and the end. The way the characters interact informs the film’s visual and emotional language, and on a higher level, its planes of reality begin to blur. We get long scenes of table reads and rehearsals, the texts of Vania and Auto anything but fusion.
A meta statement about the power of storytelling – art imitating life – emerges in the narrative. “Fiction is a very important part of life, and I’ve had that feeling with more confirmation as I’ve made more films,” says Hamaguchi, who was inspired by John’s films. Cassavetes like Opening night. “Living in the society we live in today, some things just don’t show up unless they’re expressed through fiction.”
“At the beginning, Hamaguchui said to me: ‘I want to edit this film as a documentary'”, says the publisher Azusa Yamazaki. She worked with the director on several films, but never quite like this one – shots weren’t planned out as usual, but captured from multiple angles, an exploratory process that led to continued discovery in the editing room. “There were so many possibilities,” Yamazaki continues. Finding the story of this three-hour journey meant determining, cut by cut, which faces to focus on, which lines to emphasize, and so on.
Eiko Ishibashi, the musician whose drive my car score is only his second for a feature film, adds, “The script itself felt like a great epic poem, in many ways steeped in many human stories. It was as if I was making music to this kind of poem.
The more toned drive my carMisaki’s attention shifts almost imperceptibly over time, granting Misaki more and more agency. In her early scenes facing Yūsuke, before she drives for the first time, she “doesn’t feel quite human, doesn’t show her emotions in the same way”, Yamazaki says. (There’s a line in Murakami’s story that notes that she didn’t speak for nearly a month.) But we learn more about this character — her own experiences of loss in her family — in a gradual turn that opens the whole film. “I was waiting for them to come to a place where they could talk about something important to them,” Hamaguchi says. “I had this feeling as I was writing that she grew as a character, as I added more ideas around her background and developed more of her story. Eventually, she became almost like a protagonist of the film.
“Let’s be conspiratorial together,” Nishijima told Hamaguchi at the start of their working relationship. There’s a method to madness: just like the expressions of Murakami, Chekhov and Hamaguchi overlap throughout drive my car, star Nishijima’s experiences often mirrored those of his director. “Hamaguchi has told me many times that I have the power to look,” Nishijima tells me. “He told me that I should be on set as a director watching the other performers – he kept saying that by making me watch the other actors, they would work miracles.”
“What he does is really listen and observe,” adds Hamaguchi. “He acts in the sense of acting as a theater manager, but he’s also in these scenes watching the performances of the other actors. In a way, the position he’s in allows him to stand much closer to the other performers than myself.