MA 15+, 179 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
Not without good reason, they say the short story is a perfect foundation for a screenplay. Not too much material to translate to screen, with enough scope for the filmmaker to riff on the original ideas. Short stories and novellas have clearly inspired some stunning cinema like Minority Report, Apocalypse Now and Memento.
A modest short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami, Drive My Car, has been adapted for screen here, with a few important changes, turning 40 or so pages into a three-hour screen epic. The results are sensational.
In the hands of a rising star of the Japanese industry, filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the story has become a road trip deluxe with its own distinct rhythms, and many other things besides. Hamaguchi wrote the screenplay in a collaboration with Takamasa Oe.
Drive My Car may have a ring of familiarity. Aficionados of the Beatles will recognise the title of the song of the same name from among the band’s early work. Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood has also been turned into a feature film, as has another short story by the celebrated Japanese author, Barn Burning.
In distinctive opening scenes of intimacy at twilight between a loving couple (Hidetoshi Nishijima and Reika Kirishima as Yusuke and Oto Kafuku), it reveals the marriage of two creatives that is at the heart of the narrative. Yusuke is a stage director currently staging a multicultural Waiting for Godot, his wife Oto a scriptwriter of popular television. In this oh so subtle and complex relationship drama, everything is interconnected.
Setting off one day for jury duty at a theatre festival overseas, Yusuke departs but returns home shortly afterwards when his flight is postponed. On arrival, Oto is having sex with another man, hot young actor Koshi Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), revealing a truth about the marriage. Managing to somehow slip away unseen by the two lovers, Yusuke returns to the airport hotel on offer, after all.
A defining motif for this road movie deluxe is an immaculate red car, not a convertible, but with sunroof at least
He appears to have already known that his younger wife slept with other men, but it is a shock to discover this when the couple appear to be so close, despite a typical cultural reserve. Their declarations of love for each other seem heartfelt and genuine. In a point of departure from the Murakami story, there is an even greater shock in store when Yusuke arrives homes late one evening to find Oto slumped on the floor, dead.
A defining motif of Ride My Car is an immaculate red vehicle seen above the city streets in high-angle. Not the convertible for the road that allows wind through the hair, but with a sunroof, at least.
The Saab 900 is often at heart of the frame, a red centre to the cool cityscapes and countryside in winter. Of course, Yusuke prefers to be at the wheel, not in the passenger seat, and it’s also vital in his routine to have distances to cover so that he can listen to the tapes of the dialogue for his stage productions. We hear at one point that the only fault he would admit to finding in his wife was the way she drove.
A compelling, hypnotic journey into the human heart, that calls for an act of surrender
After he has been a widower a while, Yusuke takes up a short residency in Hiroshima to develop his new production of Uncle Vanya, a diverting multicultural approach to the Chekhov. While there, the role forces him to accept a driver (Toko Miura as Misaki) who turns out to be a taciturn woman of 23 who drives so smoothly, Yusuke cannot find fault.
So begins the second tranche of this road trip. Outside the cities and beyond into the Japanese hinterland, told in images that are freighted with other things besides the impact of war or of Western culture on the people of Japan.
This is a superbly well-made film, by turns classical and challenging. Hamaguchi has inserted opening credits a cool 40 minutes in, and dares to wrench his audiences out of the world he has so carefully created with a surprise ending that brings the narrative abruptly into the present-day pandemic, where everyone is running around masked-up.
This hypnotic, compelling journey into the human heart and soul is sublimely well-executed with exceptional lead performances. With a running time well in excess of today’s long standards, this road movie deluxe, that works so superbly, calls for an act of surrender.