Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) drives a red Saab 9000 Turbo. More than a vehicle, it’s the place where he can isolate himself, a space where no one is invited. There he can think about things, like being in another dimension, leaving outside not the troubles but the acceleration that forces everyone to not listen – later in the film, Misaki (Toko Miura) congratulates him for the way he treats his car, which seems in mint condition. But Drive My Car starts in a bedroom, a woman in the shadows telling a story imbued with elements that come from folklore while at the same time sounding like a report of a dream. It is Oto (Reika Kirishima), Yusuke’s wife. He’s lying on the bed, listening to this captivating yet discomforting tale: the camera lingers on Oto, whose face remains hidden because of the dim light, while outside the window we can see it’s sunset. Is this leading to the dark before the dawn?
This introduction can suggest a fable or at the very least the recipient of a horror. Besides a few references, which will be clarified, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s last effort is rooted in reality. The human touch Hamaguchi is becoming more and more recognizable for is all over this simple but quite effective parable. After that first scene we discover that Yusuke is a theater director, while Oto is a playwright. They seem very close: she often stares at him lovingly, as if there’s no one else in the world, while he manifests his love in a way which makes him look distant, when in fact we can spot many signs here and there that confirm his deep attachment. One day Yusuke unexpectedly comes back home because his flight has been canceled; he opens the door and hears someone moaning. Suspicious, he sneaks into the house enough to see two people having sex; it’s unclear who the man is, but the woman is Oto.
One would expect a reaction from Yusuke at this point. Instead Drive My Car becomes elusive, to a certain extent even unpredictable. With his finesse Hamaguchi stages a scene in which, thanks to an insignificant car accident, Yusuke finds out he suffers from a problem with his eyes, usually undetected until the eyesight is so deteriorated that it is too late to intervene. The viewer does not know what to make of this episode, but its presence works well enough to let us imagine a different outcome. Without giving away too much, let’s skip to the part where Oto dies, a few sequences after the scene just described; now we know that the whole forty-five minutes or so were just a prelude to what is next.
A major reason why Hamaguchi is establishing himself as one of the most interesting voices out there is his ability to expand each scene through dialogue. His films seem verbose, but if we look closely at his process it is clear that nothing is superfluous; on the contrary, each line is measured, so that the flow of the scene is systematically smooth and harmonious. The approach reminds one of a classicism which tends to betray how contemporary Hamaguchi’s cinema is. In order to better understand his position, one should think of filmmakers such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Eugène Green. Ceylan is a master of scenes that seem not so strong with visuals as with the conspicuous dialogue, which is even more true if we look at Winter Sleep (2014), a film that has Chekhov in common with Drive My Car. Both Ceylan and Hamaguchi are so precise in how they construct these situations that we are left with the impression that not a single word could have been taken out.
As for Green, another director attuned to this kind of slow cinema, his stylistic choices (characters who look directly to the camera, Ozu-style overall) are right in front of us, impossible not to notice; while Green’s scenes always feel staged, those in Hamaguchi’s films are organic and dynamic, despite the phlegmatic rhythm. This is the result of an economy of dramatization, a kind of dryness ingrained into the core of his employed method. What makes Hamaguchi a product of his time is his ability to find the universal in the particularity of people who live in the now, with all their problems and struggles, which are not the same as those experienced by people from the past. One prime example is a scene of a Korean dinner, which fully expresses this: four people eating and discussing, edited with few shots and at the right pace. Something that would have worked on its own, but in the end is even more powerful because of what came before.
The impeccable structure of Drive My Car provides a masterclass for those who seriously want to tackle the challenging task of writing a script. Most of the film is set in interior locations, one in particular. Two years after Oto’s death, Yusuke goes to Hiroshima to direct a multilingual stage performance of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. It is surprising how much Hamaguchi is able to obtain from a situation which on paper seems very flat: the rehearsal of the text in a huge, impersonal room. In this phase actors just have to read their respective parts, without any form of interpretation. This situation becomes the central one, alternating with scenes aimed to better explore other characters who somehow have a bond with Yusuke. One of these is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), the main actor in the play. We never know to what extent he’s involved with Oto, but he admits his love for her while at the same time showing a strange form of respect, if not veneration, for Yusuke. During one scene the young actor expands Oto’s story, the one that opens the film; in a way it mirrors that initial sequence, eliciting in the audience a bunch of mixed sensations. There is no editing, just a long shot of Takatsuki telling the missing part of that story. One could ask… are we sure what Oto told Yusuke was incomplete?
That adds an enticing layer to the plot. In fact, Drive My Car is also a parable of ghosts, whose presence is channeled through objects or, as in the case of Takatsuki, people. Obviously this refers to Oto, who is there throughout the entire film thanks to a CD recorded to help Yusuke rehearse while driving. More subtly she’s also present in the way Yusuke behaves: his driver Misaki wordlessly observes him continuously; these scenes, mostly in the car, are the most revelatory. It is there where the two learn to know each other, despite the prevalent silence and the distance between them, their unusual affinity motivated by the fact she too is haunted by her past. When Yusuke meets Misaki for the first time, he doesn’t know how to explain his reluctance at having someone drive his car for him; but since this is the policy of the agency that organizes the piece, the director has to accept, although hesitantly.
So, Misaki. It takes the right amount of time, which is almost the entire film, to fully grasp her importance. Imperturbable, with that lost gaze, like she’s always somewhere else. She is so committed to her job of just driving that she is capable of accepting anything, even the suspension of time between two rides, as if in this empty space she doesn’t exist. Her glacial profile sometimes helps to generate the few funny moments in Drive My Car, but in the total economy of the drama her weight is powerful and poignant, and not just at the end when Hamaguchi lets the arcs of his protagonists explode. Up to that point the Japanese director accumulates them through small events, gestures or even words.
“Those who survive keep thinking of the dead“; until the moment we encounter this line we only perceive the struggle these people are facing in overcoming their grief, though this perception is enough to remain interested in the proceedings. Hamaguchi manages their mourning process without revealing too much too soon, providing the right coordinates like dots we can link afterwards. Like a mystery, not all questions get their answers, which is exactly the reason for our fascination. Hamaguchi’s viewpoint is that of one who values the depth of a single human soul, declaring in a very touching, discreet and respectful fashion that there are things we can barely try to explain. Instead we must accept the ambiguity of one another’s behavior, even our own, as long as we are honest and sincere. As honest and sincere as Drive My Car is in dealing with the complexity of its material.