'Drive My Car': Japan’s most acclaimed film since Kurosawa’s 'Dreams' is an exasperating gem

Drive My Car is something we have never seen before in cinema of any language. It is cryptic and compelling, exhilarating and yet exasperating in its refusal to let us into the characters’ inner world

Still from ‘Drive My Car’
Still from ‘Drive My Car’

Subhash K Jha

Is Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car the most vital Japanese film since Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams? More importantly, is Hamaguchi the most important Japanese filmmaker since Kurosawa? The world’s critics’ community seems to thinks so: his other 2021 film Wheel Of Fortune & Fantasy is in my opinion a superior work , but the chances of Drive My Car winning the Oscar for best foreign film are pegged at almost-there.

Indeed Drive My Car is something we have never seen before in cinema of any language. It is cryptic and compelling, exhilarating and yet exasperating in its refusal to let us into the characters’ inner world.

Really, we can only guess at what our protagonist, a filmmaker named Yūsuke Kafuku is getting at. Is he lunging for immortality through his work? It doesn’t look like it. Throughout the 3 hours of playing time Yusuke seems disaffected from his surroundings, a state of ‘being there but not being there’ which is further compounded by Yusuke’s wife Oto (Reika Kirishima)’s auto-eroticism. Oto conjures stories during orgasm which her husband is supposed to memorize during their love-making as she forgets her stories the next morning.

In the midst of all this ruminative creative conceit, Yusuke is detected with partial blindness, just after he catches his wife with another man in their bedroom (after a missed flight, the best fictional alibi for proving infidelity since Man invented the motion picture and the airplane).

Then Oto dies.

I thought this was the end of the movie. But as Karen Carpenter once reminded us, we’ve only just begun. And to hammer in the fact that what we’ve seen so far is just the prelude, the director plays the credit titles at this point of his linear but loopy narrative , when the inwardly-grieving Yusuke proceeds to Hiroshima to direct a stage version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

Yusuke is assigned a female chauffeur to drive him around(Drive My Car, remember?).

The driver, an 18-year old imperturbable stoic girl named Misaki (Tōko Miura) now becomes the focus of attention , as Yusuke finds himself leaning forward from the back seat to reach out to his graceful ostensibly emotion-less driver. Their interaction is initially tentative but soon becomes an escape-route for Yusuke from the implacable fortress that he has built around himself.

Complicating the scenario even more(yes, the swirls of conundrum never cease in this mystical journey of a filmmaker into the innermost recesses of his most inaccessible emotions) is the fact that Koji(Masaki Okada) the young man with whom Yusuke had caught his wife , is also part of the Chekhov stage adaptation which Yusuke is directing.

At the end Misaki drives Yusuke to her native place where she has buried some of her own secrets. By the time we reach the end of the long drive into the darkness ,we are left with more question than answers on the creative process: Yusuke’s directorial style seems much more accessible than what director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has attempted in Drive My Car.Or maybe Hamaguchi sees himself as a superior filmmaker to his protagonist.

Hamaguchi has extracted more juice from a short story(by Haruki Murakam) than other creative minds would squeeze out of a 2000-page novel.In making a 3-hour film out of 5-page story, Hamaguchi is often seen stretching the emotions way beyond their prescribed limits. Drive My Car tells us that loss and bereavement are best confronted when they are least expected to. That we can get into our favourite car and drive through stretches of the imagination with nothing to lose except our stifling dependence on the trappings of every day living.

Drive My Car is meant to leave us wiser than before. Tragically I was left more confused about the conundrum of life after seeing the film. Can a filmmaker really deliver us from our uncertainties with his cinema? This question troubles the film’s protagonist Yūsuke Kafuku as much as director Ryusuke Hamaguchi. As a spectator I would rather not interfere.

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