Drive My Car, Japan’s first Best Picture Oscar nominee, turns Haruki Murakami’s story into a moving melodrama

In a time when our relationships with others are often mediated by algorithms and screens, taking a long car ride can feel like one of the few remaining spaces where we can share an honest and open moment with someone other. This has often been true in movies, as cops bond during settlements and road-traveling passengers reveal secrets; where everything from a Jeep-related conversation in a Kiarostami movie to a high-speed Fast and the Furious bro-down takes on unexpected emotional grace.

In recently Oscar-nominated writer-filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, a cherry-red 1987 Saab 900 Turbo is the somewhat unlikely final vessel for shared intimacy, gliding through the emotional three-hour epic.

  • Read: The full list of nominations for the 94th Academy Awards

Loosely adapted from a 2014 short story by Haruki Murakami, Hamaguchi’s melodrama focuses on renowned Tokyo theater director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a melancholic middle-aged man whose screenwriter wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) is having an affair with her doll-faced TV star (Masaki Okada).

The film was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, tying the previous record for a Japanese-language film. (Provided: Potential Movies)

Hamaguchi’s precise directing here is so seemingly nonchalant that the credits for its title don’t play until after about 40 minutes, at which point the story jumped forward two years and a tragedy. We resume with a grief-stricken Yūsuke, who has accepted a two-month artist residency at a theater festival in Hiroshima, where he is to direct a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with an international troupe.

Yūsuke arrives in Hiroshima driving his trusty Saab, a now vintage car which he tends to with the level of affection normally reserved for an old friend, on whose tape recorder he listens to recordings of his wife reading lines from his plays .

So he’s a little shaken when a driver is tasked with driving him to and from the facility every day – in his own car. She’s Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura), an aloof 23-year-old runaway in Hokkaido in Chuck Taylors, who puffs on cigarettes like a young beatnik — or Winona Ryder’s tomboy taxi driver in Night on Earth — but whose recklessness belies a wisdom beyond his years.

Japanese man with dark hair and clothes stands looking at Japanese woman with teal cap and denim jacket;  a red car between them
“I started to think that there is no original. Everything is an adaptation,” Hamaguchi told Screen Slate.(Provided: Potential Movies)

Yūsuke’s reluctant acceptance of Misaki’s skillful conduct is sealed when he breaks a long silence to ask, “Could you play the tape?”

The film swings effortlessly between touching close-ups, patient long shots and lyrical imagery, such as the couple’s cigarettes held aloft in the car’s sunroof, glowing spikes in the night sky – all captured on film. cleanly by cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya with a simplicity that belies its elegance. order.

As the car crisscrosses the roads of the island, skirting a lush forest and the edge of the Setouchi sea, the atypical duo is slow to exchange words. She simply drops him off at rehearsals each morning; waits; then takes him home each night, while Yūsuke stares paralyzed out the window, his eyes betraying a deeply repressed well of sadness.

Ten people are seated around a square table working on a script.  The room is sparse, with a whiteboard in the background.
Hamaguchi invited Shinomiya to be his cinematographer after seeing And Your Bird Can Sing, which Shinomiya also shot.(Provided: Potential Movies)

Often the car is filled with the sound of Chekhov’s words on an endless loop, Oto’s voice a haunting reminder of Yūsuke’s difficult marriage and unspoken existential crisis, as well as the encroaching delay of theatrical production.

“Aren’t you sick of hearing that?” he asks Misaki when the tape starts again, a question that could be funnily extended to the audience.

But the words, and their delivery, are what electrifies Drive My Car, and Chekhov’s lines of play shift and morph with each new iteration.

“The text interrogates you,” Yūsuke says to one of his actors, in full slavery to his diabolical powers.

Shortly before, he declared: “Chekhov is terrifying. When you say his lines, it brings out the real you.
Two young Japanese men in dark clothes sit drinking whiskey in a warmly lit bar.
“I heard that [Murakami] appreciated [the film] through an article in the New York Times. But I still haven’t met him,” Hamaguchi told the LA Times.(Provided: Potential Movies)

The ineffable magic of performance is a cinematic well that has long been exploited by filmmakers like Jacques Rivette. As clear notions of reality crumble, life and art fade enchantingly.

Here, Misaki could be seen as Chekhov’s version of Sonya, a world-weary innocent who resists self-pity and slowly guides Yūsuke, a replacement for the desperate Vanya, into accepting the trials of life and find something like peace. .

The fact that all of this takes place against the backdrop of atomic-bombed Hiroshima, a city synonymous with suffering that can never be forgotten, subtly amplifies the emotional height.

This vagueness seems to be a private obsession of Hamaguchi. His characters are always engaged in a form of ambiguous role-playing; in his groundbreaking ensemble piece Happy Hour (2015), the lookalike drama Asako I & II (2018) and his phenomenal 2021 triptych Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (due in theaters in March), deception and mistaken identities abound.

Drive My Car is a less experimental, more classically emotional, and seemingly “major” offering than those films. It’s also – not coincidentally – the first of Hamaguchi’s films to find significant favor outside of the festival circuit, having already picked up a trunk full of awards (including three at the Cannes Film Festival) en route to his multiple Oscar nominations.

Like so many professional loners, Yūsuke and Misaki are drawn to each other by a kind of silent, mutual respect – highly skilled craftsmen who cling to their work to accomplish each day.

A Japanese man with cropped dark hair sits in the back seat of the car and watches, while a young Japanese woman wearing a blue shirt drives.
“Acting is a mysterious thing, a fiction. But when [it] is superb, it becomes something beyond fiction,” Hamaguchi told the LA Times.(Provided: Potential Movies)

But their rapport evolves into something deeper as the backyard chatter increases, especially after Misaki drives him to one of his favorite places on the island, a drug processing facility. imposing rubbish where she stops to admire the falling rubbish: “Isn’t it a bit like snow?”

It’s in those rare moments that Yūsuke and Misaki are each able to find a listening ear and open up about their own painful pasts.

The film majestically balances chilling restraint with sheer outbursts of emotion, digging deep into the souls of the characters.

Like much of Hamaguchi’s work, Drive My Car deeply understands the fickleness of fate, lives marked by freak accidents and chance relationships. No real conversation can bring Yūsuke’s loved ones back, but – to paraphrase Lennon and McCartney’s urtext – he found a driver, and that’s a start.

Drive My Car is currently in theaters.

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