Sunday, December 24, 2023

Drive My Car

Ryusuke Hamaguchi: Drive My Car / ドライブ・マイ・カー (JP 2021) with Hidetoshi Nishijima (Yusuke Kafuku), Toko Miura (Misaki Watari) and a Saab 900 Turbo sedan.

AA: The best Chekhov movie I have seen.

The buzz about Drive My Car has been good since Cannes 2021. It has appeared on best of the year lists and it is already being mentioned on best of the century lists. I am happy to join the club.

Since the first shots there is a compelling intensity which the director Ryusuke Hamaguchi sustains for the duration of the three hour movie.

We meet an artist couple, the actor turned director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and the television screenwriter Oto Kafuku (Reika Kirishima). (The name Kafuku seems to be a reference to Kafka). They work together and inspire each other. Oto reads on compact cassettes plays for which Yusuke is preparing, leaving out his dialogue, such as that of Uncle Vanya. Yusuke's favourite way of preparation is listening to Oto's tapes and rehearsing while driving his car.

It's not just any car. It's a 15 year old red Saab 900 Turbo sedan, a Swedish-Finnish car, with manual transmission, manufactured for demanding climate conditions in four seasons. Yusuke is reluctant to let anyone else drive it, including Oto. The car's smooth driving qualities seem to inspire his playing and directing.

The movie is based on the eponymous short story in Haruko Murakami's Men Without Women plus two other stories in the collection. The first 40 minutes are a "prequel" inspired by the story "Scheherazade". Making love, Oto's climax liberates her to tell stories, which she forgets but Yusuke recalls and relays back to her. In her half-dream state Oto senses that she is sea creature, a lamprey. She has also a recurrent story about a secret love during high school.

The Kafukus have been devastated by the death of their two year old daughter almost two decades ago. Suddenly, Oto dies of brain hemorrhage. After the funeral, the doubly devastated Yusuke is no longer able to perform as Uncle Vanya, but he accepts an assignment to direct a multilingual production of the play in Hiroshima. The actors don't understand each other's languages (Japanese, Mandarin, English, Korean Sign Language) but during a patient rehearsal process they create a powerful performance, equipped with electronic surtitles in many languages.

In Hiroshima, Yusuke, a good driver, is banned from driving, because a previous guest had caused a lethal traffic accident. Reluctantly, he accepts a driver, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a young woman, who turns out to be the better driver. Grudgingly, Yusuke confesses that her driving is so smooth that he does not even notice. At first, they don't communicate, because Yusuke focuses on listening to Oto's Uncle Vanya audiotape, now doubly valuable because of the presence of the voice of the woman lost. Yusuke is increasingly spellbound by Chekhov and inhibited to perform, because the play gets too deep and demanding.

In Hiroshima, the hot shot Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) is cast as Uncle Vanya. He had been introduced to Yusuke by Oto, and unbeknownst to both, Yusuke knew they were lovers. Koji can barely control his sex drive, and he has been punished for interfering with minors. Koji cannot stand paparazzi, and when he beats one brutally, the photographer dies. Before going to jail, Koji reveals to Yusuke something about Oto he did not know. With his Uncle Vanya in jail, Yusuke has two days to make up his mind: to call the whole thing off or accept the role of Uncle Vanya himself. 

He needs a retreat, and Misaki offers to take him to Hokkaido, her home ground. Because she is a superb driver, she can make it on time from Hiroshima to Hokkaido without sleeping. During the trip, Yusuke learns about Misaki's secret, her childhood with a brutal mother whom she had to drive twice a day so smoothly that she could sleep. A few years ago, her mother has died in a landslide. Misaki found her way to Hiroshima as a driver, because that was the only thing she knew.

An unexpected emotional connection opens between the withdrawn protagonists Yusuke and Misaki who confess each other their hidden pain. This is no May-September romance. Instead, a surrogate father-daughter relationship, Misaki taking the place of Yusuke's lost daughter, who would be of the same age if alive.

Having been overwhelmed by Uncle Vanya during his period of crisis, Yusuko has now grown to accept the challenge again.

The central soundtrack is the taped Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya dialogue read by Oto and complemented by Yusuke reciting the title role. The dialogue resonates in multiple ways. The result is both a true Chekhov performance and a tribute.

The title is a tribute to the 1965 Beatles song. For copyright reasons, the song was not available, and I think the movie is stronger for it. I feel so also for personal reasons. Rubber Soul and the related "Day Tripper" / "We Can Work It Out" single belong to my foundational pop treasures. They made sense to me and they helped make sense of me. Hearing them in this movie would throw it off balance for me.

Instead, the love music consists of Mozart (Rondo D Major, KV 485) and Beethoven (3. String Quartet, D Major, Op. 18 No. 3).

Gorgeously shot on many locations by Hidetoshi Shinomiya, he and Ryusuke Hamaguchi turn Chekhov's chamber play into an original road movie. Might Drive My Car have inspired Wim Wenders in Perfect Days?

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