Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
The credits in Drive My Car take place over 40 minutes into the three hour movie, following a prologue about a man and his wife, until she dies suddenly, quietly. So suddenly, in fact, that it’s like she simply vanished. Her absence looms large over the remainder of the film, particularly as she still exists, in memory, stories and in a recorded reading of a script that her husband listens to as he drives to work.
He is Yusuke Kafuku, a theater director and actor. She was Oto, a screenwriter who generated her story ideas in an orgasmic trance and enlisted her partner (usually but not always her husband) to remember these ideas, transcribe them and read them back to her the next day. One of these stories is at the heart of Drive My Car. We listen to Oto come up with the idea in the first scene of the film. Later, after she dies, Kafuku never learns the ending, not until an actor (Takatsuki) with whom Oto had an affair explains it to him, perhaps not the entire story but the parts Oto generated with Takatsuki’s help.
This conversation takes place in the vivid red car that Kafuku takes to and from work every day. It’s part of his routine, a way to prepare for the day and decompress once it’s done. It’s where he listens to Oto’s taped reading of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya and fills in the blanks with his own character’s lines. That character is one he’s played many, many times, and the lines he recites with a monotonous familiarity, stripped of emotion. It’s not unlike the character himself, how he interacts with the world, the people in it and his own tortured feelings. Everything is kept at a distance, so distant in fact that we never quite know what drives him. He is as much a ghost as his late wife.
Two years after Oto’s death (and following the credit sequence 40 minutes in), Kafuku is hired for an eight week residency in Hiroshima, to cast, rehearse and stage Uncle Vanya. When Takatsuki’s headshot appears among the other hopeful actors, Kafuku casts him, despite his young age, in the role of Uncle Vanya, the role everyone expected him to play.
Well we really have no idea. Kafuku doesn’t approach the man with whom his late wife had an affair with any animosity, instead perhaps just a cold ambivalence, seen in how he critiques Takatsuki’s line readings, ordering him to avoid any inflection. He just wants the entire cast to read the script, as another actors suggests, like robots.
Otherwise Kafuku treats Takatsuki like any of the other actors, keeping a professional distance and only engaging with him one Takatsuki takes the lead, inviting him out for a drink, then asking for a ride back to his hotel (where the conversation about Oto’s story takes place).
This story is certainly about grief, not only Kafuku’s and even Takatsuki’s, but also that of Kafuku’s driver, Watari, who lost her mother in a mudslide five years previous.
Through conversations with Takatsuki, Kafuku seems to learn more about his late wife and even about himself. Through Watari he experiences someone else’s grief, or at least glimpses it, and recognizes that he’s not alone. Much of the film, and these explorations of the ways the memories of the dead live with us, take place in Kafuku’s red car, on quiet drives to and from the theater. These drives exist almost like a confessional, or really something out of this world. And through these conversations something is unsettled within Kufuku, something that needed to be unsettled. He begins to come back to life, expressing a mix of emotions from guilt and shame to anger and confusion directed towards Oto. He learns to express himself, perhaps, but also to listen. Maybe he just learns how to be present.
The whole story, then, has the feel of some sort of purgatory or way station, almost out of time and space.
Why does this movie work? You know, assuming for you it does. It’s a long, slow movie that I found riveting. If you boil the story down to its basics, it’s about infidelity, career, self-expression, guilt and regret. And since the ‘hook’ of the story involves a man keeping close the man who slept with his wife, well there is a melodramatic angle here. So could this be considered a melodrama? Maybe one steeped in molasses?
It seems to turn into one as the movie pushes along, as those repressed or unseen feelings bubble to the surface. And so I wonder if a movie like this, at its great length, works with the rhythms and structure of melodrama, just drawn out to not just insist upon the emotion but allow you to find your own way to it.