Of all the surprises that Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Murakami adaptation Drive My Car holds, perhaps the most shocking is that it isn’t even his only film of 2021 – Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy premiered in Berlin in March, a few months before Drive My Car’s Cannes debut. This truly feels like a director, for better or worse, making a self-consciously ‘major’ film, all long-buried feelings and twilight revelations and deep literary discussions; a film that should take years out of an auteur’s schedule. At a full three hours, it can be quite a slog, but there are some rich rewards for your patience as the story slowly unlocks.
Much like Lee Chang-dong’s Burning from 2018, Drive My Car takes a Haruki Murakami short story and turns into a quiet modern epic, charting at first a relationship between two artists before shifting into a study of grief and self-inflicted misery. At the heart of both strands is Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nisijima), an innovative theatre director who has suddenly found that life is asking him hard questions about himself, questions he may not have the answer to. His TV-writer wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) seems to still love him – she can only come up with her strange and haunting stories during their post-coital embraces – but she’s cheating on him, and not doing a good job hiding it.
Then, just as it seems the cuckolded Kafuku might finally be ready for the confrontation that is due with Oto, he comes home to her corpse, struck down by a sudden brain aneurysm. At this point, Drive My Car jumps forward two years, with Kafuku given a residency in Hiroshima to put on a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya in his patented style of each actor speaking their native language (in this case a combination of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Sign Language). Strangely, Kafuku doesn’t take the lead role, instead opting to gift it to a young but slightly disgraced actor Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), who he strongly suspects of having been his late wife’s lover.
It’s an act that takes some unpacking – is it an acceptance of his wife’s infidelity or a strange auto-torture – and it’s in these difficult psychological deep dives that Drive My Car makes its home. It can be very demanding, Hamaguchi making full use of the mammoth runtime to explore every nook and cranny of Kafuku’s mind as he goes about his samey day-to-day routine of rehearsing with his cast and reciting Uncle Vanya lines during his hour-ish drive to and from his hotel. This latter touch is a perhaps overegged detail, with Kafuku saying things like ‘you’re my foe, my sworn enemy’ either to a recording of his wife, or to no one but himself, his life and art clanging together.
Driving him – in his own car due to some rather particular rules laid down by the residency program – is a boyish and initially affectless young woman, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), an expert driver who also seems to have an uncanny ability to unlock Kafuku with her silences and subtly probing questions. The pair’s growing relationship, part professional, part father-daughter, is Drive My Car’s most immediately rewarding throughline, as Kafuku starts requesting longer drives just so he can spend more time with Misaki and fill the parenting void he finds within himself.
Outside of this emotional centre, though, there is a hell of a lot of more purely intellectual stuff to wade through, especially during the seemingly endless rehearsals. Though there are some nice little touches for attentive viewers – bonds between the different cast members forming in the backgrounds of scenes – you do really feel the three hours, and there aren’t enough in the way of showstopper scenes to tide you over, the lack of urgency weighing heavy.
It’s a particular shame as, when they do arrive, these centrepiece sequences are fantastic, especially one absolutely astonishing scene in the back of Kafuku’s car where he finally asks Takatsuki the questions about his wife that have been burning in his brain. It’s a transformative moment in the film, made indelible by an incredible piece of performance from Okada, who switches on a dime from the role of an apparently awestruck fanboy into an almost-monstrous level of power and control over the conversation. Streetlights whizz past as Takatsuki’s manner takes on a vampiric hue, and you find yourself utterly glued to the screen.
Yet even the power of this moment fades as you realise just how long Drive My Car still has to go and, as the ending drags on and on, you may find yourself checking your watch with increasing frequency. Making a film both this long and this quiet is a huge gamble, and credit to Hamaguchi for taking it on, but the barrier to entry here is just too high for any wholehearted recommendation.