Note: Some early plot points that could be considered spoilers are discussed in this review.
I have no idea if this is a mere coincidence, or a reflection of some deeper artistic movement going on in East Asian cinema, that we’ve now seen two short stories from the iconic Japanese author Haruki Murakami that were, as far as I can gather, relatively obscure in the context of his prodigious body of work, adapted into epic-length dramas achieving international critical acclaim upon release. Much like Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car has a number of remarkable formal accomplishments and boasts one scene that leaves such a striking impression that it threatens to overwhelm the rest of the movie.
And similarly to Burning, I find myself not entirely confident of how I ultimately feel about it as a whole. So much of Drive My Car is about as carefully-constructed and emotionally resonant as any release I’ve watched in 2021, while several significant stretches of this movie’s three-hour runtime comes off… at no point is it ever “bad,” but sometimes so austere in deploying its internalized character beats and conspicuously low-stakes setup to flex seemingly every possible angle on Murakami’s distinctive prose and then use that as a gateway into commentary of Anton Chekov’s writing in multiple life-imitating-art scenarios, that I can’t help but wonder if Hamaguchi’s multivalent ambitions constructed a film more unwieldy than it needed to be.
In a forty-minute prologue, we are introduced to theatre director and actor Yūsuke Kafuku and his screenwriter wife Oto. Their marriage is an unusual one; with the wife seemingly brainstorming her story ideas mid-coitus, marital infidelity that he is unambiguously aware of, and an unspoken tension having to do with their only daughter dying of pneumonia (though we do not learn this for a while). This troubled union comes to an end when Oto dies of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Then we see the opening credits and the widowed Kafuku accepting a two-month residency at a theater program in Hiroshima. They’ve hired him to cast and direct a production of Uncle Vanya in his apparently trademark multi-lingual format, with a curious point of insistence – they will provide him remote housing an hour’s drive away from the theatre as he requested (as he uses those lengthy commutes to rehearse via cassette tapes provided by his late wife, and no, this will not be the last thematically-loaded coping mechanism we’re introduced to), but he must be accompanied by a professional driver to and from rehearsals.
From there, Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe go all-in on exploring language across nationalities and even physical ability as a means to express concepts, feelings, and tempos across diverse vocabularies. Much of their writing is devoted to the intersection between Chekhov’s ideas and how they resonate with the lives of these characters and the contrasting philosophies of the actors having to figure out how to interact with each other across lingual barriers; enthusiasts of Chekhov will likely find much joy in dissecting the myriad references to the playwright’s body of work. One of Oto’s extramarital paramours, a young up-and-coming actor named Kōji Takatsuki, shows up to audition, and he’s unexpectedly cast in the lead role; which leads to its own substantial subplot involving the fraught interactions between him and Kafuku as a means to come to some form of understanding of a woman they were both in love with. Kafuku’s driver, Misaki Watari, slowly opens up as well, revealing her own unprocessed grief over the death of someone with which she shared unresolved conflicts and resentments.
Just one of these plot threads would be enough to sustain a narrative feature on their own, and Hamaguchi decided, for better and for worse, to weave all of them together into a single unified epic clocking in one minute longer than The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Which is a heavy lift under the best of circumstances; when you’re working with so much capital-M Movie in your movie, the odds of not all of it being pulled off equally well in combination rise exponentially. While I cannot possibly find anything to complain about in Hamaguchi’s elegant mise-en-scène, precision of cuts, probing dialogue, and moving performances (especially from Hidetoshi Nishijima) in all of the imposing array of plotlines and character beats and conceptual implications, I can’t shake the feeling that the finished film could have gotten by without tackling all of them with equal weight.
To take just one example of the film’s ambition exceeding its execution: in the prologue, Kafuku gets into a car accident and learns from the doctor examining his injuries that his eyes are suffering from the earliest stages of glaucoma. Though this adds to the general emotional throughline of silently enduring losses with age, this never tangibly factors into the story when he arrives in Hiroshima, even when it would theoretically make perfect sense for it to come up again. One of the most unsettlingly effective scenes is a dolly shot of an uncomfortable and invasive audition badly misjudged by the man playing the scene, but it doesn’t inform that character’s arc nearly as substantially as a brief, borderline throwaway bar confrontation later in the movie.
This a very negative tone in a review of an otherwise smart, poignant movie. Put aside these relatively minor nitpicks, and you still have something with by far the most dramatic, emotional, and conceptual ambition of any movie released in 2021, and its climax – which I will not spoil here – is probably the most dramatically powerful single scene of any movie I have watched all year. If that one absolutely masterful penultimate scene was the result of a three-hour drama that occasionally bites off more than it can chew, that’s a tradeoff I am more than willing to endorse.