Have you ever leveraged your passion for personal distraction? If you have, fate may still dictate that you face what’s ailing you. In Drive My Car, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi explores how recklessly we treat our personal wounds. The story revolves around Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a former TV writer and actor turned playwright who tasks himself with adapting the Russian play Uncle Vanya (by Anton Chekhov) for a multilingual audience. He assumes a residency in Hiroshima, Japan, to put the play together, uniting a unique group of actors and collaborators. But Kafuku is slightly annoyed with the arrangement, as it is the policy for the organizers of the residency to provide a driving service for their visitors. This means Kafuku is forced to be driven to and from work by a solemn young driver named Watari (Tōko Miura). Despite his objection to being driven around by a woman he doesn’t know, this arrangement will end up having fruitful consequences.
While Kafuku is in Hiroshima for his career, he’s running away from the ghosts of the past. But ghosts have a funny way of finding you, such as when a star actor ends up auditioning for the play. Kafuku has a history with the down-on-his-luck thespian, causing a conflict of interest that will test his moral standing. As the anguish from his past, namely the tragic end to his marriage, continues to mount – so does the pressure of putting the play together. It’s his stern direction that makes his actors uneasy. When telling his leads to simply read what’s on the page, insisting the interpretation is plain as day in the dialogue chosen, one actor pushes back: “We’re not robots. And I think we’ll do better if we know what your intent is.” She’s correct, but what that actor doesn’t know is to know Kafuku’s intent is to discover the wounds of lost love that he’s trying so desperately to hide.
The film is a tale of two unlikely acquaintances seemingly separated by a large age gap but afflicted by similarly traumatic events. Kafuku as the middle-aged writer, shunned from his career in TV, unable to face the difficult questions surrounding the end of his relationship. However, when we meet Watari, she seems to be his antithesis – a fresh-faced young woman with no emotional baggage. That last part couldn’t be further from the truth, as we’ll learn. While their arrangement is strictly platonic, there is a level of codependency that sets in. She takes him where he needs to go, and he worries if she’s hungry or when she’s been out in the cold too long.
But the real icebreaker is when Watari deduces aspects of Kafuku’s past by virtue of the method he chooses to memorize his scripts. He utilizes a recording during his car rides, essentially reciting lines back to the recording to practice his performance. This is the excuse he uses when he initially refuses the driving service, that he needs to drive himself in order to rehearse – incredibly flimsy since he can just rehearse while she’s in the car. But his protest belies a hidden desire to remain independent.
The film is a dialogue-heavy, pensive tale about fate, religion, memories, and what is waiting in the afterlife. The cinematography refrains from being showy, although there are some strikingly calming shots within tunnels and on a water bank. The film’s depiction of show business is not bombastic in any way. There’s a mundane quality to how the performers live their daily lives. Yet Kafuku, like many artists, has a diva-like quality to him that he’ll have to overcome. Part of that evolution comes when he gives a deaf actor a chance to audition when it initially seems like she’s not right for the part. He’s learning ever so slowly.
It’s difficult to talk about what troubles our three lead characters without getting into spoilers, but their method of response to their trauma will determine what becomes of each person. Kafuku and Watari are facing how their own actions may have directly caused the tragedies they’re recovering from. Meanwhile, Kōji (Masaki Okada) is a famous actor who has fallen from grace. He seeks out Kafuku as a measure to find himself and to hold on to a past love. In this way, the story resembles something like an elevated soap opera about romance, betrayal, and recovery.
There is constant discussion in the play, and in the characters’ lives, about karmic fate. One actor espouses, “Those who survive, keep thinking about the dead.” This quote applies to multiple characters in the story. It leads into the film’s philosophy about how we will be judged in heaven. But the movie is hopeful, trusting that the higher power may forgive us.
Perhaps we won’t earn that until we forgive ourselves. In order to do so, the movie argues we should avoid the trap of allowing our escapism to swallow us. Kafuku’s failure to escape this abyss, instead of facing his reality, is why he believes he is guilty of how his life has turned out. In creating new connections, he ends up freeing his soul from this trap and takes the first step to true redemption. But Kafuku’s redemption needs to be achieved with the help of others, allowing those around him to steer part of the ride, whether it’s your actors arguing for their self-worth and ability to convey the play’s intent or the surrogate daughter who drives you around because you need the emotional support. It comes together in the closing scene of the play, an excellent example of nonverbal communication that allows the movie’s themes to coalesce. This is a film for drama lovers who enjoy flawed individuals just talking about their issues, hopes, dreams, and what they’ve learned. If that’s your bag, this will be a great ride.