there’s a list as long as an epic poem
of folks who’ll swear a poem has never done
a thing for them…except…perhaps adjust
the sunset view one cloudy afternoon,
which made them see themselves or see the world
in a different light—degrees of change so small
only a poem registers them at all.
—Julia Alvarez, “Poetry Makes Nothing Happen?”
In the morning, I usually take an Uber or Lyft to work. During the drive, I prefer to sit quietly and mentally prepare for the long day ahead of me. Unfortunately, the drivers often have other ideas. There’s the chatty driver, who wants to tell me his entire life story, even though I never said a word. There’s the nosy driver who asks way too many questions, each more uncomfortable than the last. And then there’s the driver who plays his music too loud, and, good Lord, even sings along. Just the other day, I had a driver who launched into an impassioned monologue about Freemasons, calling them Satanists but also admitting that he still might try to join.
On a more serious note, the drivers that give me the biggest headache are the ones who don’t know anything about the city and would be lost without GPS—thus, their driving requires constant attention lest they take a wrong turn that makes me late for work. The absolute worst driver I’ve had got so impatient with the typical morning traffic that he decided to bypass the cones and enter the wrong lane—as morning commuters accelerated toward us. Clearly, I am putting my life in these drivers’ hands.
In a way, we do the same thing every time we sit down to watch a movie. Our life isn’t at stake, but our mental health might as well be. After all, we don’t really know where the filmmaker is going to take us or how they’re going to get there. Yes, we can watch trailers and read reviews from critics we trust, but that method isn’t always foolproof: all the real-life drivers I just complained about probably had four- and five-star reviews.
When it comes to films, there are so many different types of ‘rides.’ Sometimes the ride is exhilarating, slow, or perhaps even a car crash. Whether you go to a movie theater or sit in front of your television, the act of watching most films is intended to be a fun leisure activity. It’s supposed to offer a sense of escapism, or at least a necessary distraction to pass the time from the tedium—or horror—of real life. But even the most innocuous film can absolutely wreck us.
One movie that took me completely off guard was Pixar’s Up. As I sat down in a darkened theater in the summer of 2009, I thought I was just taking my mother to see a nice Disney movie. I did not expect the opening sequence to reduce me to a blubbering mess. Maybe you had a different viewing experience. Perhaps you sat stone-faced during Up, and now you’re wondering how a cartoon montage with characters I’d only just met could elicit such a dramatic reaction. But even if Up didn’t affect you emotionally, I’m sure that some movie, somewhere, hit you where you are most vulnerable. And you didn’t even see it coming.
When the Hawaii International Film Festival announced their 2021 lineup, I was excited to discover that they’d be showing Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, which adapts Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name. In fact, I bought my tickets the moment HIFF made them available. I’ve been a longtime reader of Murakami’s work and had become a relatively new fan of Hamaguchi’s mesmerizing film Asako I & II, so watching this movie seemed like a no-brainer. By this point, Drive My Car had already built up quite the reputation: it was released at the Cannes Film Festival to much critical acclaim, taking home three awards including Best Screenplay.
Despite my desire to watch the film, I had some reservations. It wasn’t the content that I was worried about; it was the length. The prospect of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime seemed a bit daunting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still the same person who watched all three Lord of the Rings extended editions multiple times during various holidays, the same person who went to the theater for the big-screen revival of Lawrence of Arabia when he could have easily put on the Blu-ray at home, and, yes, the same person who watched The Irishman in one sitting and wondered why everyone was complaining. But since the pandemic started, I have to admit that my energy, my attention span, and even my ability to invest in a sustained narrative has waned considerably. I still watch movies and TV shows and maybe play the occasional video game, but even those leisure activities sometimes seem a bit too involved.
So, in my spare time, after a hard day of teaching, I’ve fallen into the curious habit of watching YouTube. I subscribe to different types of channels, but for the longest time, I have been aimlessly watching 4K walking tours of Tokyo, Osaka, and other places I intended to visit until COVID scrambled everyone’s international travel plans. If you add on top of my viewing pastimes the work-related eyestrain of attending various Zoom meetings and grading stacks of virtual papers on an iPad, it seems obvious that my life, like those of many others, has become entirely dominated by screens. The fatigue, both physical and emotional, is real.
Since the onset of the pandemic, I have become very selective about what movies I watch. I may be the same guy who enjoys long movies, but I’m sorry to say that the young man who would devour every single Hong Kong film he could get his hands on regardless of quality no longer exists. The eager cinephile who would fill gaps in his movie knowledge by checking out five rentals for $0.49 from Hastings every weekend is no more. Even the man who, just a few years ago, watched as many movies as humanly possible at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas seems to have left the building. In his place is me—an adult who must be a bit choosier—not just in respect to time and energy, but to the quality of the viewing experience. A bad movie was easy to shake off when I was younger. Now, it’s a calculated risk. How will I feel after it’s over? How will the movie affect the person I’m watching it with? And thus, how will it alter the rest of my night? Can I trust the movie to take me on a ride I’ll enjoy?
With Drive My Car, I shouldn’t have been worried. While I’m sure your mileage will vary, I found myself fully immersed from the very first scene. There’s no world-shaking conflict at stake, no pulse-pounding thrills, and—despite its title—not a single high-speed car chase. And yet, it somehow provided me with the kind of escapism I had been craving, albeit not of the traditional sort. The film allowed me a glimpse into something else, something far more rare. It’s something that Hamaguchi, who also co-wrote the film, said to The New York Times when talking about the challenges of adapting Murakami: “the mystery that’s inside any human being.” In my review of the film for Far East Films, I wrote, “the experience of watching Drive My Car was so smooth that I forgot all about the three-hour runtime, the other people in the theater, or the very fact that I was watching a movie at all. I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.” While that review covers a lot of ground, what I hope to offer here is a focused discussion of what Hamaguchi’s film says about art—the act of creating it, and perhaps, by proxy, the consequences of consuming it.
Drive My Car actually draws upon three short stories in Murakami’s 2014 collection, Men Without Women. It takes its title and overall plot from the same-titled “Drive My Car,” but it also deftly incorporates elements of “Kino” and “Scheherazade” to craft a film about artifice, storytelling, and performance. The film is, in many ways, about the necessary fictions we tell ourselves to keep going in the face of a difficult truth, the thinly veiled fictions we construct to communicate what cannot be said, and the fictional worlds we inhabit as both artists and viewers that affect us deeply, often beyond our control. Drive My Car is a thoughtful meditation on the power of art—how it changes us, how it hurts us, and perhaps how it can even heal us.
The opening section of Drive My Car centers on the life of Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima). Both characters are artists: he works in theater as an actor and director, while she writes for television. As with their literary counterparts, the pair endured the painful loss of their only child. In the film, the daughter is quite a bit older than the three-day-old baby in Murakami’s short story, but the emotional fallout is the same. After a long, dark detour into an underworld of grief, Kafuku and Oto have emerged into the light a much stronger couple, or at least that’s how things appear on the surface.
For this section of the film, Hamaguchi borrows liberally from “Kino” to create a pivotal event in the lives of the couple. In “Kino,” the title character comes home from a business trip a day early and discovers his wife having sex with his best friend. Likewise, in Drive My Car, Kafuku bids his wife goodbye as he heads for Narita Airport, only to return early when his flight to Vladivostok is canceled due to inclement weather. Like Kino before him, Kafuku stumbles upon a shocking scene: Oto having sex with another man—in this case, a handsome young actor named Kôji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). In both “Kino” and Drive My Car, the cuckolded husband quietly flees the scene without saying a word. But whereas Kino quits his job, leaves his wife, and splits town to open up a bar, Kafuku simply pretends that he saw nothing and carries on with his life, business as usual.
Upon returning from Vladivostok a week later, Kafuku gets in a traffic accident on the drive home from the airport. At the hospital, his doctor diagnoses him with glaucoma. While his literal blindspot has metaphorical implications, it doesn’t really have anything to do with Kafuku’s failure to see clues of his wife’s infidelity. As a point of comparison, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) uses the metaphor of vision to emphasize how Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) completely misreads the mystery at the heart of the film. Here, it’s more that Kafuku is unseeing of a hidden aspect of his wife’s personality; although frustrated, he is more than willing to play the role of the happy husband. When Oto asks to speak to Kafuku after work, it’s implied that she will confess everything and thus give him the chance to confront the secret in their marriage head-on. However, unbeknownst to the audience, he balks at the opportunity.
Towards the end of the film, Kafuku reveals that he purposely delayed coming home to avoid the conversation. By the time he arrives, Oto has died of a cerebral hemorrhage. In the short story, she dies of uterine cancer, and the decline is gradual. Here, her death is sudden—and for good reason. Although Hamaguchi doesn’t spell this out in the film, the switch to a cerebral hemorrhage suggests—and I know this is probably not a medically sound diagnosis—that perhaps the guilt over her infidelity became too much for her brain to take. It’s reminiscent of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, when Suyuan Woo dies of a cerebral aneurysm, and her husband suggests that “she was killed by her own thoughts.” And so, Kafuku will never know what she intended to tell him. His decision to play pretend—to take on the role of the dutiful, clueless husband—was a poor acting choice. Kafuku attempted to maintain the necessary fiction of a happy marriage to avoid a head-on collision with the truth, but the results were even more disastrous.
In the film’s opening scene, Oto narrates a bizarre, erotic tale of a high school girl, all while in bed with Kafuku. As we soon learn, sex is the catalyst for Oto’s creative process. After making love with her husband, she will tell him an idea for a television show, and Kafuku will dutifully listen, reminding her of the story the following morning. None of this is in the original Murakami short story. Hamaguchi and his co-screenwriter, Takamasa Oe, lift this scenario directly from “Scheherazade,” which centers on Habara, a possible recluse (a phenomenon known as hikikomori in Japan), who is regularly visited by an unnamed woman. Each time she arrives, the woman provides him with food, supplies, and even sex. After they make love, “Scheherazade,” as Habara calls her, will tell him a story, hence the reference to One Thousand and One Nights. The episodic tale that Scheherazade tells Habara is almost identical to the one that Oto describes to Kafuku in Drive My Car: a young girl sneaks into the home of her high school crush, stealing trivial items from his room and replacing them with things of her own, each day escalating her behavior at an alarming rate. Scheherazade’s version of the story ends inconclusively, and so does Oto’s—at least, we think so.
After Oto’s death in the film’s extended prologue, the story picks up two years later with Kafuku staging a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Oto’s former lover shows up for the audition hoping to play a supporting character, but Kafuku casts him as the titular Vanya instead. In the two years since we’ve last seen him, Takatsuki’s acting career has been derailed by a sex scandal, so he comes to Hiroshima to get back on track. Takatsuki recognizes immediately that he is unsuited for the role of Vanya, but Kafuku strangely insists that the young actor is the right man for the job. From that point forward, the two form an uneasy, sometimes adversarial master-apprentice relationship.
Later in the film, Takatsuki reveals a startling truth: Oto’s unfinished story actually has an ending. According to Takatsuki, an intruder breaks into the house when the girl is inside. As he attempts to rape her, she kills him with a knife in self-defense, fleeing the house immediately afterward. Ready to confess the truth the following day, the girl is alarmed to discover that her crush seems absolutely fine; there’s not a single thing about his behavior that would suggest a dead body had been found in his home. After school, she returns to the scene of the crime, only to find that the house looks basically the same, albeit with two significant alterations: a security camera has been installed, and the house key she found in the potted plant has been removed. By story’s end, the whereabouts of the intruder’s body remain a mystery, and the girl’s role in his death is never exposed.
You don’t have to have a PhD in psychology to recognize that Oto’s episodic tale of erotic compulsion and unpunished guilt was likely her way of communicating—whether consciously or not—her own feelings about her infidelity. She cannot express any of this in a straightforward manner to her husband, as perhaps she too wants to preserve the veneer of a happy marriage. Like Kafuku, she may also be worried that bringing her indiscretions into the light would destroy everything they have built together. But the guilt weighs on Oto, and her only outlet is art—in this case, storytelling. Oto says it’s an idea for a TV drama, but that’s just a cover story. Takatsuki’s big reveal also has implications beyond its metaphorical content—and serves as another twist of the knife into Kafuku’s side. If Takatsuki knows the end of the story, then that means he slept with Oto on the day of her death, as Kafuku had heard the previous installment only the night before. Sex is what inspires her writing, and there is no final chapter to her story without sex. If Kafuku had returned home early, he might have caught his wife and Takatsuki in flagrante delicto once more. But, more importantly, if he had simply arrived when Oto expected him, then perhaps she would have confessed in full. Unfortunately, she never gets the opportunity, so this episodic story about a young high school girl—this thinly veiled piece of fiction about Oto herself—will have to suffice as the sole vehicle for her confession.
In the short story “Drive My Car,” the third-person narrator mentions that Kafuku is starring in a Meiji-era adaptation of Uncle Vanya, and the film greatly expands on this element, creating a play-within-a-play structure that amplifies the metaphor of performance to comment on the power of art. When Kafuku arrives in Hiroshima, the theater company expects him to play the part of Vanya himself, but he demurs. When Takatsuki says that he should take over the role, Kafuku responds, “Chekhov is terrifying. When you say his lines, it drags out the real you. Don’t you feel it? I can’t bear that anymore.” For Kafuku, acting is so much more than just playing pretend.
It’s perhaps ironic that I’ve used driving metaphors throughout this essay and never once commented on the significance of the film’s title. When Kafuku meets an official from the Hiroshima Arts and Cultural Theater, he is shocked to learn that he won’t be allowed to drive his own car, a beautiful red Saab 900 Turbo. Apparently, a previous artist-in-residence ran someone over, so to avoid another PR nightmare, the theater company enlists the chauffeur services of Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura). Kafuku is irritated because, even when he’s directing, he likes to go over the script in the car. In fact, he secured lodging an hour away from the theater for the express purpose of running lines. The presence of a driver in the same car with him as he recites the script aloud could very well hinder his creative process.
Nevertheless, on these long rides to the theater every morning, he listens to hours of rehearsal tapes that his late wife recorded for him; she provides the dialogue for the other characters, complete with pauses that are perfectly timed to Kafuku’s own rhythms as an actor. While we don’t have access to his internal thoughts, we can see—just by Kafuku’s facial expressions—that the creative process is taking a toll on him. As Hamaguchi himself said in an interview with Isaac Feldberg, “The lines that are being said for Uncle Vanya are really expressing the feelings of Kafuku, his emotions, that being that he’s living a life that he didn’t want to have, but it’s the life that he has to live.” As a director of the play, Kafuku is certainly a participant in the creation of art, but the act of listening each day also makes him a consumer of it.
Drive My Car highlights how art sometimes forces us to confront difficult truths, ones that we would normally avoid, as Kafuku does in regard to his wife’s infidelity. When Takatsuki unceremoniously exits the production, Kafuku has no choice but to save the day and reprise the role of Uncle Vanya. However, the role has the potential of exacting a high emotional cost, as Kafuku’s feelings of guilt, disappointment, and jealousy—all long ignored, misplaced, and suppressed—will have the opportunity to bubble to the surface. And yet, there is a silver lining; through the artifice of performance, Kafuku can allow himself to be vulnerable and thus access a deeper truth about himself. Only someone with an intimate knowledge of Kafuku’s life would even suspect the correlation between fiction and fact. For most of the theatergoers in attendance, it’s all just pretend—even if his performance moves them personally.
In the lead-up to this climactic scene, one has to wonder how Kafuku will face this acting challenge: will the role of Vanya be a vehicle for catharsis? Or will it destroy him? I guess you’ll have to be the judge of that. When it comes to Kafuku’s part in the story, the film does not provide him with an epilogue; we can only sit attentively and watch his performance. Despite being both the play’s director and lead actor, and thus seemingly having some kind of control over the art he is creating, Kafuku is also just a passenger. He may be intimately familiar with the car that is Uncle Vanya, but he’s not quite sure where Chekhov will take him—and neither are we.
There is so much more to Drive My Car than what I’ve discussed here. I have spoken very little of Misaki, the driver who forms an unlikely friendship with Kafuku. Aside from Takatsuki, I have said nothing of the Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Filipino actors that make up the cast of Uncle Vanya. Nor have I said anything about Lee Yoon-a (Park Yoo-rim), a Deaf actress who communicates in sign language and has a compelling secret of her own. These are all things I will leave you to discover for yourself. In an essay as revealing as this, I shouldn’t map out all the surprises. I’d hate to spoil your trip.
In the end, Drive My Car suggests that art itself is a vehicle—for both communication and self-exploration. It can communicate what cannot be said out loud, if we are only willing to listen, and it can also be the vessel through which we better understand who we are. Art can affect us deeply in ways that we cannot possibly anticipate. Like the random Uber or Lyft driver who takes me to work each morning, we are putting our lives in the hands of others when we watch their movie, attend their play, or read their poem. We risk being irritated, offended, and even bored by what happens next. But sometimes, we are inspired, we are moved, we are fundamentally changed. Sometimes, it’s a ride well worth taking.