“But At That Moment, I Felt Such Warmth”

Drive My Car (2021)

Janus Films
Ihave appeared in a handful of plays over the course of my life, not because I’m a particularly good actor, but because I’ve always loved spending time with adults. I enjoy performances, but to be honest, my favorite part of the process is the rehearsals. It’s probably one of the only times that, as a 15-year-old, you can find yourself nodding sagely whilst listening to a 45-year-old stranger express their career woes. Plays are great levelers; a pervasive we’re all in this together mentality cannot help but prevail.

It is true, however, that producing a play is often a great source of conflict. Cinematic depictions of the theater—from All About Eve to Birdman—often live and die by the tension generated between cast members. Entertaining as they are, these stories have never rung true for me. Rehearsals are certainly a catalyst for wildly enhanced emotion, but this rarely manifests itself as hatred. The first play I ever appeared in was a school production of Macbeth, and when I cast my eye back on it, I can only recall being totally enamored of one of the two boys cast as Macbeth. I was probably 14, he was around 17, and I don’t think we ever even had a conversation, but I remember how the boundaries between envy (why can’t I act as well as he can?) and yearning (he’s so talented) blurred in a way that they hadn’t before. A certain theater induced madness, then.

There’s a ‘showmance’ between two castmates in Drive My Car, the fifth feature film by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi. Janice (Sonia Yuan) and Takatsuki (Masaki Okada)—two young and beautiful performers in the multilingual production of Uncle Vanya at the core of the film—are brought together despite the lack of a common language via shared confusion surrounding veteran theater director Kafuku’s (Hidetoshi Nishijima) methods. But the more intense relationship is, inarguably, between Takatsuki and Kafuku. It’s a fraught bond, which straddles the line between envy and admiration in a way immediately familiar to me (though without the teenage heartache).

I’m not keen to align myself with Takatsuki; late revelations about his character cannot help but leave a bad taste in the mouth. But I do understand his fascination with Kafuku. “Mr. Kafuku,” he intones solemnly in the nearly 15-minute scene—coming some two hours into the film—that represents the apotheosis of their relationship. “I’m empty. There’s nothing inside me.” That anxiety, that feeling that you’re less whole than everyone else around you—I get that. The thing I always liked most about plays was the opportunity they provided to act like an adult, to look around and mimic people that were ‘better’ than me—more interesting, with more talent. I’m aware now that most people are acting to a degree, but Takatsuki’s admiration for Kafuku—a successful, intelligent man with a rather romantically appealing somber mien—makes total sense to me. Idolatry has played its part in shaping who I am. I’m a composite of pieces scavenged from people I’ve admired over the years, and Kafuku is the sort of adult I continue to envy: poised, graceful, and a little aloof, with a biting wit that I only really registered on repeat viewings. When Takatsuki protests that he was merely lending Janice an ear, Kafuku responds, “You say that, but you can’t speak English or Mandarin.” It’s subtly delivered by Nishijima, but so perfect—blunt without being cruel, mild without seeming amused, chiding without lapsing into upbraiding. Takatsuki is effortlessly outclassed.

A lesser film might lean into the dramatic possibilities of this relationship—play up a rivalry between the two men. The conventional trappings are there: two men in love with the same woman, one of them a young upstart, the other a wise industry veteran. Certainly, the scene where Kafuku casts Takatsuki as Vanya, a role for which he is wildly ill-suited, cemented my belief that I knew where this was going.

Except, as it transpires, I didn’t.

The woman—Kafuku’s wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima)—is dead. The young upstart’s career is in ruins, while the industry veteran is (professionally, at least) thriving. Nothing is how it’s supposed to be, were the film to play by conventional rules. The two are not friends, but they aren’t anything like enemies, either. Hamaguchi resists the temptation to characterize their relationship as anything so clearly defined. People are frustrating, and their motivations are often confused and sometimes unhealthy. Hamaguchi is insightful enough to suggest that clear-cut, ‘cinematic’ motivations like pure and simple revenge, admiration, jealousy, etc. do not really exist in our day-to-day lives. The two men have a fractious relationship that powers much of the narrative, but their push-and-pull dynamic challenges both of them in a way that seems to enrage and inspire in equal measure. The glimpse we get of Takatsuki’s Vanya in its full glory is startling—a searing vision of self-loathing that seems to have only burst into fruition following that aforementioned 15-minute duologue as they drive through Hiroshima in the dark of the night.

This, of course, takes us back to the titular car.


I passed my driving test in June of 2021 having hated every second of my lessons. I was frightened of other drivers, frightened of the car, and absolutely terrified of myself and my own inability. Oddly enough, as soon as I got my license, I realized that all I wanted to do was drive. I drove my brother to the gym, I drove to the supermarket, I drove to see my friends. I love cars!, I’d think, as I wound my way through the narrow roads of my hometown in the comically small Hyundai I share with my parents.

When I say I love cars, it’s important to stress that I could not care less about the machine itself. It’s the idea of a car that excites me, the thrill derived from controlling a careening hunk of metal with a single press of your foot, a turn of your hand. I’m not an adrenaline junkie by any means (I only picked up a single fault on my test, I’ll have you know), but when I see them hurtling through a Tesco car park under the glow of the street lights, I do understand the appeal. I suppose, then, to be more precise, it’s the act of driving that I love, and not the car.

Unlike Kafuku, whose reluctance to hire a driver is a key plot point, I enjoy experiencing other people’s driving just as much as I like doing it myself. There’s something trusting and almost vulnerable about letting other people watch you drive. I can’t help but feel rather honored when a friend invites me to be their passenger. It’s intimate, somehow, seeing someone stall their engine, or knit their brows together as they peer into the rear-view mirror, or worry their bottom lip between their teeth as they attempt a notoriously difficult hill-start.

It’s a strange kind of intimacy that can be conjured even if your driver is a total stranger. A few weeks ago, some friends and I hailed a taxi in the pouring rain—there were four of us, and the driver was technically only supposed to take three passengers, but I evidently looked bedraggled enough that he took pity on me and let me sit in the front next to him. I was startlingly aware of our proximity, though we didn’t speak. It’s peculiarly intense, sitting in a car next to a stranger and simply having to trust that they’re good enough at driving to keep you safe.

There’s something embryonic about being in a car at night, particularly if said car is being driven by someone else. When I saw Drive My Car in my local cinema, it had audio-descriptive subtitles as opposed to closed captioning. As such, many of the silent moments were captioned “car driving.” On some level, this amused me; it’s such a bald, blunt description. But when it popped up over and over again, I couldn’t deny that those two words were evocative, and that I did know precisely what sound they were describing: that low-level thrum of the engine, the undulating rumble of wheels on tarmac. I love sleeping in cars, that liminal space between sleep and waking that you lapse in and out of as the streetlights blur into indistinct points of light. I remember on long drives home during half term, I would sit in the back of my parents’ car whilst my father drove. I would narrow my eyes into a squint; the headlights of the cars on the other side of the motorway would transform into four pointed stars, and I’d tilt my head left and right to watch them glimmer, back and forth, back and forth, until I invariably fell asleep.


Much as I am, evidently, fond of cars, I must admit that I did not consider them conducive to an enthralling cinematic experience (racing films are not generally a realistic representation of driving and thus not included in this blanket statement). Here, again, I was wrong. In such a stately, understated film, a split-second glance in the rear-view mirror of Kafuku’s gorgeous Saab 900 Turbo strikes the viewer with the force of a punch. The Saab—bright red against the snow of Hokkaido—serves, in some ways, as a confessional box on wheels.

I’m fascinated by how quickly intimacy can be generated between two people—it’s something I’ve noticed more since arriving at university. In Haruki Murakami’s original 40-page short story, the lingering specter of alcohol hangs over the piece, a key tool in fostering friendship between characters. Hamaguchi largely disregards this detail, focusing instead on richer, stranger experiences that similarly turbocharge the natural development of intimacy between people. Sharing a car is one of them.

In some ways, such temporary relationships as the one between driver and passenger can be just as impactful—more so, even—than enduring friendships. Perhaps we’re more willing to reveal ourselves to people when we know that the association has a fixed end date. I don’t intend this as a cynical reading of the film’s central duo; the burgeoning friendship between Kafuku and chauffeur Misaki (Toko Miura) is absolutely real and meaningful. It is, however, true that they begin and end the film apart: it closes with a shot of Misaki and her dog driving, alone, along an open road, in a red Saab that we cannot help but assume is Kafuku’s.

To use a clichéd phrase, it’s bittersweet. It’s hard not to hope that Kafuku and Misaki might have somehow found a way to prolong their short-lived professional-turned-personal relationship. Here, again, Hamaguchi refuses to take the easy route. There’s no indication of whether the two have remained in contact following the end of their working association. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels ends with a lonely assassin’s accomplice (Michelle Reis) riding on the back of a motorbike. “The road wasn’t that long,” she reflects. “And I knew I’d be getting off soon. But at that moment, I felt such warmth.” The moment is what matters in Drive My Car, too, a film that feels astoundingly present throughout its three-hour runtime. Regardless of whether Misaki and Kafuku have managed to stay in touch, there is a tangible—and bright red—reminder of what transpired between them.

The vehicle is undeniably the most distinct and carefully drawn of all the film’s environments—quite remarkable when you consider just how small the interior is. In such a tight space, perspective is paramount, and subtle shifts in camera angle and implied point of view take on huge significance.

One of the most celebrated scenes in the film is the moment where Kafuku—relenting on an earlier ground rule—offers Misaki a cigarette whilst she’s driving. The two smoke in tandem, sticking their hands out of the sunroof between puffs. It’s a delicate, tentative moment. Their hands are framed, first, from inside the car; it’s as if we are in the backseat, reflecting, in tandem with the pair, on the developing closeness of their relationship. When we cut to an external view, their hands are virtually indistinguishable, each holding a cigarette like a miniscule flare in the night sky.

Here, Hamaguchi pulls back to a huge, wide-scale shot of the various intersecting roads and junctions; the Saab is almost impossible to pick out. Perhaps this is the point. Inside every car we see onscreen, there may be people sharing a moment just as intimate, just as formative. Cars are conducive to that sort of thing. The car is its own kingdom—a space that Kafuku and Misaki share, but one that isn’t necessarily welcoming to outsiders. One of the last times we see Takatsuki, he’s framed standing outside the car. Kafuku—and the audience—gaze at him through the rear window, looking despondent as he slowly recedes from view.

Kafuku loves the car itself, but his affection for it is wrapped up in what it represents. As he drives to Hiroshima some two years after his wife’s death, we realize that he still listens to her recording of herself reading Uncle Vanya; she’s not physically there, but her presence feels pervasive. The wheels of the car dissolve into the whirring tape wheels of the cassette, and we move into the film’s sole flashback—though perhaps it would be more accurate to call the moment a dream. In close-up, Oto’s lips intone the lines for mere seconds, and then she’s gone. Driving is, for Kafuku, perhaps akin to a séance of sorts. The Saab is not just a vehicle; it’s a medium, a conduit through which he can engage with his departed wife.

His fear, then, upon being introduced to Misaki, is that her presence will disrupt this ephemeral, diaphanous bridge between the living and the dead. Instead, she blends in seamlessly. “I forget that I’m in the car,” Kafuku says during one of their first real conversations. “And forget that you’re here. Annoying isn’t it?” “No,” Misaki replies, “it’s your job.”


It is difficult, constantly remembering that other people are there. I moved a significant distance from home this year, and had the rather uncomfortable realization that, by any traditional metric, I’m a pretty bad friend. Not in the sense that I don’t care about other people—I do—but I very rarely contact any of my friends from home. It isn’t malice, or even disinterest—I don’t know what it is, really. Complacency might be the best word for it, I suppose, assuming that because people were my friends previously, they will remain that way in perpetuity.

I do better, in some ways, with relationships that are hemmed in from the very start by the circumstances in which they’re formed—people you meet because you’re taking the same class, for example. I know when I’ll be seeing them next, I know what we’ll talk about (the class, invariably), and I know when we’ll go our separate ways.

Outside of such parameters, I struggle. Getting to know me (so I’ve been told) is like pulling teeth. It’s not that I’m taciturn, per se—more that I feel immensely vulnerable letting people see me properly. It’s unnerving sometimes, being known, and even more frightening to wrestle with the concept of potentially letting people like me. I’m aware, in more lucid moments, of how intensely bizarre this line of thought is, but Drive My Car seems to get it on some level.

My favorite scene in the film is the achingly lovely, profoundly intimate impromptu dinner that Misaki and Kafuku attend at the behest of dramaturge Yoon-su (Jin Dae-yeon). Tender and companionable as the scene is, Misaki—and, to an extent, Kafuku—quietly radiate a discomfort that I interpret as somewhat akin to my own feelings: an uncertainty regarding (perhaps even a fear of) kindness.

When Kafuku haltingly—but nonetheless effusively—praises Misaki’s driving, she seems totally unsure of the correct response. It was here, as she slunk away to busy herself with petting Yoon-su’s dog, that I realized the exchange rather reminded me of a school’s parents’ evening—the teacher referring to you as if you aren’t there whilst you squirm in your seat. Exchanges like that feel excruciating even if the other person is being complimentary. It might be a particularly British thing, but in my experience, adults are so rarely enthusiastic when it comes to encouraging others. It makes receiving genuine praise feel, at times, just as wildly discomfiting as it would be to find yourself caught unexpectedly in a spotlight.

I’m more flattered and less frightened by people’s actions than by spoken praise; a proud clap on the shoulder invariably means more to me than any adjective ever could. Perhaps this is why the aforementioned smoking scene struck me in the way that it did. I don’t smoke; the comparison that came to mind was the first time my grandmother decided I was old enough that she could trust me to drink hot chocolate whilst I sat on her pristine white carpet. Somehow, I could parse this gesture with a degree of ease that’s sometimes absent in the face of verbal affirmation. My grandma cared about the carpet, and she trusted me not to spill anything on it. I got it. It meant something. Spoken praise, I often find, has a heady impact for a few seconds, then quickly evaporates. Being trusted, being cared for, and having that expressed in a gesture? That lingers, settling in my chest and quietly emanating a certain warmth.

I’ve seen Drive My Car four times now, and with each viewing, smaller and smaller details have brought me to the verge of tears. The last time I saw it, it was Kafuku covering Misaki with a coat as she sleeps on the ferry to Hokkaido. It’s such a tender gesture, so sensitively rendered by Hamaguchi. The film is replete with such details: Yumi Eto (Hiroko Matsuda) learning a few bits of sign language to speak to Lee Yoon-a (Park Yu-rim); Takatsuki trying to communicate with Janice through smiling and waving alone; Misaki glancing in the rear-view mirror upon learning that she’s the same age Kafuku’s late daughter would be had she lived. The film is not plotless, but neither is the story suffocating; small moments are given time to linger. The overall effect is that the film never feels bloated, whilst still being permitted to move with various eddying currents, allowing grace notes such as those above to cohere into a sort of patchwork, testifying to our ability and desire to connect with each other, to take care of each other.

“If I were your father,” Kafuku says to Misaki when she tells him of the part she played in her mother’s death, “I’d hold you ‘round the shoulders and say: ‘It’s not your fault. You did nothing wrong.’ But I can’t say that.” It doesn’t matter, really. The cigarette is eloquent enough.