Japanese film “Drive My Car”, which was recently selected as the Japanese entry to Best International Film Oscar, is a rather long but very absorbing experience you should give a chance right now. As calmly and slowly rolling its story and characters for nearly 3 hours, the movie gives us several plain but undeniably sublime human moments to haunt you for a while after it is over, and I assure you that you will gladly go along with its slow but ultimately rewarding emotional journey.
The movie opens with an oddly intimate moment between a stage actor named Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). Quite physically close to her husband on their bed, she begins a strange tale about one young girl’s strange circumstance with some handsome boy on whom she has had a crush for a while, and her story is developed step by step whenever she and her husband have a sex together.
Meanwhile, we come to know a bit more about this couple. While Oto has worked as a screenplay writer, Yūsuke is doing the multi-language production of Anton Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya”, and we observe how dedicated he is to Chekhov’s play. Whenever he drives his old foreign car, he plays a cassette tape containing the audio recording of the play which was specifically made by his wife, and, as Uncle Vanya, he has been quite accustomed to fill the blank spaces left for him in this audio recording.
And then two different unexpected things happen to Yūsuke. Not long after accidentally witnessing Oto cheating on him, he happens to have a minor car accident, and it subsequently turns out that one of his eyes has an incurable medical condition, and all he can do is slowing its eventual deterioration process for the rest of his life. As Oto shows more care and concern toward him because of that, Yūsuke seems more conflicted, and that naturally affects his stage performance, but then his wife suddenly dies when he returns to their home at last night. Although this is actually not his first experience of deep grief, he is quite devastated nonetheless, while still quite confused and conflicted over his mixed feelings toward his wife.
After this extended prologue part preceding its main title, the movie moves onto some time later. Yūsuke is requested to supervise a theater workshop to be held at Hiroshima, and we observe how he embarks on the project with a young South Korean guy who will function as his translator. Again, he is going to stage a multi-language production of “Uncle Vanya”, and we see various Japanese and foreign performers doing the following audition as he is trying to decide which one is right for the production.
One of the performers coming to the audition happens to be Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a popular young actor who worked closely with Oto before her death. Because this dude is the one who was with her at that time, Yūsuke is not so pleased at all even though Kōji looks so eager to collaborate with him, but he keeps his attitude straight anyway, and then he casts Kōji as Uncle Vanya instead of himself.
Meanwhile, the movie also pays some attention to what is going on between Yūsuke and Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), a young woman who was assigned to driving his car in advance. Although he was understandably reluctant at first, it does not take much time for Yūsuke to appreciate Misaki’s fairly good driving service, which helps a lot when he happens to have a little drinking time with Kōji at one point.
The subtle but considerable emotional tension between Yūsuke and Kōji surely draws our attention first, but the screenplay by director Ryusuke Hamaguchi and his co-writer Takamasa Oe, which is based on Haruki Muramaki’s short story of the same name, sticks to its leisurely tone as before while often developing its story and characters in unexpected directions. For example, Yūsuke’s South Korean translator turns out to be more than a very useful assistant for him, and there is a little warm and gentle scene where he invites Yūsuke and Misaki to his small cozy residence where he lives with someone quite dear to him.
While we enjoy this and several other small moments, the movie goes deeper into not only Yūsuke but also Misaki, who is gradually revealed to have her own fair share of emotional issues as she comes to interact more with Yūsuke along the story. After another unexpected moment in the story, they come to have a journey of their own, and I can only tell you that I really admire how patiently and effortlessly this part is developed into a quiet but utterly poignant moment of empathy and understanding.
As the center of the film, Hidetoshi Nishijima steadily holds the ground for several other main cast members surrounding him. While Tōko Miura is his equal acting match during a number of key moments between them, Masaki Okada and Reika Kirishima are also effective in their respective supporting parts, and South Korean performers Park Yoo-rim and Jin Daeyeon have each own small moment to shine as the other crucial parts of the story.
In conclusion, “Drive My Car”, which deservedly won the Best Screenplay Award besides two other awards at the Cannes Film Festival several months ago, is a superlative work which thoughtfully and sensitively reflects on life, art, and storytelling, and the result is much more satisfying than Hamaguchi’s previous film “Asako I & II” (2018), which I did not like much due to its glaringly contrived final act. In short, this is one of the most interesting films of this year, and I am already ready for another ride.