Essay by Walter Cummins
Creating a three-hour movie based on a short story that takes only 26 minutes to read may sound like an act of folly. But the Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi accomplishes it convincingly with his 2021 film Drive My Car (nominated for a 2022 Academy Awards best picture). He takes the core situation from the opening short story of Haruki Murakami’s 2017 collection, Men Without Women, English translation by Theodore Goossen.
Murakami’s title comes from a song on The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album. Paul McCartney is quoted as explaining that “drive my car” is an old blues euphemism for sex. Though sexual tension lies at the heart of both the movie and the story, it does not involve the actual driver. It does drive the stories.
Most likely, Hamaguchi did not set out to have his version of the story take two hours and fifty-nine minutes but discovered he needed all the scenes, characters, and events to realize his goal. Every minute of the result is engrossing, not bloated with seeming filler. The movie moves at a slow pace and builds the tension of its drama gradually. That preparation contributes to the power of its climax.
How does Hamaguchi sustain the movie’s length? Although the film and story share the situation of a man, Kafuku, an actor whose much loved beautiful wife, Oto, dies and who has years before that lost a child. In apparent reaction to that loss, the wife has several short-lived sexual affairs even though she loves her husband very much. Although he never discusses these affairs with his wife: “The most excruciating thing, though, had been maintaining a normal life knowing his partner’s secret.” In both versions, the actor needs an expert hired driver named Misaki to chauffer him from place to place, though the specific reasons for this need differ slightly.
This young woman in her early twenties, the age the dead daughter would have been, lost her mother when a teenager, but for crucially different reasons in the story and movie, just as the circumstances for Oto’s death differ in the two versions. It was lingering cancer in the story, a sudden cerebral hemorrhage in the film, a change vital for Hamaguchi’s plot.
In both versions, Kafuku has an association with Takatsuki, a handsome actor who was one of his wife’s lovers. In the story Kafuku creates a seeming friendship with Takatsuki, inviting the alcoholic man to bars as an excuse to talk about the wife, unnamed in the story. The Takatsuki of the movie is an actor Oto worked with for a TV scrip she wrote and who, in spite of Takatsuki’s youth, Kafuku chooses to play the character of Uncle Vanya in a performance of Chekhov’s play he is directing.
In the story, Kafuku is just an actor who played the Vanya role, and discussion of the play is limited to a brief exchange between Kafuku and Misaki, who agree that it is “a sad play,” Misaki quoting lines of the central mood: “Oh, how miserable I am! I can’t stand it.” She is allowing Chekhov to speak for her and Kafuku.
The weight of Uncle Vanya in the movie is Hamaguchi’s most significant enhancement of an element that took just a moment in the story. In the movie, play’s presence dominates the final two hours with many scenes of Kafuku choosing actors for parts and leading them through repeated readings and rehearsals, as well as playing a cassette tape of Oto speaking the dialogue every time Misaki drives him.
The mood of Chekhov’s play becomes the mood of the movie, the play’s bleak words expressing the despair that haunts the film’s central characters. The viewer hears them again and again from the car’s tape and the actors’ readings. Kafuku, who knows the Vanya part by heart, continually refuses to perform the role again as much as it obsesses him.
The other actors needed for the play and their ongoing presence add situations and interactions to the movie, especially the presence of Takasuki, who in this version is the one to seek out Kafuku for private conversations and who eventually reveals the deep significance of Oto to him, though not admitting their affair, an act witnessed by the unseen Kafuku one evening when he returns home unexpectedly. A crucial revelation for Kafuku is the fact that Takatsuki knows more about the final events of a story Oto has been inventing for him.
Her imagining of that story, which takes up much of the first hour of the movie, is based on material from another story in Murakami’s Men without Women called “Scheherazade,” in which a middle-aged visiting nurse who brings food to a homebound narrator concludes each visit with a mundane sexual encounter. After sex, she tells the man a fabricated story that he looks forward to much more than the physical coupling. The one crucial story, probably autobiographical for the nurse, is the one Oto is in the process of inventing for Kofuku after their much more passionate lovemaking. For the nurse, finishing her story releases a similar passion for the first time.
The story is about a high school girl who makes secret visits to the home of a boy she has a crush on but who does not acknowledge her existence. On each visit she takes an object belong to him and leaves something of hers, including panties shoved into the corner of a drawer. Oto’s version for Kafuku is left at an uncertain moment for with the sound of footsteps on the stairs. But she adds a violent incident in her telling to Takatsuki, the girl’s killing of the robber who was the person making the sounds. At the end, the girl discovers a new lock on the house’s door, and she is unable to ever enter the boy’s room again.
Hamaguchi’s movie does not end with such frustration. It provides a resolution for Kafuku and Misaki by allowing them both to expiate a lingering guilt. Unlike the impersonal causes of the deaths of Tafuku’s wife and Misaki’s mother in the story version, the film offers fatal situations in which husband and daughter bear great guilt, believing they could have saved the lives. Tafuku does finally play Vanya, a cleansing decision, as is Misaki’s return to the place of her mother’s death after a drive of many hours with Tafuku. That trip led Tafuku to change his mind about playing Vanya. In the movie’s final scene, Misaki returns from grocery shopping driving the car without Tafuku in it, a happy dog taking Tafuku’s place, Misaki rubbing its jaw and benignly looking out at the road ahead.
The Drive My Car movie integrates basic themes that exist throughout the Men with Women story collection—the death of spouses and lost and unfulfilled love. In its full sense, the title refers to disoriented people in desperate need of a guide who will deliver them to a destination.