Drive My Car: the world’s a stage ★★★★★

By Jack Beeching and Liv Kessler

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Drive My Car” is a  heartbreaking and profoundly moving tale. 

I’ve been a fan of Haruki Murakami for a long time now, but I also struggle to recommend his work. Having started with Norwegian Wood, the novel I consider to be his best, I found myself gradually disappointed as I worked through his books. His writing has one consistent problem: it isn’t really about anything. He promises great emotional and thematic depth, but this never arrives. Perhaps the most impressive feat of “Drive My Car” is that it has something to say. This is a film about loss, about deciding to live on after tragedy, and catharsis. 

The film is centred around Yūsuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima), a renowned theatre director and actor staging a production of Uncle Vanya. He has played the titular role in the past, but finds acting too painful in the wake of his wife’s passing. “Chekhov is terrifying” he says, “when you say his lines, it drags out the real you”. Much of the film rests upon this fear, and the play’s cathartic potential. 

“Drive My Car” delves into meta-theatre. Theatrical performances are often shot from behind, framing the actors against the seated onlookers. This gives the odd impression of reflecting the cinema audience back at themselves. Kafuku ritually listens to and rehearses his lines while driving, delivering them in a robotic voice that he instructs his actors to emulate. He is reciting words written by, and for, someone else, and yet they often perfectly express the depth and nuance of his feelings. 

During an audition scene, the line between theatre and reality is momentarily blurred. The room becomes tense as the fear and discomfort displayed by one actor is apparently real. But this tension dissipates as soon as the director steps in – they were acting. Of course they were; it’s just a film anyway. But then again, Uncle Vanya is just a play. So why is Kafuku so scared of it?

As indicated by the title of the film, a significant amount of the plot revolves around  the protagonist’s superb Saab 900. Driving becomes an excuse for breathtaking shots of Tokyo, Hiroshima and the Japanese countryside. In these covid-ridden times, one can’t help but feel a call for a road trip in the beauty of Japan and the contrast that it houses, between country and city, urban and rural. 

Murakami fans will not be disappointed by this adaptation. It feels and looks just like what is best about the Japanese author. Moody scenes of beautiful prose, an aloof protagonist who seems to enjoy the occasional cigarette and even the elusive female counterpart with a penchant for premature death. 

Though the three hour run time may be a deterrent for certain viewers, I urge fans and even sceptics of long cinema to see this film. I have rarely seen time pass more quickly and with such ease. Time passes seamlessly with the carefully disorganised jazz of the soundtrack coupled with a mix of emotional dialogue and scenes that make the silence of everyday life all the more noticeable. 

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