Forty minutes into the latest film by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, the opening credits begin to roll. It is one of many reminders that the Japanese director has refreshingly little interest in following conventions of duration or sticking too closely to his source material. Previous features have run for four or five hours. Drive My Car clocks in at three. The short story by Haruki Murakami from which the film takes its name is structured around a series of flashbacks, but Hamaguchi dispatches with these in the pre-credits sequence. The film portrays a forty-something actor and theatre director, Kafuku, as he works on a stage production of Uncle Vanya for a festival in Hiroshima, shortly after his wife’s sudden death. The 40-minute prelude informs us of her infidelities with a younger actor, which will haunt Kafuku for much of what follows. In Hiroshima, where he has come in his much-loved red Saab, he is forced to take on a chauffeur to shuttle him back and forth between rehearsals and his hotel. We will spend a lot of time in this car, where an audio recording of Chekhov’s play read by Kafuku’s late wife runs on a loop.
All these elements exist in Murakami’s original story, but Hamaguchi’s film is less an adaptation than an excavation of its various themes, in particular the idea of ‘blind spots’, evoked in a literal sense by Kafuku’s early glaucoma, and metaphorically through the difficulty characters have in understanding each other, and themselves. This is captured in a line from the story that Hamaguchi said inspired him to make his film: ‘maybe that’s the challenge’ a character says to Kafuku one night:
to look inside your own heart as perceptively and seriously as you can, and to make peace with what you can find there. If we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.
Using Murakami’s story as a springboard rather than a framework, Hamaguchi introduces many new elements, notably making Uncle Vanya central to the action when in the original it occupied just a few lines. Approximately half the film is taken up by scenes from the play: Kafuku repeating Vanya’s dialogue in the car, the cast at rehearsals delivering their lines in Bressonian deadpan, and the final production on stage. Here Drive My Car follows a rich tradition of films about the theatre, in which the play in question is interwoven with the film’s story and themes – a fine example would be Opening Night (1977) by John Cassavetes, a director who Hamaguchi cites as a key influence.
At the same time, Drive My Car is a charmingly untypical road movie starring a red Saab and a twenty-something female chauffeur. Whenever she appears, the film comes alive, and yet she does apparently so little – straight-faced and tight-lipped, looking more like a character out of a Chaplin noir. She never smiles, just hunches her shoulders over the steering wheel with her gaze set on the horizon, a near-permanent cigarette in her hand or mouth. But she does not complain or judge, and this calm is welcome for Kafuku. Over time it gives way to conversation between them as he shares his deep sorrow and she reveals her own, which leads us to the film’s moving conclusion.
Patience is a characteristic of Hamaguchi’s cinema. He favours long, unhurried takes and allows an event, be it a lunch between friends or a car journey, to play itself out as though it were happening in real time. This was particularly evident in Happy Hour (2015), which explores the daily lives of four middle-class women living in Kobe. Hamguchi’s focus on this social stratum – his characters tend to work in the media or publishing industries, or as relatively successful artists – distinguishes him from the likes of Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose family sagas such as Shoplifters (2018) concentrate on Japan’s underclass.
The quiet, unhurried quality of Hamaguchi’s films sets them apart from another tendency in Japanese cinema that works within the constraints of genre, often horror or noir – exemplified today by the likes of Takashi Miike or Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Hamaguchi’s sensibility is very different. He gives us the time to observe his characters as they live, doing everyday things like taking public transport or cooking breakfast, and this has a cumulative effect, for when a dramatic event does happen, such as a character crying, or some form of violence, its emotional force is all the more powerful. The intelligence and complexity of his screenplays, which often deal with characters who struggle to communicate with each other or articulate their feelings, has been celebrated on the festival circuit. Drive My Car, with its subtle, resonant use of extracts from Uncle Vanya intermixed with the developments in Hiroshima and the red Saab, deservedly won this year’s best screenplay award at Cannes.
‘My child, how heavy my heart is. If you only knew how heavy’ says Vanya to Sonya in Chekhov’s play. We see these last exchanges in the penultimate scene of Hamaguchi’s film, as it is performed on stage with Kafuku playing Vanya and, in the other great performance of Drive My Car, a deaf-mute actress as Sonya. ‘What can we do’, she signs, ‘we’ve got to live!’
As with much of the film, this quiet moment urging us to take courage is both moving and pure cinema.
Read on: Edward Yang, ‘Taiwan Stories’, NLR 11.