Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s greatest strength (among many) as a filmmaker is his ability to imbue the minutiae of everyday life and the relationships that charge them with wonder and urgency. As one of the most exciting rising directors of today, he’s already demonstrated such prowess in capturing the details of human emotions, be it in the form of his epic lengthed Happy Hour which put him on the map, the engrossingly romantic Asako I & II, or even this year’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy which approached modern relationships with tenderness and curiosity. In his latest, the benevolent Drive My Car, he once again exposes the endless worth that comes from connection with another person, place, or piece of art.
We’re set straight into this mindset in the opening sequence where our lead, actor Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) sits in bed with his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima) post-sex, the two engaged now in intellectual stimulation as she brainstorms a scene for a script that grows increasingly sexual. Shot with a distant yet observant intimacy, immediately Hamaguchi sets the tone for a film that immerses itself in the notion of discovering companionship through private moments and creating art from what’s been had.
Of course, this opening scene is but one of many in the opening 45 minutes before the title card finally drops, operating like a prologue to the rest of the film. It’s in this time that we get to know our protagonist and the relationship that has left him most fulfilled, even as he continues to fight for that same level of contentment in his work. Early on we see a jacket tossed haphazardly into the corner which immediately cuts to neatly packed clothing, exposing different parts of the character in the disarray versus the orderly all in one shot. He’s composed, but there are thinning threads threatening that composure.
Having already endured an unthinkable loss in his life, Yūsuke soon endures one more when his wife suddenly dies. Jumping ahead two years, the widower begins a residency to direct a play for a month and is required by his hosts to hire a driver who turns out to be a young woman, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura). While what came before is crucial in the developing dynamic between him, his driver, and other actors he encounters, it’s in moving forward that the most engaging rhythm of the film is created. As an exploration of finding connection and comfort in unlikely places and how feelings and emotions can transcend language barriers, the film is, above all else, about the process of grief and what comes after loss.
In Hamaguchi’s adaptation of the short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami, he once again demonstrates how there are few directors as innately humanistic as him. Meditative and hypnotic, Drive My Car reaches through the messy rubble of loss to extrapolate what’s left. Late in the film, a character says:
“Those who survive keep thinking about the dead.”
Hamaguchi has a clear reverence for stories about humans in flux, caught between either people, moments, or versions of themselves they once knew or are now discovering for the first time. In his latest, he indulges in the notion of how art both masks and exposes pain and how it can ultimately grow to become a tool in which to learn how best to weather it.
In another moment, a character describes themselves as someone who values “…the finer details others wouldn’t notice,” something that speaks enormously sums up the work of the director and encompasses the story of the film. Despite the protagonist losing his wife, it would be too simplistic to say that’s what the film is about. It’s not even fully about his dynamic with his driver, who slowly integrates herself further into his art, appreciating what he creates and his curiosity about what created her. While all actions have consequences in the story, the film sets itself at a steady, patient pace for the near three-hour runtime and still never fails to keep the audience engaged.
Instead, it’s what’s shared and what isn’t said that holds the greatest significance in this work. Shot beautifully between Hamaguchi’s peculiar frames, which either take a bird’s eye view or hover close behind a character’s shoulder, and the work of cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya, the film loves to isolate its characters, be it either placing the characters against an endless snowy backdrop or illuminating hands dipping into a night sky. This creates a stark contrast, allowing the truths unearthed and barely veiled to be all the more potent and devastating in what is and isn’t revealed.
By the time the film ends, it’s taken us on such a thorough emotional journey without ever compromising the integrity of the characters by making them behave out of the norm in service of something exploitative. Instead, it’s the small beats that ring loudest. In a pivotal part of the film, a character asks another “Do you mind showing me where you grew up?” They respond with “There’s nothing there. Doyou mind?”
With actors speaking all languages and one who communicates through Korean sign language, the film is explicitly laying the groundwork by showcasing just how much of language and communication is conveyed through tone and how little barriers can commit themselves so harshly as to impede the potency of art – if it reaches you, it reaches you – how it’s said or dictated has little relevance.
In that question and response above, the characters are asking much more of what’s being said. His question sounds like him asking “show me yourself,” and her response belaying the belief that she is empty. It is Hamaguchi’s mastery along with the tremendous and understated work by the two leads that by the time this moment arrives, the subtlety of language and the sparse dialogue and all its undertones have readied us to see beyond the line delivered.
Drive My Car is an evocative display of our capacity for empathy, our need for change, and the catharsis of art and creation. Greater still, it seeks to showcase that, even with a script, both on-screen and behind, so much of the meaning conveyed by messages delivered is in the hands of the recipient, so do your best in choosing your words and tone wisely and with compassion.
Drive My Car is out in limited theaters now. Watch the trailer here.