Yûsuke and Oto are both creatives. He’s a theatre director and occasional actor, she’s a writer. At night in bed she tells him stories which he relays in the morning for her to write down. It seems to work well, even though she is sleeping with other men. Then, one day, his flight is postponed. He comes home unexpectedly to see her in bed with someone else. He withdraws discretely before she notices he’s there.
But something has changed. Some days later, Oto tells Yûsuke that she has something important to tell him. Not wanting to confront a serious change in his life, he puts off going home. By the time he finally gets there, she is dead with a brain haemorrhage.
Cue opening credits. We have already been going for three quarters of an hour.
There are many examples of how film is often not a good medium for reproducing literary novels. The pace of a 600 book, the subplots and authorial interventions do not always cram well into 2 hours. With Drive my Car, director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is confronted with a quite different problem. How to put Haruki Murakami’s short story on film for 3 hours without making it seem too long.
Back to the film. It’s 2 years later, and Yûsuke has got a job directing Uncle Vanya for a theatre in Hiroshima. Vanya is his speciality – he’s played the lead several times, and has recorded Oto reading all the other parts so he can play Vanya while driving his car.
With this in mind, he makes a special request to the theatre. They should book him a hotel an hour’s drive away, and he will practise the play going in and out of work. It is solitary work, but it’s the way he prefers it. The problem is that for insurance reasons, the theatre won’t let him drive himself and assign him a driver.
Misaki is 23 and – Shock Horror – female. She wears a denim jacket and a baseball cap and looks way more casual than any of the creatives. Every morning she picks Yûsuke up from his hotel and puts on the cassette of his late wife reading from Vanya. He sits in the back, Misaki in the front. They do not exchange any words.
During casting, Yûsuke recognises one of the actors. Kôji is the young man that he saw in bed with his wife. For reasons that are not immediately clear, but which help the plot get interesting, Yûsuke casts Kôji as Vanya, despite him being clearly too young for the part. He also casts actors speaking a range of languages from Japanese to Mandarin to Korean sign language, who do not even understand each other.
On a different day, I can see myself getting very annoyed with Drove my Car. It slowly meanders, not really going anywhere. It has garnered fans among the critics who want to tell us that its “about” the creative process, or how we communicate with each other, or whatever.
But it’s not primarily about any of these, not really. It’s about a man being driven around by a young woman who’s old enough to be his daughter – literally: Yûsuke did have a daughter who died young but would be the same age as Misaki if she’d survived. For any of the metatextual symbolic stuff to work, the characters have to be first both believable and interesting.
And they are. Slowly, glacially, Yûsuke and Misaki lower their barriers and tell each other about their tragic personal histories. By the end, Yûsuke is even sitting in the front of the car. They even exchange a hug. And, counter to the way Hollywood usually depicts an older man and younger woman getting closer, there’s nothing pervy here. Yûsuke and Misaki do form an emotional bond but this is not Lost in Translation (or 1000 similar films). They’re not going to get it on.
The time thing is still an issue – 3 hours is too long to stay in a cinema apart from a few films of brilliance – but this is not a major problem. Drive my Car doesn’t feel overlong. You might wish that it were more substantial, and there are definitely no car chases, but despite these deficits,there are much worse ways of spending your time.
Recommended for a lazy Sunday afternoon.