An adaptation from the short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami from his bestselling collection ‘Men Without Women’, Drive My Car is the latest melodrama from Japanese up-and-comer Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. Yet more epic than his previous work – and with a sizable runtime just shy of three hours – it’s his biggest-scale film to date. And though it has plenty of flair, Drive My Car never quite justifies its alienated approach to Murakami’s work.
Three years after Lee Chang Dong’s Burning rocked the festival circuit with its adventurous adaptation of Murakami’s nineties short story ‘Barn Burning’, Drive My Car couldn’t be more different in bringing to life what is admittedly a tonally opposed story. Working closely and overtly within the ‘Men Without Women’ brief, Drive My Car follows successful stage actor and director Yûsuke Kafuku (Hadetoshi Nishijima) as he attempts to adapt Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a theatre in Hiroshima. But after losing his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) to a cruelly sudden aneurism, Kafuku is forced to mourn at the same time as he creates. This process is further complicated by the presence of star heartthrob Kôji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), an ambitious young man whose ties to Oto do more than just remind Kafuku of his late wife.
In classic Murakami (and Hamaguchi) fashion, Drive My Car is about repressed emotions as much as it depicts them. Bottled up feelings abound; their source, and consequences, only become clear later. The trauma present in Hiroshima contrasts the efficiency of its rebuilt roads and buildings. Kafuku must therefore adapt an iconic play about buried disturbances in jarring conditions. He’s further distracted by his eccentric driver Misaki (Tôko Miura), whose apparent innocence hides a dark past of her own.
All that makes Drive My Car sound more eventful than it is. Over its excessive duration, Hamaguchi teases as much as he presents these ideas. Kafuku is an enigma for the ages, frustratingly so. This is not new territory for Murakami or Hamaguchi, so fans of both artists’ work will know what to expect. But for newcomers, it’s an obtuse way to be introduced to two talented creators.
The same applies to its meta-adaptation of Chekhov, which is vintage play-within-a-play material. Ashamedly I know very little about Uncle Vanya, and therefore understood little of Drive My Car’s subtext. When reading a short story within an anthology, that’s a forgivable blind spot. In a three-hour film, that misunderstanding begins to isolate.
Drive My Car is nevertheless a beautifully shot and brilliantly acted spectacle about lasting traumas and the way artists go about dealing with them (or not). But it’s a particularly deep end of Murakami and Hamaguchi’s work to dive into, so be warned.