Drive My Car begins in intimacy, which it explores the whole way through in different forms, with a couple in bed together. A woman is sat up, telling her partner a story. The story feels eerie and tense but their relationship is very much a partnership, based in love and support. This is Yusuke and Oto – one an actor in theatre and one a screenwriter for TV. Yusuke picks up the story where Oto left it, and adds his own piece, Oto adds onto this again and it seems like it’s reached its end.
It’s easy to become enamoured with them as a couple. They’re affectionate and seem so in love, especially on the same page. So it’s a surprise when Yuksuke comes home unexpectedly to secretly see Oto sleeping with someone else. It’s even more of a surprise that he slips back out of the door unseen. And when he returns home that evening, he finds Oto dead.
Their relationship already appeared tinged with tragedy. Early on you learn they lost a young daughter, Yusuke is at risk of developing glaucoma in one eye and Oto is having an affair. But the dedication they have to one another makes the relationship much more complicated than the black and white kind you typically see in rom-coms. As he drives, Yusuke practises his lines along with a tape painstakingly recorded by Oto, where she speaks each line in a monotone voice and then leaves spaces for him to fill in his own lines. Her voice echoes through the whole film on this tape, so despite her not being physically there, she still feels like an ever present character – almost a ghost.
That’s just the start. A few years later, Yusuke goes out to Hiroshima to take up a residency as a director for a theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya, the very same performance he was in at the start of the film. He is told he must have a driver to take him everywhere, and after his initial reluctancy, he allows the young Misaki to get behind his wheel and take him around. She’s quiet and restrained, every word considered with seeming little emotion.
But so develops a strong bond between the two, all encapsulated within the car. Her life is also tinged with tragedy, which she slowly reveals as their friendship develops. In the meantime, the whole film is bolstered by the Uncle Vanya production and practise going on in the background.
You can’t talk about this film without mentioning the car. It’s almost a character in its own right. It gets these lingering shots and lots of dialogue about how well Yusuke has kept it. So much of the relationship between Yusuke and Misake develops in these long scenes in the car, punctuated by stretches of silence and with the lovely scenery in the background.
Driving is obviously a source of peace and calm for Yusuke. It’s the only negative comment he makes about his wife, and he’s very reluctant to give it up when he’s told me must have a driver. It’s the car that lingers right until the end of the film too, and it’s what brings the two leads together.
Yusuke is suitably impressed by Misake’s driving, which allows him to soften to the idea of her, and in turn, she is sensitive to him and his grief.
The rehearsals for the Uncle Vanya performance take up a lot of space in Drive My Car, and they add to the feeling of intimacy – that we’re getting to see behind the scenes of the actors practising and talking amongst themselves, bitching about the director, hooking up. It features lots of different people from all over Asia speaking their respective languages, including someone using Korean sign language, so there’s a fascinating mixture of people all working towards the same thing.
It’s also where our “villain” lies. The lead actor, who takes up the role of Vanya, was also in love with Oto – one of her affairs. There’s a constant unspoken tension between Yusuke and this young upcoming actor, Takatsuki.
The performances in this film are so subtle and nuanced, each relationship is conveyed through just expression and these silences that allow feelings to brew, especially with the addition of sign language which allows all characters to fall silent and focus on what Yoon-a is conveying. Hidetoshi Nishijima (playing Yusuke) is particularly standout for his subdued nature, sometimes the lack of emotion that he shows through the film is almost eerie and it’s mirrored in the way he directs the play.
Should You Watch It?
In short, yes. Absolutely. It’s got a run time of three hours, but it’s one of those films that feels like it’s made by craftspeople. It’s not boring or tired, so much happens and it’s handled in a beautiful, quiet way. There is no action to speak of.
No explosions, no car chases, barely even a loud noise. Instead, there’s a masterful intertwining of stories, showing how different kinds of people handle grief and a catalogue of expressions of love. Drive My Car feels a lot like a study in being human, and there are a lot of beautiful shots to enjoy too.
Watch Drive My Car on BFI Player
Drive My Car is available on BFI Player, and is updated with new classic and contemporary Japanese films.
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