Things take time. Be they relationships, be it coming to terms with the past or be it a play coming together. Drive My Car embodies this, and covers these specific aspects, using its own runtime to add to this. The 179 minutes may be intimidating, but the time gives it space and the passing of time is so indelibly linked to its themes. This is a film about a man driving a car, or being driven in it, whose journeys evolve throughout the film. At the start, it is an expression of insularity: he drives himself, learning lines (he’s playing Uncle Vanya) and speaking to a tape (a recording of the wider play by his wife). This establishes the core theme of language and communication, which is also the source of conflict and distance in this layered and reflective film. Ultimately, it is a film that is hard to describe, and one that is lessened by mere description. It is also a film that asks a lot of the viewer. It is, however, a beautiful and enriching experience. Drive My Car works so well on an initial viewing but, even while taking it in for the first time, you can feel how it will grow upon revisiting.
The car journeys are the core here. The initial loneliness is potent, juxtaposed with our main character’s (theatre director and actor, Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima)) actual relationship with his wife. Drive My Car starts with an extended prologue, not giving us any opening titles until over forty minutes in (and only then really embarking on what is the core premise, the staging of a multi-lingual version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya). At this stage, all is distance. The only communication between wife and husband is to do with work, even when intimately framed (in a really intelligent way). The car, a classy red Saab, is the key location of the film and is such an intimate space. Therefore, his persistent dialogue inside it to his wife, whose recording is such an act of love, is touching. We also see their sexual relationship, but this is also inseparable from a working relationship. The film makes it clear that the sex is distancing for one or the other, and is actually a way in which his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), gains inspiration. She speaks through these encounters, spinning out narratives that will become the scripts she writes. Losing herself in creativity rather than anything else, a smart reflection of how both are so close, and exist so symbiotically, but are also so far.
Things change, irreparably, and a primary theme becomes dealing with trauma and loss (and regret). However, the act of speaking the play in the car continues, though at his point Kafuku is driven (by Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura)). The isolated act becomes an observed one, and meanings start to shift, slowly, perhaps even imperceptibly. What the film does, stunningly, throughout is it matches up the dialogue in the play with the characters in the film. Uncle Vanya is so core to the film but is also so core to the central character. Its words become a reflection of his inability to express himself, and his repressed state. He sees himself in the play, and the words speak through him and to him (this again linking back to how he and his wife communicated through work and art). We keep cutting back to him speaking these lines in the car, or hearing the dialogue spoken to him, and each time there is this uncanny connection with what is being said and the character’s state, or the state of the narrative. It is a beautiful touch, in a film, to show us how art is in dialogue with the world around it, with the people that interact with it. Just as we find meaning from this film, while we watch it, we see Kafuku getting meaning from Uncle Vanya. It also forces us to reflect on the film as a metafictional construct, on what this lingering intimacy and focus on art, communication and miscommunication could tell us about the filmmaker.
Because, this is such an intimate film. We are placed so close to our characters, experiencing emotional growth and narrative growth with them. The film uses its runtime as a great opportunity to flesh out this cast, at some points in an overly expository way but always in an endearing and basely satisfying way. There is a digression towards the end that feels too melodramatic, too constructed even. It felt unnecessary, for me, but it is testament to how much the film cares about its characters that it would give a closure arc to a seemingly tertiary figure. The individuals here have independence and the feel of rich outer and inner lives, not limited by the boundaries of the film. This being based on a Haruki Murakami short story (a writer I love, and a story I have read) it is worth noting that it goes out of its way to counter the uncomfortable way in which he often handles women. This film makes such effort to flesh out its female characters but in doing so gets too blatant or too overstated, not realising that the unspoken, measured and beautifully acted moments were enough. Drive My Car gets so much out of the lingering moments, gleaning a sense of history that exists unexpressed behind characters who are given space (once again, by the runtime) to just exist on screen. It is nice that it cares though, and this speaks to the film’s underlying humanism. It gives moments to its characters even if they don’t need them, evidence of the film as a labour of love.
The spoken and the unspoken is a recurring motif in the wider film. This is well shown through the central device of the staging of Uncle Vanya. This staging becomes a potent metaphor at the film’s centre, one of the aspects that you can feel will grow only further on subsequent viewings. The play is performed in multiple languages, in which the cast (and even the director) do not understand each other. This balance of communication and miscommunication is fascinating, how the spoken functions as the unspoken in a symbolic way. Of course, this links to the pervasive rumination on what communication is. Our central thesis seems to be that communication is a process, a way of bringing something out. For some people, at least. This brings us back to the opening relationship, recontextualising it and giving real food for thought. Creation is an intimate act and the interpersonal does not have to be limited to just that sphere. Beyond this, the idea of people interacting while never actually communicating in a conventional way is fascinating to think of in isolation, and even more potent when used as a way to read the film. Again, it is a work with layers that is deeply rewarding. It leans into this, also, having so many moments that exist to be ethereal and reflective, be it taking in a long shot while the car drives or listening to a surreal story that may actually be a blunt metaphor for the realities of a relationship.
In the end, it comes back to time. This film gives its characters time. To start with, you have disparate figures speaking at each other in unknown ways. At the end, we have something. And that something speaks to all of them. Characters have arcs along this journey, working as foils to other characters or perhaps symbolic reflections of what they could have been and representing divergent paths. It all provides so much food for thought and is told with consummate class. A lot of the success can be pinned at the feet of Hidetoshi Nishijima, for his performance as Kafuku. His expressions are so enigmatic, his emotional presentation is very muted but still he has such a presence. It is a fascinating performance, one that draws in the audience. But, this is just one enthralling element in a film where almost everything comes together so well. It overreaches and at points over explains, but even these moments are endearing due to the intention. It is a work of humanistic poetry that will speak clearly and evocatively to audiences willing to meet it on its level; but, more importantly, it will say different things. There is an open emotional resonance, a success achieved through the creation of compelling characters and clever symbols that allows it to have a wide range of meaning. In this film, Uncle Vanya comes to life through different languages, in different ways and to different people; similarly, this Drive My Car will come to life through its audience and will mean so much (and such different things) to so many.