“Drive My Car”: Hamaguchi takes the wheel

Movie theater | December 30, 2021

By Greg Carlson

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The first Japanese winners of the Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes Film Festival, Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe develop “Drive My Car”, the short story of the same name in Haruki Murakami’s 2014 “Men Without Women” collection with great success. And although the film lost the Palme d’Or to Julia Ducournau’s “Titanium”, director Hamaguchi’s heavy drama became one of the most admired feature films of 2021, garnering a significant number of awards during awards season. At 179 minutes, the length of “Drive My Car” contrasts sharply with the brevity of “Tony Takitani” by Jun Ichikawa, the 2004 adaptation of another Murakami story that deals with similar themes and shares a major plot.

A three-hour investment in an introspective film about a grieving theater director starring a multilingual production of “Uncle Vanya” seems a tough sell to the mainstream, but Hamaguchi’s breadth is a plus. The filmmaker’s reputation for urban sprawl has been partly exaggerated: “Asako I & II” and “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” both display two hours each. It’s the “Happy Hour” of 2015 to 317 minutes that pushes the limit for bathroom breaks. “Drive My Car” is short-lived in comparison. For all viewers indulging in the filmmaker’s meticulous attention to detail and the character’s powerful expression, the entire film flies.

Hamaguchi’s set-up / prologue unfolds like a stand-alone feature film overflowing with possibilities (the opening titles only arrive after forty minutes). Hidetoshi Nishijima’s Yūsuke Kafuku is a Tokyo-based theater artist married to a busy screenwriter named Oto (Reika Kirishima). Their collaborative compatibility crackles with erotic electricity – Oto’s story ideas are conceived during the verbal exchanges shared during sex. Hamaguchi carefully sows surprises that will be revisited much later. Even greater achievements will be made. Many of them will involve struggling young actor Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), one of the film’s many fascinating side characters.

Two years after the opening section, Kafuku heads to his residency at the Hiroshima Art and Culture Theater in his bright red Saab 900 (which has changed from Murakami yellow). While driving, he listens to the recording of Oto reading “Uncle Vanya” dialogue with gaps where Vanya’s lines go; this is Kafuku’s preferred method of memorization. But following his arrival, there is a wrinkle. For insurance reasons, its guests need a professional driver – no exceptions. After a try, Kafuku accepts the rule. Its driver is a young woman named Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura).

As Misaki and Kafuku get to know each other, the unconventional stage interpretation of “Uncle Vanya” weaves its way through the developing action into a sort of side story in the story. It is a proven technique that has been used, in one variation or another, for decades: “The Children of Heaven” by Carne, “Floating Weeds” by Ozu, “Opening Night” by Cassavetes, Hamaguchi’s favorite. and of course “Vanya on 42nd” by Malle. Street. ”Away from the stage, however, the interior of Kafuku’s vehicle hosts different kinds of drama.

They are surrounded by an incredible set of characters who are able to amaze, but the developing relationship between Kafuku and Misaki fuels Hamaguchi’s examination of how people choose to deal with long-internalized feelings of guilt and pain. . Neither of these two essential figures is prone to verbal expression, but each will divulge information and make vivid confessions in moments of overwhelming emotional energy that expose raw vulnerabilities we are barely ready to witness.

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