Drive My Car isn’t the Murakami adaptation you think it is. Its magic lies in another story

Hannounces Ryusuke Hamaguchi not decided to adapt Haruki Murakami’s short story drive my carand chose one of his novels instead – hard wonderland Where A wild sheep hunt – it might have ended up looking like a David Lynch, Charlie Kaufman or Ingmar Bergman movie. Possibly Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2014 drama birdman is a more specific example. It’s easy to see why the film, now shown on MUBI, has accumulated so many accolades. It’s a “European” film in Japanese, Mandarin, Korean Sign Language and English – a slow-burning drama that tugs at the heartstrings, but not too hard – a stick that Japanese critics use to beat Murakami. But the answer to what makes the movie truly special, however, is something that isn’t even in it.

The film essentially follows the life of actor/theater director Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima). After the death of his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), Kafuku meets his wife’s lover and junior Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) during a casting for a play by Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya during a theater festival in Hiroshima. He is driven by Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura) in his own red 1987 Saab 900 Turbo. Although reluctant at first, Kafuku slowly forms a bond with Watari, leading to the revelation of some of their deepest and darkest emotions. .

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Drive My Car isn’t the only adaptation

Loyal as he is, Ryusuke Hamaguchi drive my car is not a film that simply adapts a short story by Murakami. He adapts three of them. Not to mention significant director additions to flesh out the play’s narrative. It is in these elements that the “transcendent” moments of the film live and die.

In a way, Hamaguchi embodies Checkov in the creation and execution of the film. Like the Russian author in Uncle Vanyawhich is a reworking of its own longer piece The wood demon, the Japanese filmmaker sets out to tell not his own, but that of Murakami. But instead of stripping down the story, Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe combine (which explains its somewhat dragging nearly 3 hour runtime) – like master alchemists – ingredients, rasaswhich include an ethereal brew.

Hamaguchi and Oe are aware of this process and acknowledge it to the audience when the film’s opening credits flash at 40 minutes. What came before was not part of drive my car at all. It was, like the short story of Oto and Murakami Scheherazadean existence outside the film world – a presence of an “absent” story that we all witness.

Scheherazade – a more Murakami-esque story of a nurse telling the protagonist’s stories after sex – is the driving force behind drive my car uses to enter and cling to viewers’ psyches like lampreys (vampire fish) – one of the most powerful symbols in film. The dreamlike sequences of Scheherazade manifesting in Oto and telling the story of her childhood burglaries resembles part of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s seminal work Chung King Express (1994). Perhaps another reference in a film full of one – including the title drive my car – which is also a song from the Beatles album rubber core.

Along the same lines, the film owes its “divine relief of catharsis” to movie theater — another short story by Murakami from Men without women, though more loosely adapted than the film’s exposition. Kafuku and Watari’s confrontation with themselves, in shared intimacy, lacks the punch of Murakami’s visceral story, however. Even in its entirety, the resolution feels hollow, unable to meet the emotional peaks of movies that lament similar loss like Manchester by the sea (2016), Marriage story (2019) and Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind (2004) do. Perhaps it’s a symptom of directing a confluence of three stories. Or simply the fact, as the director himself admits, that: “Murakami’s writing is wonderful at expressing inner emotions, and… that’s why people want to adapt them. But it’s really hard to recreate those inner feelings in a movie.

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Hiroshima my love

One of Hamaguchi’s vital decisions as a director is to set the Drive My Car story in Hiroshima rather than Tokyo. In doing so, he adds an undercurrent of political commentary that Murakami’s narrative otherwise lacks. Nowadays, The chronicle of birds to go up remains the author’s most critically acclaimed novel due to its criticism of the atrocities committed by the Kwantung Army.

While the film was originally set to be shot in Busan, carrying its own story of the Imjin War, the decision to shoot the film in Hiroshima due to a Covid-19 outbreak was perhaps a blessing in disguise.

The scenes of Kafuku and Watari wandering around the Naka waste incineration plant next to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the area where the A-bomb was dropped, are haunting symbolism of the two figures seeking and trying to come to terms with their past. The coastline of the Setouchi Sea along Hiroshima becomes a metaphorical “end of the world”. For these characters, there’s nowhere to go from here.

In the world of grays and blues and cool-toned suits, the red Saab 900 Turbo appears like a foreign object that doesn’t belong. It works, like a DeLorean time machine from Back to the future (1985) not powered by radioactive plutonium, but Murakami’s magic. As the characters make their way through the rubble of Watari’s house, cracking ice under their feet, the past – an important theme of the film – seems to wait, frozen.

drive my car isn’t Murakami’s first film adaptation, and it won’t be the last. They date back to the 1981 film Listen to the song of the wind (Kaze no uta o kike) based on his first novel. For “harukists”, the film is more of a promise that more directors will now seek to bring its stories to the big screen. For the rest, it’s a story that mourns the absences – of light, of love, of colors and of nature, a full life. Like the characters in Waiting for Godot, to which the film refers, we too carry this anxiety. Like lampreys recalling a past life.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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