Our protagonist Yūsuke Kafuku refuses to acknowledge that his wife is cheating on him. He comes home one day to find her in the arms of a handsome young actor. Rather than confront her, he slinks out of the house quietly and goes on as though nothing has happened. A few days later, she dies suddenly of a brain hemorrhage and there, about 40 minutes into the movie, our story begins. For the next two and a half hours, the short story Drive My Car (originally written by Haruki Murakami) unfolds into director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Asako I & II) spellbinding film about human connection piercing through the fog of grief and loss. Long but elegantly paced, Drive My Car gives the viewer the same cathartic melancholy as a long drive through a nighttime cityscape.
Yusuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, License to Live, The Wind Rises) works through the grief of his wife’s death and infidelity by pouring his grumpy soul into directing a multi-lingual production of Chekov’s play, Uncle Vanya. The theater company assigns Yusuke a driver, Misaki Watari (played by Tōko Miura), a 23 year old young woman with a traumatic past, to ferry him back and forth on his daily commute. Every day on his one-hour drive to rehearsal, he listens over and over to the taped voice of his dead wife reciting the lines for Uncle Vanya. Against the backdrop of the bleak but beautiful Hiroshima roads, Yusuke eventually befriends his driver, and together they process the grief of their pasts.
Despite the hefty subject matter, the filmmaker’s airy, light-touch minimalism keeps the viewer floating through the drama without being weighed down by the characters’ pain. Framed by single-shot close-ups and monologs, the taciturn Misaki slowly reveals details of her traumatic childhood— chiefly, the death of her abusive, mentally ill mother when an avalanche collapsed on their house. “I hated my mother,” she recalls, “but that’s not the only thing I felt about her.” Reckoning with their respective losses, Yusuke and Misaki trauma-bond and become a surrogate father and daughter for each other.
In the most emotionally compelling scene of the movie, the two go to Misaki’s hometown and lay flowers at the ruins of the house where her mother died. The house is buried in snow except for the peak of the roof, and, with a mixture of pain and anger, Misaki throws each stemmed flower at the home, one by one. In a beautifully executed monolog bordering on eulogy, she talks about her mother’s mental illness, characterized by a second “personality” that would manifest itself as a six year old girl. Misaki recounts moments of her mother’s drunken abuse alongside memories of falling asleep peacefully on her shoulder. After Misaki throws her last flower into the snow, Yusuke, triggered by Misaki’s moment of catharsis, bursts into tears of rage recalling his own loss.
In a second powerful monolog, he spits lines of resentment against his wife while nonetheless mourning her death and recalling her beauty. Misaki clasps her arms around him in a tight daughterly embrace and tells him to accept his love and hatred for his wife, the same way Misaki had with her own mother. Yusuke’s resistance to the truth of his wife’s infidelity eventually gives way to the peace and catharsis of acceptance. Thanks to the powerful performances by the actors and the simplicity of Hamaguchi’s directing, the scene’s sincerity is rescued from melodrama. Our characters create a net of mutual vulnerability to hold each other, and the audience bears witness to their process of healing.
Drive My Car illustrates how human connection can help us accept the dialectic of contrary emotions. In accepting their anger, Yusuke and Misaki create space for the pain of their grief, and can finally bury their dead.
Drive My Car is now in theaters nationwide. It is on the Shortlist for Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards.