Review: ‘Drive My Car’ (2021), starring Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tôko Miura, Masaki Okada and Reika Kirishima

March 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in “Drive My Car” (Photo courtesy of Janus Films)

“Drive My Car” (2021)

Directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Japanese, Korean and Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Japan, the dramatic film “Drive My Car” features an all-Asian cast characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: While grieving the death of his wife, a theater director, who’s in charge of staging the Anton Chekhov play “Uncle Vanya,” finds himself unexpectedly tangled up in the life of the young female driver who was assigned to chauffeur him. 

Culture Audience: “Drive My Car” will appeal primarily to people interested in artsy, well-acted but somewhat long-winded movies about personal relationships and trying to heal from grief.

Masaki Okada and Hidetoshi Nishijima in “Drive My Car” (Photo courtesy of Janus Films)

The emotionally layered and very drawn-out “Drive My Car” won’t appeal to people with short attention spans, but it’s an immersive journey that memorably depicts the complexities of human lives. It’s a three-hour movie where the last hour is the best hour. Until then, viewers have to watch how the story slowly unfolds to show how grief can be both a burden and an emotional shield. If viewers have the patience to sit through the first two hours of the movie, they will be rewarded with some knockout acting in that last third of the movie.

“Drive My Car” is based on Haruki Murakami’s Drive My Car” short story that was in his 2014 short-story collection “Men Without Women.” “Drive My Car” director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe adapted the story into the “Drive My Car” screenplay. The movie, which had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where it won three awards for Best Screenplay, FIPRESCI Prize Competition and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. “Drive My Car” then earned four Oscar nominations: Best Picture (the first movie from Japan to get this Academy Award nomination in this category); Best Director; Best Adapted Screenplay; and Best International Feature Film, a category in which “Drive My Car” has received numerous prizes, including an Academy Award.

In the beginning of “Drive My Car” (which takes place in Japan), 47-year-old writer/actor/director Yûsuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima) is seemingly happily married to his younger wife Oto Kafuku (played by Reika Kirishima), a former actress who now works as a screenwriter on a TV drama series. They both live in Tokyo. The movie’s opening scene shows the two spouses cuddling naked in bed, in a post-coital embrace. Oto tells Yûsuke a story about a teenage girl who sneaks into the house of a 17-year-old boy named Yamaga, who is her high school crush. Yûsuke asks questions about how this story will evolve.

Oto doesn’t know it yet, but his wife doesn’t have much longer to live. He drives her to work, and she introduces him to an actor named Kôshi Takatsuki (played by Masaki Okada), who’s in his mid-to-late 20s. On another day, Yûsuke comes home unexpectedly to find Oto and Kôshi having sex with each other, but they do not see Yûsuke. A shocked and dismayed Yûsuke quietly leaves, without telling either of them what he saw.

After witnessing this act of infidelity, Oto suddenly dies of a brain hemorrhage, with no warning signs that this would happen. To try to take his mind off of his grief, Yûsuke agrees to got to Hiroshima to be a visiting artist doing a residency at a theater workshop that’s staging the Anton Chekhov play “Uncle Vanya,” which Yûsuke will be directing. Yûsuke is assigned a chauffeur to drive him while he’s working at the festival: Masaki Watari (played by Tôko Miura), a mostly solemn and quiet woman who is 23 years old.

At first, Yûsuke refuses the idea to be driven around. However, the festival supervisors Yuhara (played by Satoko Abe) and Gong Yoon-soo (played by Jin Dae-yeon) insist that Yûsuke have a driver because a previous artist in residence accidentally ran over and killed someone in the past. And to prevent any further liabilities, all artists in residence are required to have a professional driver as part of the job.

Masaki asks Yûsuke if he objects to her being his driver because she’s a young woman. He denies it and says because his red Saab Turbo is an older car with quirks that someone who’s unaccustomed to the car might have a hard time driving. Masaki assures Yûsuke that she’s a very experienced driver. And she makes a deal with him to reassure him: If he’s unhappy with her driving, he can take over at any time.

A lot of the screen time in “Drive My Car” is about these car trips, with lots of scenic aerial shots of the car driving on coastal highways or on busy city streets. But the soul of the story is what develops inside of the car, as Yûsuke and Masaki slowly get to know one another and open up to each other about some of the emotional pain in their lives. Masaki is a financially struggling, aspiring actress, but she has had to put those plans on hold to survive in low-paying “gig economy” jobs to pay her bills.

Meanwhile, “Drive My Car” has numerous scenes about the audition process and rehearsals for “Uncle Vanya.” Observant viewers will notice the parallels in the “Uncle Vanya” story and what Yûsuke goes through in the movie. One of the actors who auditions for the play is Kôshi, who is cast in the role of Vanya, even though Kôshi thinks that he’s too young for the part.

Kôshi thinks that Yûsuke is a more age-appropriate actor for the role, but Yûsuke refuses, because he says that the Vanya role is too emotionally draining, and Yûsuke wants to focus on directing the play. Yûsuke also explains that he’s doing unconventional casting for this version of “Uncle Vanya.” At first, it seems like Yûsuke could be setting up Kôshi to fail in a role that’s beyond Kôshi’s talent and life experience. However, as time goes on, it’s revealed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways why Yûsuke doesn’t want to be an actor in this production.

Kôshi is a ladies’ man who wants Yûsuke to be his acting mentor. However, Yûsuke is somewhat standoffish with Kôshi at first. The movie shows if Yûsuke eventually tells Kôshi that he knows that his late wife Oto and Kôshi had a sexual fling. Kôshi has some other secrets, which are also revealed. There are hints that Kôshi is hiding something when, on more than one occasion, he angrily confronts a man taking photos of him when Kôshi is out in public.

“Drive My Car” is a story about the frailty of relationships and surprising revelations that occur through human connections. Without wallowing in heavy-handed preaching, “Drive My Car” is an artfully made film that invites viewers to show more empathy for people who might seem to have stable or successful lives, but who might be privately going through some emotionally devastating struggles. The movie doesn’t present any easy answers to life’s problems, but it does advocate for people to open their minds to others who might become unexpected companions during times of overwhelming grief and loneliness.

Janus Films released “Drive My Car” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2021. HBO Max premiered the movie on March 2, 2022.

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