By the time the title and opening credits of “Drive My Car” drop approximately 45 minutes into its three hour runtime, it already feels like we’ve experienced a complete mini movie. But the embarrassment of riches that director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film, based on the short story by Haruki Murakami, contains are yet to unveil themselves. There’s a reason why this epic Japanese drama has been almost universally beloved by audiences and critics (it’s only the sixth film, and the first film not in the English language, to take the top prize from the three major critics groups awards), culminating in it landing a staggering four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, earlier this week. Feelings of grief, regret, and a yearning for human connection run through the film’s characters as their lives intersect while working on a multilingual production of the play Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, and while three hours is a lot to ask of an audience, the healing experience that the film’s final act brings is wholly rewarding.
Warning: some spoilers for the prologue to ”Drive My Car” follow.
Those first 45 minutes of “Drive My Car” focus on the relationship between actor Yūsuke Kafuku and his wife Oto, a screenwriter. It’s evident early on that their personal and professional lives are intricately intertwined, particularly in the way Oto works: she conceives her stories during sex and recites them to Yūsuke, who remembers them and repeats them back to her the next day. We also learn that they have experienced one of the greatest losses a couple can face: the loss of a child. Yūsuke knows that Oto sees other men, at one point catching her with Kōji Takatsuki, a young actor in one of her projects, but he never mentions this to her. And when he comes home at the end of one day, he finds Oto on the floor, dead of a brain hemorrhage.
After this prologue, the film jumps forward two years. Yūsuke, who was starring in a production of Uncle Vanya at the time of Oto’s death, is now traveling to Hiroshima to direct the play. But old feelings are stirred when Takatsuki shows up to the audition. Furthermore, the theater company requires that Yūsuke have a driver take him to and from work, and assign to him a young woman named Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), and the pair gradually bond on the long drives between Yūsuke’s residence and the theater.
The plot of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, in which characters forced into close proximity must contend with their complicated feelings for and about each other, closely mirrors the situations that the characters in “Drive My Car” are placed in to. The mere act of staging a show forces everyone on stage and behind the scenes to be remarkably vulnerable with each other; Yūsuke cannot avoid a confrontation with Takatsuki, no matter how much he may want to. And he has to contend not only with his feelings about Takatsuki, but also Oto, and the realization that there are pieces of her that she revealed to other men, but not to him. Meanwhile, the close connection Yūsuke forms with Misaki is borne out of their shared experience of losing a loved one, and the regret that they didn’t do more to save them.
Hamaguchi co-wrote the screenplay with Takamasa Oe, and the pacing of both the narrative and direction is sublime. The most powerful emotional moments are spaced out between more mundane beats, and the result is a film that is always engrossing, and perpetually feels like it’s building to something profound. And while much of the film is set in fairly unremarkable environments— the inside of a rehearsal space, or the interior of a car— Hamaguchi sprinkles images throughout that feel immediately indelible, such as the shot of Yūsuke and Misaki’s hands holding their cigarettes through the car’s moon roof, or the opening shot of Oto’s body silhouetted against the early morning sky. The performances of the cast are rich as well, in particular Nishijima, whose portrayal of a man wracked with despair and struggling to move forward immediately struck a chord with me and became one of my favorite performances of the year; just his features and tone of voice alone carry his weariness.
Occasionally, especially lately, it feels like we’re being beaten over the head with films whose stories center around grief and trauma (we get it, we are all sad and lonely). But “Drive My Car” doesn’t have a false note in it, and Hamaguchi takes such time and care building up the story and characters that every shocking revelation and every melancholy resolution that the finale carries feels more than earned. In a scene toward the end of the film, Yūsuke, taking a line from Uncle Vanya, tells Misaki that they have to go on living; there isn’t much more they can do than that. If the audience walks away from “Drive My Car” with anything, Hamaguchi makes sure it’s that.
“Drive My Car” is now playing in select theaters, and is currently expanding nationwide. Runtime: 179 minutes