Grief is a universal experience. No matter who you are, no matter what you do, you and everyone else in this world will feel the weight of loss at some point in your life. The ability to process it, cope, and find ways to move on, is an essential part of the human condition. It’s what defines us as a species to a certain extent. Our ability to fully perceive and understand our own mortality is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. And yet, it’s also the part of our existence many wish we were still blissfully unaware.
No matter what path one takes to deal with their tragedy, it is always long, and never straightforward. Whether you process pain into art and propel yourself into a larger happiness, or spiral further into the depths of your own despair, or any infinite possibilities in between, there is no easy answer. A film like Drive My Car, Japan’s entry for International Feature this year, expertly illustrates this point through its deeply personal character studies, empathetic dramatic structure, and deliberately lengthy run time. Directed and co-written by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, this careful, frank, almost lyrical exploration of life after loss is one of the best films of the year full stop.
A three-hour movie would normally start off from a disadvantage, because it’s exceedingly difficult to hold an audience’s attention for that long. With rare exceptions, such a journey would need to be filled to the brim with action and plot in order to sustain itself. Even epics like Gone with the Wind falter at various points against this demand. However, Drive My Car is able to defy the majority of past precedent by keeping things at a relatively tepid pace, economically using its asides and commutes as a means to delve further into its central pairing, yet another in a sting of celebrations of platonic love put to screen in 2021 (Together Together, Language Lessons, etc.), this time through shared experience and keen insights on life’s harsher realities.
The film begins with a married couple, Yusuke Kafaku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) lying in bed, presumably post-coitus. Oto begins telling a story about a teenage girl who continually breaks into the home of her school crush and masturbates as a form of secret intimacy that she can never publicly express. Yusuke is intrigued, because this is part of the dynamic of their relationship. He is a stage actor and director, while Oto is a television writer, and she comes up with her best dramatic ideas during sex. This is how the middle-aged couple lives and works since the death of their daughter several years before. It’s their way of coping and turning their pain into something positive. Having decided to not have any more children, Oto gives birth to creative ideas from procreation, while Yusuke channels his anger and sadness into passionate performances and innovate stage adaptations.
Yusuke gets into an accident due to undiagnosed glaucoma forming in one of his eyes, curtailing his ability to drive his own car. In addition, when a business trip is delayed, he returns home unannounced to find Oto cheating on him with Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), one of the young actors on the TV show she’s producing. He does not reveal his presence, nor does he ever confront Oto on her infidelity, and her eventual death (this is not a spoiler, the trailer shows Oto’s funeral in the first 15 seconds) means he’ll never get the opportunity. What really matters is that the two things he truly loves about his life – this new life he’s already forged from tragedy – have now been taken from him.
This leads to the first major shock of the film, that after this catastrophe, a full 40 minutes in, we finally get the rest of the opening credit roll. My jaw dropped. We get a little bit of credits when the film begins, and I figured that was all, but then this gets laid on us at Yusuke’s lowest moment. It’s a simple, yet almost revolutionary way for Hamaguchi to tell us that a) the story hasn’t even really started yet, and b) it’s that crucial to dive so deeply into the characters that we’re still in the establishment phase of the first act, and the incremental pace will continue in this same vein, giving us all the information we could possibly need to understand the motivations of all the characters in this drama.
Although Yusuke used to be a film and TV actor himself, after losing his child, he dedicated himself to the theatre, unable to put himself in the proper mindset for prerecorded fiction. As such, he’s become a world-renowned experimental director, particularly when it comes to the languages of classic plays. Early in the film he stars in Waiting for Godot, and in the main action here, he travels to Hiroshima to direct a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The big draw for his shows is that he brings together a diverse cast of actors, all of whom delivering their lines in their native language. With the aid of his collaborator and translator, Kon Yoon-su (Jin Dae-young), he fills out his list with performers from Japan, Hong Kong (Sonia Youn as Janice Chan, who speaks Cantonese and English), and South Korea in the form of Lee Yoon-a, played by Park Yoo-rim, who communicates via Korean Sign Language (she can hear, but she’s functionally mute).
This serves a greater metaphor for the whole affair, as forcing actors to learn cues in a language they don’t speak stands as an example for the emotion of the moment being universal, breaking down the largest barrier in society for empathy and commonality. It also forces the actors out of their comfort zones, particularly Takatsuki, who Kafaku casts in the title role, rather than that of the young hothead that is more in his wheelhouse. The play itself works to this end, as Uncle Vanya – really all of Chekhov’s work – is among the first modern plays to really blur the line between the classical definitions of comedy and tragedy, because while there is no catastrophic denouement of death, the characters still end the plays with their problems and melancholy largely unchanged, their continued existence their so-called “happy ending.” This play-within-the-play is a direct parallel to the overall theme of not being able to deal with grief in a tidy fashion.
All of this is going on, and we still haven’t even introduced the other main character in this film. Due to insurance issues, the glaucoma, and the standing policy of the theatre where he’s working, Kafaku is not allowed to drive himself anywhere. As such, the production company appoints a chauffeur to drive him around in his car. Her name is Misaki Watari, played by Toko Miura. As part of his rider, Kafaku has his temporary residence secured an hour away from the city, as he uses his commutes to run lines with a cassette tape recorded by Oto, now his only remnant of her. It keeps his mind focused and allows him to still retain some semblance of her in his life. Now he’s at the mercy of this young driver he does not know, and with whom he’s uncomfortable sharing personal information.
Misaki is 23 years old, the same age Yusuke’s daughter would have been had she lived. Misaki is also an orphan, her mother killed in a landslide that destroyed their house some five years previous. This would make the foundations for their eventual rapport seem obvious: a lost child searching for a parental figure with no one to take care of. But it’s to this film’s great credit that once again, it’s never that simple, and Hamaguchi steadfastly refuses to take the easy way out. Their collective loss is a shared trait, but not the defining characteristic of their association. There’s so much more that they gradually learn from each other before the deaths they’ve faced even bear mentioning, and each step they take shines more brightly than the last. Watching Yusuke start his daily trips awkwardly from the back seat (including putting down the front seat to crawl back into it, as the car’s a two-door) and inching his way into the passenger side along the course of the story is a brilliant bit of blocking to show the progression of trust and mutual understanding. Add in the clever use of mirrors – not just in the car, but in the theatre and Yusuke’s apartment – and the symbolism of perspective through reflection is solidified.
The performances throughout are absolutely spellbinding, particularly our two leads. Nishijima is never stoic, but he also refuses to devolve into more maudlin melodrama. He’s matter-of-fact, honest, and assertive, equally upfront when he calls out Takatsuki’s bullshit as he is admitting his own securities within his marriage. Miura, conversely, is able to convey all her emotion through a straight face without it ever feeling like a façade. Misaki is withdrawn, but not aloof or standoffish. She’s just never had a supporting friendship where she can open up, forced to keep up a guard because it’s all she’s ever known, and because there’s no purpose in being vulnerable. And again, the car’s mirrors serve as excellent literary devices, as their presence creates a power dynamic where she can never make direct eye contact even when she does let Yusuke get to know her. It’s really well done on both their parts, each with equal agency despite the transactional nature of their initial contact.
When you spend a lot of time in a car, there’s a lot that eventually has to be said just to break the silence and avoid awkwardness between two people. That’s the foundation that Hamaguchi works with in crafting this eventual friendship. People will inevitably talk, and in doing so, they will learn. Honesty will normally prevail in these proceedings, and understandings will form, to the point that kindred spirits will find each other, regardless of their previous standing. And when those relationships coalesce, it allows for a beautifully cathartic outlet to share one’s state, and to process common anguish together.
That’s the core of this whole affair, one that Hamaguchi tenderly displays for the duration, chiefly with Yusuke and Misaki, but supplemented by the rest of the able cast and their own stories of dealing with hardship. Many times, all someone really needs is to know that someone else is there for them when things go wrong. By necessity, the driver is there the whole time, so who better to help you let go of grief than a person assigned to make you let go of one of your proverbial security blankets?
This film is such a richly layered display of humanity that it cannot be ignored. The story is pure, the performances strong, and the pacing is expert, even for a movie as long as this is. As I mentioned before, the first major shock was getting the complete opening credits after 40 minutes. The other one was when the end credits rolled after three hours, and I was amazed that it barely felt like any time had passed at all. That’s how engrossing this is.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How do you deal with loss? What’s the longest movie you absolutely love? Let me know!