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TIFF 2021: Drive My Car is a dense, lyrical take on life after grief

Drive My Car

Ryusuke Hamaguchi adapts a Haruki Murakami short story & gives it additional depth & soul.

Interpretation is a complex beast. In terms of language, not even the most literal one is left entirely untouched by the person making it. In the case of longer work, a translator can take on a far more hands-on role, making a novel or film in translation a product of its interpreter as well as its original artist. In some cases, this influence can be significant. Translators and editors have played such a massive role in the way that English audiences understand and appreciate Haruki Murakami that writer, translator, editor, and creative writing professor David Karashima wrote an entire book on the topic in 2020. 

Interpreting prose for the screen comes with its own nuances, and its own symbiotic relationship between the writer’s vision and the filmmaker’s. Translating Murakami’s writing for the screen is perhaps even more complicated, given the nature of his stories and how he tells them (or at least how I understand them based on the English translations I’ve read).

So any time an anglophone audience watches a Japanese adaptation of a Murakami work, our own takes on what we’re viewing will be influenced by a combination of our understanding of the author as filtered through his translators and as filtered through the filmmaker. Which is also filtered through the film’s translator. 

In most cases, this remove could potentially add an extra challenge to the viewing experience. In Drive My Car, though, it might actually complement it. Based on a short story of the same name from 2014’s Men Without Women, it’s a ponderous and touching rumination on what hampers and what fosters human connection. This is explored through physical and emotional distance, a tension between the characters’ myth-making impulses and their pursuit of truth, and through language. 

Drive My Car (TIFF)

Stage actor and director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) enjoys a companionable if unexamined marriage with playwright and screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima). Although it’s irreparably scarred by previous loss, their affection for each other is obvious. Yet every interaction we see between them is out of sync in some way. She slips into an almost dreamlike state and tells him elaborate stories after they make love. He recounts them to her the morning after and she uses the material for her work. She makes cassette recordings of the plays he’s working on in which she reads every part except his own so that he can practice his lines while driving his red Saab 900 around town. She has a secret life and he knows it exists, but shows no interest in confronting it until her sudden death. 

Two years after the tragedy, Yusuke—who is still grieving, still driving around in his car and rehearsing with Oto’s voice—accepts a gig at a theater in Hiroshima to continue his vision of staging multi-lingual interpretations of theatrical classics. The play is Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which is the last tape Oto ever made for him. When he arrives in Hiroshima, he’s informed that the company has a policy that contracted talent must use a driver. 

Although Yusuke is extremely reluctant to let anyone into the physical and metaphorical bubble he’s created for himself and his wife’s memory within the vehicle, he eventually agrees to give a quiet young chauffeur named Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) a try. When he begrudgingly accepts her services and starts to work on the play in earnest, slowly fledgling connections begin to grow. Between the source material and the people staging it. Between the actors as they rehearse their roles in their first languages. And between Yusuke and Misaki as his reluctance and her professional distance gradually give way to a bond that encompasses both shared car appreciation and traumas. 

Ryusuke Hamaguchi established himself as a writer and director with an impressive ability to fuse a faithfulness to original texts with his own vision with his previous feature film, Asako I & II. His 2018 adaptation of Netemo Sametemo by Tomoka Shibasaki was a gorgeously decimating study on the chasm that can exist between who people are and what they want to see. His reimagining and expansion of Murakami’s short and sparse—at least by Murakami standards—story is even more exceptional. Its sprawling three hour runtime unfolds with the same rhythm, same possibilities, and same hypnotic quality of a cross-country drive. Caught somewhere in departure and destination, audiences are treated to beautiful scenery as it drifts past, and pregnant pauses that sometimes lead conversations and unexpected turns. And as the Saab 900 literally traverses physical distance, Drive My Car’s characters attempt to navigate the space between each other and the rifts within themselves. 

It’s a superb piece of filmmaking, every bit as confounding and yet relatable as the human experience. Anyone who’s willing to follow along the journey is sure to find their own connection to it. 

Drive My Car Trailer:

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Sarah Kurchak

Sarah Kurchak is a freelance writer and retired professional pillow fighter from Toronto, Canada. She once got into a deep discussion about Ingmar Bergman at an Impact Wrestling Taping. Her first book, I Overcame My Autism And All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder, is out now.