Two people in a car
© Janus Films

Title: Drive My Car

Japanese titleドライブ・マイ・カー

Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Writer: Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Takamasa Oe, Haruki Murakami

Release: 11th July 2021

Runtime: 179 minutes

A character mystery

It’s 40 minutes into Drive My Car that the first set of ‘opening credits’ begin to populate the screen. It separates two clearly defined stages of this award-winning Japanese tale; directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, as well as the life of our protagonist Yūsuke Kafuku, and leaves very little apart from perplexity for the audience to get grips with for the remaining 2 hours. 

What we have here then is a Japanese drama but one that is shrouded in mystery; however, the mystery is not really the narrative itself but rather of the characters, their journeys and their emotional mindsets — especially Yusuke. 

In order to find the answers we have to put ourselves into the hands of director Ryusuke and his careful and deliberate method of storytelling, that —at times — feels like he’s leading you astray, yet is actually feeding you the very snippets you need to piece together what has occurred as well as the message Drive My Car is actually trying to tell. 

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A strange state of affairs

Yūsuke is an accomplished actor that turns creative director for a theatre production set to begin in Hiroshima; his wife, Oto is a storyteller and scriptwriter. It certainly seems like a match made in heaven and for the most part remains that way as a constant throughout the movie, despite what would normally be some devastating occurrences that take place in the introductory section of the film. Part of this relationship involves Oto recording opposing voice lines on a cassette tape for Yusuke to practise against in preparation for his acting roles; he plays the cassettes in his car almost religiously on the way to work as part of his method. 

The first major incident occurs when Yusuke is forced to return home early due to delayed flights. There he finds his wife having an affair with a young actor that she herself introduced to him backstage at the theatre.

What immediately strikes the audience is that there is next to no reaction and he merely backs out of the house. We then wait for their next scene together. Nothing. It is never mentioned again. There is a similar reaction to another devastating incident that soon follows. Yusuke continues as if everything is normal.. 

From then on we begin to understand that something in this relationship and the characters themselves is amiss, (earlier scenes also gave some impression of this) and we are all left asking why? It is this contrast of usually traumatising events against an almost indifferent character stance – on both accounts – that gives rise to the mystery of the entire movie.

For the remainder of the film an expressionless exterior presides over Yusuke at nearly all times and the intrigue of peeling back the layers to reveal the truth is something Drive My Car actively works towards.

DRIVE MY CAR early scene
Yusuke and his wife Oto © Janus Films

Drive my car

The story jumps several years later and Yusuke is in preparation to direct the play Uncle Vanya by Chekhov. It is here that another key character, Misaki, enters the picture. Part of the requirements for theatre production staff at this new company is to always be driven by a chauffeur. There is a reluctance at first to hand over the reins of his beloved red Saab, but is forced to acquiesce to the rule. 

Up to this point if you thought Yusuke was portrayed with an emotionless facade, well, he’s got nothing on Misaki. She is a young 23 year old woman with a stone-faced profile who is equally mysterious. 

In the second act of this film a lot of scenes are conducted inside Yusuke’s car and consequently the two mysterious figures spend a lot of on-screen time together. At first the relationship between the two is like two rocks grinding against each other, but over the course of the remaining 2 hours the roughness smoothens to a point where they unconsciously begin to work well together and break down each other’s guarded appearance. 

In truth, a lot of the scenes outside of the car are almost inconsequential in what seems to be a very character focused mystery drama. Scenes of Yusuke conducting auditions, performing rehearsals for his upcoming play, and conversations with fellow actors — something that you are fooled into thinking is a core component — are actually mostly filler, however they do provide snippets of information that are then brought back to the car and built upon in later scenes. 

Yusuke talking with another actor © Janus Films

An indirect approach

There is another character almost third-wheeling this character development; Yusuke’s wife — who is no longer in the picture — is constantly present in her cassette recordings that he still plays in the car. (she recorded the lines of Uncle Vanya two years prior in preparation for his role.) 

The stilted lines that we hear often mirror the situation that is unfolding on-screen, seemingly unconsciously to Yusuke who is replying with his own lines in a rehearsed manner. They give an insight into emotions and train of thought that is otherwise left unsaid — it’s almost like some wayward form of dramatic irony. 

This is one of Ryusuke’s core storytelling components.

Throughout the entire film exceedingly little is directly conveyed to the audience, instead relying on outside components and suggestive actions to relay the message. 

Another example is when Yusuke uses some eye drops following the discovery of his wife’s affair. He uses them when sitting in his car and partially misses his eye, leading it to run down his cheek resembling a tear, all the while retaining an emotionless expression. 

This kind of storytelling method forces the audience into really paying attention to every detail that occurs on-screen, however It also makes for a slower pace of film. Prized information is almost drip-fed across 3 hours which for the most part keeps you engaged, but the lack of momentum starts to become a bit tedious after around 2 hours of viewing. Push through a little longer however and answers and revelations do begin to finally open up — it just takes a little bit more effort than perhaps you’re used to.

© Janus Films

Final thoughts

Drive My Car has a habit of throwing out multiple unusual twists and unexpected scenarios. Its purpose seems to be that of keeping the audience from predicting events too far into the future and reining in and limiting their attention to current scenes and events. 

That is how I felt watching this film. I wouldn’t say it was totally confusing or I was entirely lost, but I felt like I needed to constantly be alert and present in order to not become so. 

The storytelling method of Ryusuke is certainly clever and unlike many others you may have witnessed in the past, leading to an enjoyment factor where you want to ‘see where this goes’, but for me the balance between enjoyment and hard work begins to slightly favour the latter as the film progresses. The slow but gradual development of the characters however sufficiently kept me engaged, and for the most part interested in finding out the truth behind their own personnel stories.

The rewards for sticking with Drive My Car to the end in what is a very character centric driven narrative, is a very human and personal response that for the most part is missing from the rest of the film.