‘Drive My Car’ review: Japan’s Oscar darling will show you a better time

Should the Beatles-inspired awards magnet have picked up Best Picture?

The one thing you won’t hear in Drive My Car is The Beatles‘ song ‘Drive My Car’. That’s because director Ryusuke Hamaguchi couldn’t afford the rights to the track that inspired his own film. Previously known for Japanese indies like Happy Hour (2015) and Asako I & II (2018), Hamaguchi’s profile went up a notch when he found himself nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, eventually winning one for Best International Feature Film.

The uncast shadow of The Beatles isn’t the only absence looming large over Drive My Car. Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story collection, Men Without Women, this melancholy three-hour epic about the lies we tell ourselves to give life meaning is filled with the ghosts of family tragedies and national traumas. Hamaguchi’s literary and densely layered drama moves slowly through its runtime, but stick with it and Drive My Car rewards patience like almost nothing else.

A prologue (lasting a full 40 minutes) introduces us to theatre director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his writer wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima, who also starred in the adaptation of Murakami’s other Beatles-inspired story, Norwegian Wood). Grief haunts their relationship, but so do the fuzzy definitions of love – with Oto freestyling her best written work during sex so that Yūsuke can retell her own forgotten thoughts the next morning. A cancelled flight finds Yūsuke walking in on Oto cheating with a younger man, and the chapter ends with her dead on the floor – leaving Yūsuke with nothing but sadness, guilt, and an audio recording of her reading all the lines from his next play, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

Two years later, the film starts again. Slowly unpeeling the leftover feelings of the opening act, the rest of the plot finds Yūsuke at a theatre residency in Hiroshima as he prepares to direct the play Oto was helping him rehearse for. Booking a hotel more than an hour away so he can spend his long commutes listening to Oto’s voice on the tape deck of his retro Saab, he turns up at the festival to discover the theatre has assigned him a chauffeur, Misaki (Tōko Miura).

Drive My Car
‘Drive My Car’ picked up the Best International Feature Film award at this year’s Oscars. CREDIT: Alamy

As Misaki silently drives Yūsuke down endless lamp-lit highways, with the sound of his dead wife endlessly narrating lines from a 19th century Russian play, Drive My Car starts laying out its bigger tapestry: with threads pulled from Misaki’s tragic past, from Yūsuke’s broken memories, from the company of actors that Yūsuke is endlessly drilling in the text, from Chekhov’s words, and from the fragile connections that keeps everyone’s story tangling up together.

If it sounds pretentious, it never acts like it – with Hamaguchi always finding the subtlety in the sentiment. He floods the film with the kind of emotion and intimacy that always feels earned and real. Stunningly shot and acted, with one of the best scripts in years, it’s a film that deserved to be named Best Picture yet will probably be remembered as a Best Kept Secret.

Details

  • Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
  • Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tōko Miura, Reika Kirishima
  • Release date: April 1 (streaming on MUBI)
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