DRIVE MY CAR (Doraibu mai kâ)

Producers: Tsuyoshi Gorô, Misaki Kawamura, Osamu Kubota, Sachio Matsushita, Yoshito Nakabe, Keiji Okumura, Jin Suzuki and Akihisa Yamamoto   Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi   Screenplay: Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe   Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Masaki Okada, Toko Miura, Reika Kirishima, Park Yurim, Jin Daeyeon, Satoko Abe and Sonia Yuan   Distributor: Sideshow/Janus Films

Grade: B+

A Chekhovian tone suffuses Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film about an emotionally decimated stage director mounting a version of “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima.  Long, languid and lapidary in tone, “Drive My Car” will be frustratingly slow to some, but to others almost transcendentally moving.

Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, the film takes a full three hours in telling the story of Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), whom we initially meet as an actor married to writer Oto (Reika Kirishima).  They have an odd creative relationship: after they make love, she relates stories that have come to her while they were engaged, but promptly forgets them. The next day, he repeats them to her as they drive through the city in their red Saab, sometimes offering suggestions to improve them.  She, meanwhile, records the texts of plays he will appear in, which he uses to memorize his lines by playing them on the car’s deck. 

The two seem absurdly happy, despite some medical issues (he’s diagnosed with glaucoma after a minor car accident) until Yūsuke returns to their apartment unexpectedly one day and finds Oto in bed with Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a handsome young actor who’s starring in one of her shows.  He doesn’t intervene, instead leaving quietly to ponder how to deal with the situation.  While he comes back, he finds Oto dead of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Two years later, Yūsuke, still riven with grief, travels to Hiroshima to mount a festival staging of “Uncle Vanya.”  He goes there in his cherished Saab, but the festival directors inform him that their protocols require that he be assigned a driver, a reserved young woman named Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura).  She too is wracked by guilt over the death of her mother, and feels relief only when driving, which she does exceptionally well.

Much of the film is devoted to the preparation of the Chekhov production, which includes the choice of actors, who will play their roles in different languages (in one instance, signing) and rehearsals, which consist of Yūsuke requiring them to table-read their lines almost robotically over and over again.  Tension enters when Yūsuke, refusing to play the title role that’s he’s famous for because, as he explains, Chekhov forces one to reveal himself, instead casts young Takatsuki, fleeing from the disgrace some scandal has brought him to, in the part, though both know it ill suits him.  Meanwhile Yūsuke long rides with Misaki, which are initially consumed his listening to his late wife’s recitation of the play, into which he inserts Vanya’s lines, turn into something more intimate and personal.

The last act brings a revelation about why Misaki is so emotionally stunted over her mother’s death, and how it brings her and Yūsuke to deeper understandings of themselves and one another.  It also brings an outburst by the volatile Takatsuki, who’s infuriated by photographers trying to take pictures of him for the tabloids, that forces him out of the production.  Yūsuke, having come to terms with his wife’s infidelity and death, is now psychologically able to assume the role again, and, as a brief epilogue indicates, ready to begin a new life.

Hamaguchi, in collaboration with editor Azusa Yamazaki, lays out his narrative in a leisurely fashion that some will find overly deliberate, particularly in the repetitive rehearsal sequences.  He also elicits restrained performances from his cast whose understatement only gently allows the turmoil beneath the surface to register.  Yet the slowness does not result in tedium; “Drive My Car” remains hypnotically engrossing throughout, and the ending brings closure for both the characters and viewers.

The film has been shot with care by cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya, and the score by Eiko Ishibashi mournful score is only sparingly used.

“Drive My Car” is a cinematic journey that may not cover a great many miles, but it traverses substantial emotional terrain.