At the end of Drive my car, after the characters have traveled many hundreds of kilometers in it, I also want such a Saab 900. Year 1978. Talladega red. Chrome grille. Black leather bucket seats. And one tape recorder, preferably one of those old-fashioned 8-tracks that the main character Yusuke Kafuku, an actor, longs for. He tells about the legendary cassette player from his childhood in Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name, the basis of the film. Still, such an 8-track, with the option of four stereo recordings, seems too much of a good thing. Because Kafuku drives on endless highways in various Japanese cities, he listens to only one voice, the voice of his dead wife Oto, who was unfaithful to him.
Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is 47 and he does not have an 8-track. Only a ‘modern’ cassette player. He listens to it, even when he gets the strange young woman Misaki (Toko Miura) as driver after he was diagnosed with glaucoma. Before that, it was his custom to write his text to Anton Chekhov while driving to work Uncle Vanja to practice. He did so with a tape on which Oto recorded lyrics from other characters from the play. Kafuku continues this for a long time, even after Oto’s death, while working on his own wanja-production. And while Misaki is driving.
The one who goes on a journey has to start somewhere, and for the viewer it is this beautiful, first scene: Oto (Reika Kirishima) wakes up next to her husband in the semi-darkness of the morning. She suddenly tells a story softly while Kafuku, also just awake, listens in bed next to her. This habit of TV series screenwriter Oto is the result of trauma. It is important for now to know that stories come to her if she has had sex the previous night and that it is Kafuku’s job to remember the details. The softness of Oto’s voice, the gray sky visible from the bedroom and the shadow play of light and darkness on her skin, create a mysterious beauty.
But this is a different story, Murakami fans will immediately notice, and well notice Scheherazade, where a man can not leave his house and his lover tells him stories that the queen in A thousand and one nights† Actually for drive my car, Nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi uses several stories from the same Murakami collection, Men without women (2014). But the director goes even further. Chekhov’s play about living with the tragedy of the times also occupies a central place.
How Hamaguchi should bring all those stories together is a mystery to me, I thought as I watched. Therefore, I clung to the image of the 8-track I read about at Murakami, the archaic unit that excels at polyphony† Is this so Drive my car: in terms of content a cacophony of characters and themes, a ‘too-much-of-the-good-movie’? As I watched and struggled with all those voices, – come now – another came to me: Mark Twain, who said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is scarce.” Prominent: at Murakami, they drink a lot of whiskey. Single malt.
‘Drive My Car’ is in a very strong best film list at the Oscars. The big challenger is Jane Campion’s western The power of the dog, which would be a deserved winner. Right at this time streaming her film is an example of classic filmmaking: the emphasis on widescreen images that tell a psychological story. Interestingly, exactly the same goes for the other big nominees: the science fiction epic dune by Denis Villeneuve, de neo-noir Nightmare Alley from Guillermo del Toro, Steven Spielberg’s musical west side history, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Ode to Hollywood, liquorice pizza, and Adam McKay’s disaster film Do not look up† The common denominator is ‘epic and complex’, and it fits Drive my car perfect with. Hamaguchi’s film, which is almost three hours long, has scenes with a lot of text, but the meaning of the story is also shaped by broad images of highways and landscapes.
‘… yes, those things happen. They cut. It’s about flesh and blood. “
That the Saab 900 just whizzes through on the tarmac while Kafuku and Misaki talk. When it gets quiet, they both look straight ahead. Suddenly, the camera’s gaze changes and it zooms in on a stretch of highway that Kafuku and Misaki have just traveled. More specifically: the visual perspective, which still drives the ‘future’ with the car, moves ‘forward’, but then towards the route just traveled. On the whole, they no longer get in that car. This subtle imagery has an effect on the viewer’s brain. Call it an ‘awareness of theme’, an awareness of the grip of traumatic events from the past on the characters, and the question of how they can live in the present while at the same time imagining a future.
By finding an answer to this, Uncle Vanja an important point, as well as the unique way in which Kafuku wants to perform Chekhov’s play, namely the multilingual (aha: 8-track). This means that different characters will speak other languages, besides Japanese also Korean, German and English; even sign language in the case of the actress playing Wanja’s niece Sonja. It is as if the different voices, especially Chekhov’s, all offer a vision of history in their own way. But so far, Kafuku is only interested in one character: Vanja, a role he leaves to an overly young, attractive actor, whom he met when his late wife was working as a screenwriter for a television company. And Takatsuki. Otos love.
Exciting is why Kafuku does not himself play the role he knows so well, but gives it to Takatsuki. At first I thought: revenge – by making the young man who is silent about his relationship with Oto, experience the tragedy of Wanja’s ‘useless’ life, feel the same pain that Kafuku has lived with since Oto’s death, caused by his knowledge of her betrayal and his inability to understand why she did it. But it goes deeper. When Kafuku is at a bar with the young actor drinking single malt, the playwright says of course: ‘Chekhov is scary. When you say the text, it’s as if it pulls all the real out of you. I can’t hold this anymore. ‘ What Kafuku does not like is the paradoxical influence that fiction has on him. The more he Uncle Vanja seems, the more he loses his own self, the closer he gets to the truth. What Oto died of is not important. The mystery of their lives together – they really loved each other, but she was unfaithful to him – that eats him up.
Only after forty minutes the opening titles appear on the screen with which Drive my car without a doubt set record. It instantly gives the film the ‘great’ feel that is so prominently present among the Oscar nominees this year. In the case of Hamaguchi’s film, this is all the more relevant because the work emphatically plays with literary conventions. The story is intimate, but what goes on in the characters’ minds is as’ epic ‘as cowboys at work in The power of the dog, the fights in dune or the already legendary hunt in Licorice pizza† The play in Drive my car lies in a quest that drives Saab to a painful truth.
Like Kafuku, Misaki also struggles with a difficult past. A trauma. What it is exactly is only revealed at the end of their last trip. Riding together, two metaphors arise: the actor at work with his text and the actor staring ahead, seeing or trying to see something. Text and image. And both fall short. Chekhov’s language drives Kafuku crazy: He has played Vanja so many times that it no longer matters to him. And the eternal voice of ‘Scheherazade’, his wife, is by no means enlightening. See then? It does not work either – therefore blind spot, the blind spot in his peripheral vision caused by glaucoma.
This image, straight from Murakami, is crushingly effective. Because looking at your life until it’s all sharp, even in the dark corner, we all do. The sad Kafuku seeks focus, meaning. Why was Oto unfaithful? From Murakami: ‘… yes, those things happen. They cut. It is, after all, about flesh and blood. In the end, there’s nothing left but a pile of bones, right? But there must be more than that. If you want to call it that, then we humans all live with the same kind of blind spot. Those words resonated in his ears for a long time. ‘ (My English translation of Murakami’s story reads: ‘… we man… ‘Would the author here mean: we men or we humans? I think the latter.)
I will not tell you how it ends, except that we see the end of Kafuku’s Uncle Vanja on stage and that sign language plays a role. And that it is beautiful. I’d rather go back to the Saab 900. Like Murakami’s stories, that car is especially cool, especially with an 8-track. The more voices, the more joy, says drive my car, and a single malt, please. As we live, we ride with Kafuku and Misaki in such a Saab, while experiencing ‘now, later and right now’ at the same time, intensely aware of beauty, passion and tragedy. Wanja’s niece says something similar in her famous concluding monologue: ‘We will live through the endless procession of days ahead. Through all the long nights. Patiently we will bear the burdens of fate. You’ve never been able to taste happiness, uncle, but wait, wait. ‘
Drive my car can be seen from March 24. The Oscar ceremony will take place on March 27th