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Drive My Car: Japan’s Most Acclaimed Film Since Kurosawa’s Dreams Is An Exasperating Gem



Drive My Car

Drive My Car (Japanese  with  English subtitles, Streaming on Mubi from 1 April)

Starring  Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tōko Miura,Masaki Okada ,Reika Kirishima

Directed by  Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Rating: *** ½

Is  Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive  My Car   the most vital Japanese  film since  Akira Kurosawa’s  Dreams?  More importantly, is Hamaguchi the most important  Japanese  filmmaker since Kurosawa?  The  world’s critics’  community  seems  to thinks so:  his other 2021  film Wheel Of Fortune & Fantasy is in my opinion  a superior work , but  the chances  of  Drive My Car winning the  Oscar  for  best foreign film are  pegged at almost-there.

Indeed  Drive  My Car is something we have never seen  before in  cinema  of  any language. It is cryptic and compelling, exhilarating and  yet exasperating in its refusal to let us  into  the  characters’ inner world.

Really, we can only guess at what our protagonist, a  filmmaker  named  Yūsuke Kafuku is  getting at. Is  he  lunging for  immortality through his work? It doesn’t look like it. Throughout  the 3 hours of playing time  Yusuke  seems disaffected from his  surroundings, a  state  of  ‘being there but not being there’ which is further compounded by  Yusuke’s wife Oto(Reika Kirishima)’s auto-eroticism.  Oto conjures  stories  during orgasm which her  husband is supposed to memorize  during their love-making  as she forgets her  stories the  next morning.

In the  midst of all this  ruminative  creative  conceit, Yusuke is detected with  partial blindness, just after he catches  hif wife with another man in their bedroom(after a missed flight, the best fictional  alibi for proving infidelity since Man invented the motion picture and the  airplane).

Then Oto dies.

I thought this  was the end  of the  movie. But as  Karen Carpenter once reminded us, we’ve  only just begun.And to hammer in the  fact that what we’ve seen so  far is just the prelude, the director plays the credit titles at this   point of  his linear but loopy narrative , when  the inwardly-grieving Yusuke proceeds  to Hiroshima  to direct a  stage version of Chekhov’s Uncle  Vanya.

Yusuke  is assigned a  female  chauffeur to  drive  him around(Drive My Car, remember?).

The  driver,an 18-year old  imperturbable stoic girl  named  Misaki(Tōko Miura)now becomes  the focus of attention , as  Yusuke finds himself leaning forward from  the  back seat to reach out to his graceful  ostensibly emotion-less driver. Their interaction is initially  tentative but soon becomes  an escape-route  for Yusuke from  the implacable fortress that he has built around himself.

Complicating the  scenario  even  more(yes, the  swirls  of  conundrum  never cease  in this  mystical  journey  of  a filmmaker  into the  innermost recesses  of his most inaccessible  emotions) is the fact that Koji(Masaki Okada)  the  young man with  whom Yusuke had caught his  wife , is  also part  of  the  Chekhov stage adaptation which  Yusuke is  directing.

At the end Misaki drives Yusuke  to her native  place where she has buried some of her own secrets. By the time we reach  the end  of  the long drive into the darkness ,we are left with more question than answers on  the creative process: Yusuke’s directorial style seems   much more accessible than  what director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has attempted in Drive My Car.Or maybe  Hamaguchi sees  himself as  a superior filmmaker  to  his protagonist.

Hamaguchi has  extracted  more juice  from a short story(by Haruki Murakam) than other  creative minds would  squeeze out of a 2000-page novel.In  making a  3-hour film  out  of   5-page story, Hamaguchi  is often  seen stretching  the emotions way beyond their prescribed limits. Drive My Car tells us that loss and  bereavement are best confronted when  they are least  expected to.  That  we  can get into our favourite car and  drive through stretches  of the imagination with nothing to lose except our stifling dependence on  the  trappings of  every day living.

Drive My Car is meant to leave us wiser than before.Tragically  I  was  left more confused about the  conundrum  of life after seeing the film.Can a  filmmaker really deliver us  from our uncertainties with his cinema? This question troubles  the film’s protagonist Yūsuke Kafuku  as  much as  director Ryusuke Hamaguchi.As  a spectator I would rather not interfere.

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