I found Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ) to be pretentious and, at three hours, unnecessarily long. Thinking I may have missed something, after the screening I attended, I cautiously asked other audience members what they thought of the film. Nobody really cared for it, and the conversation quickly shifted to films each of us did like. But here it is, widely hailed by critics as a masterpiece and nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Inspired by a short story by Haruki Murakami, writer-director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi opens with a 40-minute pre-credit sequence, which alone should serve as a Pretension Alert.
I should explain that I like many different genres of films. If the purpose of a film is to make us laugh, I’m fine with it. If a film is a mystery and or a thriller meant to entertain, that’s good enough for me. But my favorite kind of films are those that have something to say—“message” films on either a personal or societal level. However, if a film takes itself that seriously, the message better work. Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car definitely takes itself seriously. But what is it trying to say?
I culled some descriptions from critical reviews. “A graceful, aching film.” “Ornate character networks and openly addressed matters of the heart.” “A mosaic or choreography of short stories, an archipelago of lives.” “An intimate stage whisper of a film.” “The layers of the film unfold with a voluptuous slowness and a sense that narrative endpoints are irrelevant.” “Teems with ideas about grief and betrayal, the nature of acting, the possibility (and impossibility) of catharsis through art, and the simple bliss of watching lights and landscapes fly past your car window.”
I can’t help but feel that many critics and Academy voters felt obligated to praise Drive My Car because others were doing so. A form of herd criticism.
Drive My Car centers on Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a successful, respected stage actor/director, who, two years after his wife’s death, agrees to direct a production of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. Eventually he bonds with the reserved young woman who has been hired to drive him around. They both share a sense of guilt for the death of a family member. After conducting auditions, Yusuke chooses a diverse cast that includes his wife’s ex-lover and a woman who communicates in Korean sign language. The ex-lover is later arrested for murder and Yusuke plays the part of Vanya.
I finally hit upon a way of liking Drive My Car on my own terms. Even though the character of Yusuke is the focus of the film, what is most fascinating for me is the diverse collection of secondary characters who float into Yusuke’s life. And despite what some critics might lead us to believe, not all of these characters are sad, grief-stricken, guilty or otherwise damaged. Many of them are content, the sort of people it would be nice to get to know if they weren’t fictional characters.
By the way, when it comes to films inspired by Haruki Murakami short stories, Drive My Car is less interesting than Burning, which didn’t even pick up a single Oscar nomination.