Drive My Car begins as a story about a couple who both work in the arts and are still grieving the loss of their only child some years earlier. Husband Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a theater actor and director in the middle of a production of Waiting for Godot and wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) works as a writer for a Japanese television studio. Her stories come to her after she is intimate when she tells them to Yūsuke who then relays them back to her in the mornings. Their life together seems to be mostly a happy one, though Oto’s most recent story hints at some repressed feelings that need to be dealt with. Then one day, nearly a third of the way through the film, tragedy strikes, Yūsuke is left on his own, and the opening credits finally appear.
At this point Drive My Car becomes about something else altogether, as we flash forward 2 years and Yūsuke is arriving in Hiroshima to direct an adaptation of Uncle Vanya for a local arts festival. An unusual policy of the festival requires him to be chauffered around the city while he is there, which he understandably finds strange, but upon seeing how skilled his driver Misaki (Tôko Miura) is, he accepts the odd imposition and the 2 gradually become something like friends. Yūsuke makes some unorthodox casting decisions, including hiring on actor Kōji (Masaki Okada), whom he suspects of having possibly been intimate with his wife, in the title role despite the large age gap between the young man and the older character and Kōji’s recent controversial behavior.
Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s script, written with Takamasa Oe, smartly adapts the source short story by acclaimed author Haruki Murakami and incorporates themes from the 2 plays being performed, particularly Checkov’s Uncle Vanya. This is a deliberately paced film, with long shots of Japanese cityscapes and even longer conversations, but it’s so perfectly pitched that it never drags. The core cast all shine, especially in the scenes that build the emotional throughlines to their crescendos. Grief, rage, love, habit, and the act of creating art are all adeptly touched on here, but for me the main subject is need: what we need from our lives, other people, and ourselves and what we are willing to do and/or tolerate to get it. That idea is portrayed beautifully here, with many deeply resonant moments that linger in the mind long after the film is over. ★★★★★
Not Rated. Contains strong sexual content, nudity, thematic material, and smoking.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor