starring Hidetoshi Nishijima, Masaki Okada, Reika Kirishima, Tôko Miura
screenplay by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe, based on the short story by Haruki Murakami
directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
by Walter Chaw Haruki Murakami's short story "Drive My Car" is a model of the rich economy that typifies his writing. The prose--inasmuch as I can tell from its English translation--is simple and declarative, and the action, such as it is, is mundane. But that simplicity is akin to the "Drink Me/Eat Me" invitations presented to Alice on the outskirts of Wonderland--the Red Pill/Blue Pill keys to entire landscapes littered with signs and referents pointing to the things Murakami was thinking (of) as he was writing, possibly even to what he was reading immediately before setting pen to paper. Midway through the short story, the protagonist, Kafuku (a homonym for Kafka), a small-time stage actor who has had to hire a driver because of a drunk-driving accident, mentions his love of zoning out to Beethoven--or, on occasion, American soft rock--on the way home from the theatre. On the way in? He listens to a cassette of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya", the play in which he's playing the lead role. Some days, he'll close his eyes and try to catch his driver, a young woman called Misaki, shifting gears on his 12-year-old yellow Saab. As Murakami describes it, Misaki is such a good driver that Kafuku can only tell gears are being changed by the engine's sound, which he compares to an insect flying nearer, then away, then back again.
We learn after a time that Kafuku's wife had been unfaithful to him with at least four men during their twenty years together. She died of uterine cancer before Kafuku could figure out how to ask her why she strayed. We learn that the couple lost a child, a daughter, three days after her birth and before naming her. And we learn that he is the same age as Misaki's father, who had abandoned her and her alcoholic, abusive mother when Misaki was a child. If you're familiar with "Uncle Vanya", it's possible to see echoes of Vanya in Kafuku: both are tortured by their love for a woman who is sleeping with another man; both regret advances they should have made at some lost point in time; and both must now pretend to be civil to men who are in some ways their rivals, in other ways their friends. Vanya and Kafuku have similarly grown too old to feel much of the fire of sexual jealousy--though even that loss is painful to watch burn off into the cold night air of age and infirmity. Misaki, forced to listen to the play endlessly during her duties for Kafuku, identifies with Chekhov's Sonya, a young woman in unrequited love with a handsome, drunken doctor who only sees her as the rather plain daughter of a colleague--a colleague whose wife is a rare beauty made idle by comfort. Mean, too. Sonya gets the grace note in "Uncle Vanya", and Misaki gets it in "Drive My Car":
"To me, it's a kind of sickness. Thinking about it doesn't do much good. The way my father walked out on my mother and me, my mother's constant abuse — I blame the sickness for those things. There's no logic involved. All I can do is accept what they did and try to get on with my life."
"So then we're all actors," Kafuku said.
"Yes, I think that's true. To a point, anyway."
In "Uncle Vanya," Sonya says:
What can we do? We must live our lives. [A pause] Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile—and—we shall rest...
Murakami makes plain what Chekhov sheathes in melancholia: how Sonya's hopefulness for a better tomorrow is entirely predicated on the sweet release of death and the perspective death might offer. You can see everything in context once you're dead, but it does nothing to help the suffering of the living. (Though can you really see anything when you're dead? It's cruel to hope it.) Misaki states it more plainly: that life is suffering and the simultaneous denial or repression of suffering. The "sickness" to which she refers touches on the human condition, how life is a state she has previously equated with an incurable fatal illness. Everyone suffers; the only variation in our emotional lives is how well we pretend not to be destroyed by knowledge of our miserable mortality before we finally get to die.
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's film adaptation of "Drive My Car" is another approach to understanding the Murakami source, a piece that respects the author's rhythms and listens carefully, very carefully, to the clues he's leaving in the text. If Murakami mentions "Uncle Vanya", it must be important, and so we hear more of the play in Drive My Car, including a segment in Act II where Vanya expresses the abjectness of his regret in terms more emotional than the actor Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) will ever express or is indeed capable of expressing. Kafuku, in the text, is less famous than his cinematic counterpart, a television actor who found some fame before the death of his four-year-old daughter sent him back to the theatre. His wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), works steadily as an actor and screenwriter, starting her career as a form of grieving by, in the moments immediately after sex, reciting stories of little lost girls that she will forget in her drowsiness and as her afterglow fades, but that Kafuku helps her to remember the morning after. It's the only kind of pregnant she will allow them to get, and she is the one engendering life now in the body of her husband. Kafuku is also a successful stage director, casting and helming though not starring in "Uncle Vanya". He's forced to hire the driver, Misaki (Toko Miura), not due to a surplus of drink, but because the project contractually requires that the artist in residence be driven, owing to a previous tragedy.
Kafuku catches his wife, Oto, fucking a stranger in their bed one day but doesn't say anything. He gets in an accident because of heretofore-undetected glaucoma in his left eye (it's his right eye in the story), and Oto's subsequent concern for him is genuine. She loves him. But she keeps this secret of her betrayal in a safe at the bottom of an ocean of their lives together, and he loves her too much to try to crack it. In the story, Kafuku befriends one of his wife's lovers, Takatsuki, with the intention of destroying him yet finds, after a while, that he no longer has any interest in the man's ruination. In the film, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) is a young actor whom Kafuku casts as Uncle Vanya. Takatsuki protests that he's too young for the role, but his concerns are dismissed. He complains that he feels separate and strange in the cast during the table reads, and clearly he's injured by Kafuku's unwillingness to coach him in the beginning. This production of "Uncle Vanya", to be held at a festival in Hiroshima, is multilingual, with a cast that includes Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin speakers and Korean Sign Language. Sonya, in fact, is cast with a deaf actress who delivers her "comfort" to a distraught Vanya entirely in sign, from behind him, her hands held in front like the child in Santa Sangre performing as his armless mother's arms through holes in her dress. Kafuku casts Takatsuki at first to humiliate him, it seems, but as the rehearsals continue, and Kafuku develops affection for Takatsuki, his interest in Takatsuki's destruction transitions into a desperate need for Takatsuki to fill in pieces of Oto's story that he would never be able to complete on his own.
Kafuku, we see in the film, makes a masterful Vanya, but becomes so consumed with his performance that he has a nervous breakdown offstage during one evening's show. He answers questions as to why he isn't reprising the role at the Hiroshima festival by confessing his terror of Chekhov's ability to pull truth out of people against their will. His strategy in rehearsals is to strike at the heart of that terrifying vulnerability. In a way, Chekhov performs exorcisms on the actors speaking his words by dragging the demon--all the secret parts that a person larders against the indignities and atrocity of the world--into holy light and judgment. In their last talk in both the story and the film, Takatsuki tells Kafuku he doesn't think it's possible to ever fully know another person. Kafuku's desperation to understand Oto, in other words, is doomed to disappointment. Takatsuki says:
"Examining your own heart, however, is another matter. I think it's possible to see what's in there if you work hard enough at it. So in the end maybe that's the challenge: to look inside your own heart as perceptively and seriously as you can, and to make peace with what you find there. If we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves."
After his wife dies (of a brain aneurysm in the film--sudden and cruel, lessening Kafuku's cowardice in speaking with her plainly of his own pain), Kafuku plays cassettes of Oto reading all the other parts of "Uncle Vanya" for him to play against. He explains to Misaki that the silences are where his lines go, and that because he and Oto were so perfectly matched, were he to deliver Vanya's lines into the silence, Oto's recitation would pick up perfectly where he stopped. I need to take a second here to cry. The changes Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe make to the story are brilliant literary criticism that enhances the short story in ways that honour Murakami's entire ethos. There are pieces pulled into it from Murakami's other work (including Burning in the story Oto tells and can never finish), as well as explorations of issues suggested by the source like questions of transference in Kafuku and Takatsuki--literalized in Kafuku casting Takatsuki in the role that Kafuku "owns."
Hamaguchi and Oe also arrange it so that the first time Kafuku meets Takatsuki is backstage after a Kafuku performance of "Waiting for Godot", the last bit of which involves a rope our heroes will use to hang themselves should Godot not appear, echoing the suicidal ideations in "Uncle Vanya" as Vanya despairs throughout and, at one point, steals a vial of his doctor friend's morphine for that very purpose. In some stagings of the play, rope used to bind Vanya's benefactor's/rival's books has been employed so as to symbolize hanging. Murakami uses Beckett in his work as well--the playwright's sense of absurdity rhyming with Schopenhauer's theories around aestheticism and certain notions about the world-as-appearance. Masaki's declaration that all people are acting is Schopenhauer and, of course; one of Vanya's main complaints is that were it not for the mistakes of his life, he could have been Dostoevsky--or, indeed, Schopenhauer.
The complexity of Drive My Car is such that it plays like a detailed appendix for "Drive My Car." In showing a moment onstage of Kafuku crying out his shame and frustration as Vanya, it invites the consideration of both Schopenhauer and the debt that "Drive My Car" owes to Dostoevsky's novel The Eternal Husband, which follows the relationship of a man who is friends with the husband of the woman who was his mistress. Dostoevsky's typically guilt-ridden hero, Alexei, realizes that the young daughter of his friend Pavel is actually Alexei's through the affair he carried on with Pavel's recently-deceased wife, Natalia, eight years prior. Wanting to get his daughter away from Pavel, who is an abusive drunk, he places the child with a foster family, but the child promptly dies. Murakami conflates Dostoevsky's lost child with not only Kafuku and Oto's lost daughter but Misaki as well. Misaki, who has suffered terribly at the hands of a drunk parent. Drive My Car is the expression of a theory that The Eternal Husband and "Uncle Vanya" were twin touchstones for "Drive My Car" and, moreover, that Murakami had himself done some forensic work on both to arrive at his own story, honouring Schopenhauer's philosophies as his preferred means towards understanding Chekhov, Beckett, and Dostoevsky. It's incredible and incredibly rewarding--and all that is just pulling at the literary strings and none of the cinematic choices in this adaptation. Why, for instance, is Kafuku's beloved Saab red in the film instead of the story's yellow? Why the dinner scene with the deaf actress and her husband that allows Misaki a wordless communion with the couple's dog, paid off in an epilogue that suggests Misaki has finally found peace? Or is it merely a more successful performance of peace?
Drive My Car can have these various meanings, but without them it would still provide the emotional wallop that it does. It's 40 minutes in before some of its secrets are revealed--another 40 before we begin to know anything about Misaki at all. Clocking in at just shy of three hours (and Hamaguchi is no stranger to slow cinema--his extraordinary Happy Hour logs in at just over five hours), Drive My Car inhabits every inch of its runtime. Kafuku is drawn carefully, in loving and equally excoriating detail, his failures and petty impulses offset by his kindness and genuine, if hard-won, acceptance. The picture speaks to the grieving process and how, when you least expect, the dead have a way of surfacing to knock the breath out of you--how the person you love most in your life can be a stranger who has given precious pieces of herself to others whose stories you might never learn. Just as it's impossible to know someone else in their entirety, it's impossible to possess the totality of another person's experiences. It's even impossible, Drive My Car proposes, to completely own your own experiences. At the moment of the film's emotional crisis, Kafuku embraces Misaki and recites lines from "Uncle Vanya" to her, because art is the only means by which he can express the breadth of his emotion. It's not the words, it's something else. During a rare successful rehearsal, Kafuku tells his actors to take what's just happened between them there, beneath a tree shedding its leaves in a park under an autumn sun, and bring it to the stage. "But what has happened?" Kafuku is asked. "I couldn't begin to tell you," he says.
There's a line from the Murakami story not in the film that I adore, as it reminds me of a Wallace Stevens poem called "The Snowman." In it, an actor talks about how he loved to perform because it allowed him to become another person for a while; he has realized, maybe too late, that each act of exorcism of the self resulted in a self that had ineffably mutated into someone he didn't know anymore:
Then back to the stage, and the acting. The bright lights, the rehearsed lines. The applause, the falling curtain. Leaving who one was for a brief time, then returning. But the self that one returned to was never exactly the same as the self that one had left behind.
That's beautiful, isn't it? And it describes what great art does to an audience open to receiving it: it knocks you out of yourself into a grander space shared by those who came before you with the same fears, sadness, self-loathing--the same unrequited longings and shame for opportunities lost. Art allows a contemplation that is only deepened by knowledge of other great art, tracing back a lineage of human experience of which you are now a part. It's impossible to be lonely in the universe when Uncle Vanya expresses his despair and even his desire for a surcease of his sorrow: Whatever you feel in the depths of your depression has been felt before and made into this message, carried on threads gossamer-thin but strong as spider's silk, from the entire tradition of human creation all the way here to you, watching this movie, and being challenged to see yourself on the screen. And if you allow it, you'll never be the same again.