Vacuum of the Taciturn: On Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” (2021)

A still of the two leads in Ryusuke Hamaguchi's "Drive My Car"

Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women. That day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you’re already there. But by then there’s no going back. Once you round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called “Men Without Women.” Always a relentlessly frigid plural. – “Men Without Women” by Haruki Murakami

One of the oddest things I’ve seen repeated throughout the many (usually effusive) reviews for the 2021 Japanese drama Drive My Car is the modifier “epic.” Yes, it’s a long film, but however doggedly such a running time tries the patience of the flighty-minded average viewer, it’s about as far from “epic” as films go. A work as pointedly interior and repetitive belies the great scope and range that the word suggests. 2001: A Space Odyssey is an epic. Lawrence of Arabia is an epic. In contrast, Drive My Car has greater truck with the Chekhov play it feeds off of in its narrative – a contained, moody chamber piece rather than, say, the Tolstoy tome everybody knows.

This sort of carelessness with language is indicative of the many critical misunderstandings regarding the film, chief among them being the modifier that crops up even more than the one above: “masterpiece.” Writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car has already won several prestigious awards, including Best Screenplay at Cannes; and a bevy of critics prizes on the international stage. Most notably, it took home Best International Feature for this past year’s Academy Awards. Hamaguchi was the third Japanese director to win the prize, after Hiroshi Teshigahara and Akira Kurosawa – a small and distinguished crowd, to be sure.

So – the critics have had their say. But Drive My Car is not an epic, and it is far from masterful. Such labelling actually obscures its qualities, confused as they are in the jubilee of recent appraisals, and would distract a viewer interested in depth, and attention to depth, sans the noise that usually accompanies popularity contests like the Oscars, and even the supposed counterweight of Cannes. I argue that Hamaguchi is adept at implying intriguing depths in his film, but, more often than not, fails to successfully plumb them when time calls for it. This derives, mainly, from serious flaws in his script (which I also argue is manifest from its very incipience in the source material) and bland performances from the film’s car-driving leads, Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tôko Miura.

The story should befuddle none: Yūsuke Kafuku (Nishijima), a famed theater director/actor, endures a mostly peaceful marriage with Oto (Reika Kirishima), a TV screenwriter, despite not only her enigmatic sexual dreams/fantasies, which he tolerates with mild amusement, but a penchant for infidelity, usually with younger male actors from the soaps she writes while Kafuku travels for work. He is aware of her unfaithfulness yet chooses to keep mum about it, too afraid to break the relatively calm surface of their union – especially after the death of their infant daughter, years before.

An accident on the road exposes a flaw in Kafuku’s eyesight, keeping him away from the wheel of any vehicle he’s in (usually a red 1987 Saab 900 Turbo). Even this fails to significantly disturb the placidity of their relationship, which is finally destroyed by Oto’s unexpected death from a brain hemorrhage.

Two years later, Kafuku is commissioned to direct an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for a theater in Hiroshima. The place they’ve boarded him in is picturesque, but he is legally required to be chauffeured due to his eye condition. His driver is a sullen yet competent young woman named Misaki Watari.

The rest of the film involves Kafuku preparing and eventually staging the play. He is famed for using a multilingual cast, with the captions projected on a screen above the stage. They are all of disparate nationalities, among them Takatsuki, a handsome young actor Kafuku had met previously and whom he suspects had an affair with Oto. The plot undergoes only one significantly dramatic upheaval near the end, but otherwise, it’s as plain and unadorned as Misaki’s dour appearance.

Two dynamics are central to the story: Kafuku and Misaki; Kafuku and Takatsuki. The young actor has anger issues, and auditioned for the play partly out of a way to repair his damaged reputation, but an unspoken tension simmers between Kafuku and the younger man. Through him, the theater director seeks to understand what alienated Oto from his (and her own) life. A long monologue in Kafuku’s car, however, seems to only deepen the mystery of her unsatisfaction. (A third dynamic would be the one between Kafuku and his cast, although not as central.)

With Kafuku and Misaki, untreated grief is the theme, as both are still grappling with the aftermaths of loss. Misaki’s abusive mother died in a mudslide at Hokkaido, her hometown, and although she could’ve saved her, she chose not to, bearing not only a face scar from the accident but years of guilt. Through Misaki’s quiet receptivity/servitude, Kafuku learns to unpack his emotions.

The themes are various, and it doesn’t take a genius to understand Hamaguchi’s interplay (inner play?) between his script and Kafuku’s rendering of Chekhov: one can communicate on a deeper level than language, which is often an obstacle to understanding, as Oto’s disturbed storytelling and Takatsuki’s condescending confessional show.

The film runs for one minute shy of three hours, but for all its acclaim, and all its enigmatic silences and long takes and strained, artsy-fartsy staging and subtextual machinations, there is little in it to justify such a length. It is a relentlessly monotonous affair, with bland, humorless dialogue that very rarely acquires any of the verve that occurs in real life – almost all the main characters are rehearsed mannequins, and the performances of the two leads are so unfortunately stiff. I resist blaming any of the actors for this (most of the time), because it seems to me that Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s script (and what inspired it), as is the case for many mediocre performances, is largely to blame.

If the argument is: “Well, the stiffness is intended, because of how grief has muted the lives of these characters, and how it has inundated their worlds” – it doesn’t wash. There are dynamic, character-enlivening ways to portray such things without resorting to tedium/cardboard-cutout depictions, especially for such a run-of-the-mill dramatic situation as what happens in Drive My Car. So much banal detail is sprinkled throughout the film, conversations that could be trimmed of boring minutiae, that it could’ve been half its length and lost nearly nothing.

Problems manifest from the get-go, with the long prologue, which has, for some reason, dazzled viewers because of its length, seemingly above its dramatic implications. Here, we are introduced to Kafuku and Oto’s partnership, her sex-dreams-turned-screenplays, and her infidelity. The main issue is that these characters are simply not very interesting, and talk like characters in a Haruki Murakami book (more on that later), not like actual people. The sex scenes are atrociously written, as the symbolism of Oto’s orgasm-inspired plots are just puerile, and you’d think that Kafuku, as someone who careers in dramatic theater, would be able to pick up on what she’s dropping. Later on, in a long discussion with Takatsuki about their shared admiration for Oto, Kafuku admits that he never confronted Oto about her infidelity because he didn’t want to upset the balance they’d found after the loss of their daughter – and yet is befuddled by her apparent mysteriousness, through his cowardice:

KAFUKU: Even so, I’ve never doubted her love for me. There was no doubt. Oto betrayed me so naturally while she loved me. We were definitely deeply bonded, more so than anyone. Still, she contained within her a spot that I couldn’t look into, where something dark swirled.

The driving theme here is that no matter the depth of one’s bond, there is still the barrier of the Other, whom we cannot fully “know”. Takatsuki tearfully says as much, in response:

TAKATSUKI: Mr. Kafuku. As far as I know, Oto was a really lovely woman. Of course, what I know must be a tiny fraction of what you know about her. But I still think so with certainty. You lived with such a lovely person for over 20 years, and you should be grateful about that. That’s my opinion. But even if you think you know someone well, even if you love that person deeply, you can’t completely look into that person’s heart. You’ll just feel hurt. But if you put in enough effort, you should be able to look into your own heart pretty well. So in the end, what we should be doing is to be true to our hearts and come to terms with it in a capable way. If you really want to look at someone, then your only option is to look at yourself squarely and deeply. That’s what I think.

This sort of Disney Channel dialogue is what’s supposed to be “deep” nowadays. Yes, Takatsuki’s own hypocrisy as a hot-tempered maniac (all offscreen, by the way) ironizes this conversation somewhat, but it’s still clear that it’s intended to strike at Kafuku, in some meaningful way.

Worst of all is the final moment between Kafuku and Misaki, which is execrable, cliché to the max, and is intended to bring the emotional arcs of the characters to some sort of climax/epiphany. But in it, a revelation about Misaki’s mentally ill mother comes out of left field, which fails to deepen the character due to its suddenness and lack of exploration – but even more offending is Kafuku’s whiny monologue about his anger at Oto, which he’d been bottling up the whole time. It’s badly written, stiffly acted, and fails in its impact because nothing about this, for the viewer, is a worthwhile release: Kafuku has been a monotone, uninteresting personality for the entirety of the film – even tossing out theater-talk vapidities about the proper way to handle a script (basically divesting one’s speech of any personality) and genuine moments between actors who “listen to each other” and all that tired jazz – so when he does lash out, why would the viewer feel any catharsis? The viewer is aware of Kafuku’s emotional avoidance for at least two hours before he himself catches on/admits it, so what gives? And of course, it’s all topped off with a teary-eyed, empathetic embrace surrounded by hills of snow in the aftermath of Misaki’s old catastrophe – thankfully, the lack of an orchestral score saves us from any accompanying sweep of sad string music as the older man clings to his chauffer, imparting:

KAFUKU: Those who survive keep thinking about the dead. In one way or another, that will continue. You and I must keep living like that. We must keep on living. It’ll be OK. I’m sure we’ll be OK.

Just awful. And by God, the final Uncle Vanya scene really tops off the saccharine levels, ending with Sonya’s speech of consolation to her uncle, but totally bereft of the original’s irony. It really is intended to be that maudlin, with the Korean deaf actress (Park Yu-rim, who is good, like most of the cast; the mediocrity is mostly limited to the leads) cheerfully pep-talking Kafuku’s Vanya about the divine righting all wrongs and how all sufferers shall rest, and they too tearfully embrace – but with none of the cynical weariness Chekhov wrote into his play.

The real ending is just a throwaway of Misaki going around town doing mundane tasks in Kafuku’s red Saab with a dog they’d met previously. She has, presumably, been rewarded for her skillful service to the big man, and she smiles finally, for all is well, despite the dead, and all may rest.

*

I don’t doubt that much of the blame for Drive My Car’s sluggishness, its artsy mawkishness, stems from Hamaguchi’s decisions, but how much is the film’s source material to blame?

Drive My Car builds its story out of material culled from Haruki Murakami’s collection of short stories Men Without Women (2014), and it definitely shows: Murakami is an exceedingly hit-or-miss writer, with his best work characterized by a lightness, a sort of whimsy/naivete (often with his fantastical tales), and/or with a dry, oblique attention to deeper matters. He is good with the slim “going through the motions” type story, involving ordinary folk with one or two hang-ups experiencing some sort of odd event that has them matter-of-factly reach emotional conclusion(s). When he tries to go bigger, or deal with more mature themes in an expansive way, he usually falls on his face – like in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I’ve read one or two of the sci-fi/surrealistic novels (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, maybe parts of Sputnik Sweetheart and Killing Commendatore?) and they tend to lean more towards the Weird rather than actually try to be good, involving novels.

In general, I think Murakami’s talents are limited to only a few emotional registers, and he has a rather truncated perspective on the human experience (his hum-drum protagonists all tend to sound the same, after extended readings). The popular charge of him being unable to write good female characters mostly sticks, as well, but not because he isn’t “feminist” enough. I’d argue this inability extends into the other sex (the eponymous protagonist in the story “Kino” is described as “taciturn, unsociable” and how often is this true for just about every male narrator in Murakami?) but heck, who pays attention to that, nowadays?

The stories in Men Without Women are mostly free of the surrealism Murakami’s most famous for, but are decidedly inferior to a book like, say, After the Quake. The best parts are merely solid, and they too often fixate, sometimes poeticize, upon the banal (another of Murakami’s flaws) as if such fixation is tied to some deeper meaning that is never expanded upon. They are also too long, whereas the tales in After the Quake were mostly brief, piquant takes on an extraordinary moment in the characters’ lives, with the historical element of the 1995 Kobe earthquake subtly cohering the stories together. In Men Without Women, Murakami is already at a disadvantage, for the cohering theme here is, well, the title, and how often has that issue been run into the ground, over centuries – no, millennia?

Oddly enough, I’d argue a better tactic to approaching such a stale, too-wide generalization would’ve been to employ more surrealistic elements, like in the story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” from After the Quake. As it is, many of these characters are simply bourgeois drones out of an Antonioni film, but with none of the existential power Antonioni brought to his frames. Not even a wacky re-telling of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis offers much beyond wackiness and sentimentality.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car takes its basic plot from the same-titled tale in the book, and uses elements from the rest, largely Scheherazade, about a man whose nameless lover tells him odd stories, which likely bend actual events in her life, after sex – as in Oto, from the film. Already one can see how the flaws carry over, for in the tales, too, the characters are virtual ciphers, and the Misaki character is just as dead-eyed and thinly drawn. References to her troubled past hardly do anything to deepen the situation, as she seems to exist solely as a personality-drained nexus through which Kafuku can escape his present anomie. Here is how she is described in the story:

She was about five foot five, not at all fat but broad-shouldered and powerfully built. There was an oval-shaped, purple birthmark to the right of the nape of her neck that she seemed to have no qualms exposing. Her thick jet-black hair was fastened at the back, to keep it out of her way. No matter how you looked at her she was hardly a beauty, and there was something off-putting about her face, as Oba had suggested. The remnants of teenage acne dotted her cheeks. She had big, strikingly clear eyes that looked out suspiciously on the world, their dark brown irises all the more striking because of their size. Her large protruding ears were like satellite dishes placed in some remote landscape. She was wearing a man’s herringbone jacket that was a bit too heavy for May, brown cotton pants, and a pair of black Converse sneakers. Beneath the white long-sleeved T-shirt under her jacket Kafuku could see her larger-than-average breasts.

Note the over-description, the awkward satellite-dish metaphor for her ears, as well as the needless inclusion of her breast size, as if to remind the reader that this character is, in fact, female. Her “flat, emotionless voice” and “cool, distant personality” are mentioned enough that one can hardly blame Miura for the wooden performance: it was written into the character from the very beginning. The driving theme of the story is that bothersome Murakami preoccupation over the mystique of Women, and men’s “blind spots” concerning their mysterious ways, and how Misaki’s deadpan acceptance of this fundamental alienation between people, on top of her skillful driving (because, unlike most women, you see, she can drive like a man – casually and unobtrusively), her silent dutifulness, allows Kafuku to finally rest.

Nothing really happens in the story, despite the middle portion being dominated by Kafuku’s brief “friendship” with the Takatsuki character, whose monologue is almost exactly replicated in the film:

“From what I can gather,” Takatsuki said after a long silence, “your wife was a wonderful woman. I am convinced of that even as I realize my knowledge of her is no more than a hundredth of yours. If nothing else, you should feel grateful for having been able to spend twenty years of your life with such a person. But the proposition that we can look into another person’s heart with perfect clarity strikes me as a fool’s game. I don’t care how well we think we should understand them, or how much we love them. All it can do is cause us pain. 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.”

The revelation that Kafuku desired to sabotage Takatsuki’s life as revenge for his wife’s affair with him is wan, for it’s just sort of tossed up as an excuse, an already clichéd motivation rendered even more uninteresting by the fact that absolutely nothing is done with it, and both men are just bland wights who trade resigned clichés about relationships and the inscrutability of women, etc. The concluding dialogue between Kafuku and Misaki is typical Murakami in its superficial questing for “more”, its repetitiveness:

“In fact, though, he was a man of little consequence. He had a good personality. He was handsome, with a winning smile. He got along with everybody. But he wasn’t someone who commanded much respect. He was a weak man, and a second-rate actor. My wife, though, had a strong will and great depth of character. She was the type of person who could think things through on her own. So how could she fall for a nonentity like that and go to bed with him? It’s still a thorn in my heart.”

“It sounds like you feel insulted. Do you?”

Kafuku thought for a moment. She had a point. “You may be right,” he said.

“Isn’t it possible that your wife didn’t fall for him at all?” Misaki said simply. “And that’s why she slept with him?”

Kafuku looked at Misaki’s profile as if gazing at a distant landscape. She worked the wipers a few times to remove the drops from the windshield. The newly installed blades squeaked like a pair of squabbling twins.

“Women can be like that,” Misaki added.

Kafuku couldn’t think of what to say. So he kept silent.

“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.”

How Murakami can get away with a naked cliché like “thorn in my heart” and redundancies like…

Kafuku thought for a moment. She had a point. “You may be right,” he said.

Kafuku couldn’t think of what to say. So he kept silent.

…and still be considered a master of prose is beyond me. To be fair, this might be sterling writing in the original Japanese. Since I don’t speak the language, I can’t confirm the quality of Ted Goossen and Philip Gabriel’s translation, but having read a good bit of Murakami through a variety of translators, the same issues persist, so I feel confident enough about my assessments.

The other story Hamaguchi draws inspiration from, Scheherazade, is similarly themed – the seemingly uncrossable divide between the sexes, only momentarily conquered by physical intimacy – but is overlong, and its parable structure undermined by the extraneous detail of the Scheherazade character’s perversions. The narrator, Habara, a NEET-like manlet who seems to be part of some fictional government program where nurses caretake such socially useless individuals, passively receives her sexual ministrations while she spins yarns about how she was a lamprey in her past life, and how she would break into her high school crush’s home and masturbate in his room.

The story is dominated by Scheherazade’s re-telling of quasi-factual events and it doesn’t amount to anything except a bland emptiness about people failing to connect out of some fundamental lack. The lamprey-metaphor wallops one in the nose with its obviousness (because these people leech their desires from one another, get it?) and it all simply fizzles out, with Habara mourning the lack of sex/women in his life, as he is just another lamprey of society, waiting for a body to attach himself to.

I admire Hamaguchi’s willingness to experiment by blending different short stories together, as opposed to a strict adaptation of just one, into a film, but they were tepid, psychologically insipid (nigh-adolescent) stories to begin with, and not even the meta-inclusion of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya can save it from its own superficiality – especially when Hamaguchi latches onto the play’s more melodramatic aspects. Oto, despite the oddness of her nympho-urges, is still a cipher, and having her turn to infidelity (unemotional sex, really, since even when she climaxes with Kafuku she is still very much detached from his person) in order to combat her own lack(s) is stale, undeveloped. How does one really connect with Kafuku’s grief, in the end, when all there is to miss is a befuddlement, an emptiness behind a pretty exterior?

Are we truly expected to mourn with/connect to Kafuku’s own nothingness? Is he a more interesting protagonist because of his theater credentials? Well, if he knows Beckett and Chekhov so well, and is so adept at stage gimmickry, he must be someone of depth. Why should we care about any of these characters when the idea of even penetrating more deeply into their psyches is treated as an impossibility – and all that’s left is to putter around an opaque swirl?

Depth, however, is not a vacuum. To simply gesture at the divide between one and the other, and conclude with a shrug – or worse, with saccharine consolations, with dry and circuitous dialogue about that which cannot be plumbed, offers the attentive viewer frighteningly little. There is no doubt that Drive My Car is a serious film, about serious matters, and one that requires a certain level of tolerance to get through, but for all its pretensions, it’s a disappointingly superficial glide, simultaneously saying too much and too little.

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