The day after a friend and I saw Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー), we texted each other something we were still thinking about at the exact same time, our messages crossing in the air. Mine I’ll save for later, but Emily’s I think is the introduction: she said it felt like what she loves about reading fiction, and making theater, and watching a movie, all at once. Something she’d ordinarily think impossible.
This is what I then carried on to other friends, with the further unusual praise that it’s a movie about putting on a play that doesn’t feel too precious about it. The material of rehearsals is inseparable from the material of the story, yet it doesn’t suffer from any of that stage-bound myopia where a piece of meta-theater can’t seem to see beyond its own…theateriness. Drive My Car’s vision simply takes in the performance space with the same attention and authenticity with which it treats all its spaces, from the disrupted sanctuary of a downtown apartment to the tiny interior world the inside of a red Saab carries down a road.
For this is, too, a driving movie. The driving is very good. Those who like the driving in Locke will like the driving here. They both translate that gliding, hypnotic quality traveling down a road can have, either in silence or in conversation, a soft liminal trance rising and falling like the hum of the wheels.
This is a gentle movie, an unspooling movie. A movie that maintains in adaptation the calm, rich pace of literary fiction, which has time. An introspective movie, that still leaves you with a sensation of lives woven together. An ensemble, if even briefly, a fabric that even with threads cut or tugged out can still warm your shoulders against the individual nights we live through together.
I haven’t read Haruki Murakami before, and did not much like the other recent film of one of his stories. What I am gathering from Emily and some other critics though is that Murakami’s original work, largely disinterested in the interior lives of women, has here met a director, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, who very much is. The original structure mostly remains: the central character is a stage actor & director grieving his beloved, unfaithful wife, who finds a kind of healing peace with the quiet young woman assigned to drive him to rehearsals. This narrative could go poorly, you might imagine! And yet it doesn’t even come close to rendering these women merely figural. Oto is given so much texture in her early scenes, and her complexity as a person and an artist continues to be approached with such empathy by the script and framing after her death. Meanwhile Misaki’s reserve is simply who she is, professional and awkward and yet possessing a talent for creating calm spaces, learned in a painful childhood. Instead of feeling like an enigma or simply a vessel for his own pain, when Yûsuke bumps into her it’s as a person bumping into another person, their two different scarred melodies gradually finding a shared harmony as they learn more about each other.
It’s a trusting movie. We are trusted to not fret over whether we’re supposed to have mapped out every metaphor, found perfect overlays of textual theme in lampreys and 19th-century Russians, because we aren’t, they don’t, that’s not how life or this story works. As we know, and as Drive My Car knows, one of the beauties of art is how it can help us understand ourselves even when it’s about someone living a life unlike our own, somewhere we’ve never been. We are trusted to listen, to let characters spend long minutes telling us stories, and to simply hold what they tell us. We are trusted to just feel the unspoken/spoken nuances of Japanese, of Mandarin, of Korean sign language, of Chekhov, of quiet.
And like Kafuku-san, we also find ourselves gently giving over to just letting the movie drive, trusting it, too, to get us there, whichever route it wants to take. Trust it to drive us all night, sleep on the ferry, and awake in white snow. I mentioned after, absurdly, that this is what I wanted more of from Dune. There’s no need to be self-conscious about your length and pace, to try to dissemble about how far we’ll be going—just ask me for my time up front. Give me a reason to trust you. Drop your opening credits 40 minutes in. (Emily: “You loved that!” Me: “I loved that.”)
Where we end up, is where this review started: what I was still thinking about the next day. The Uncle Vanya performance, where Yûsuke is watching Yoon-a’s hands with his eyelids fluttering over tears, and she’s signing across his chest to make her lines we, us, through these two performers a text spilling beyond its words to accommodate the human souls speaking and attending them, and god—this is why we read novels, and make theater, and watch movies.