Drive My Car involves a lot of driving, but in one of its best scenes its main character is simply describing driving. Yusuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor and director who, because of his developing glaucoma, has been assigned a chauffeur, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), by the theater festival he’s working for. Asked how her driving is, he says, “I think it’s great. When she speeds up or slows down, it’s very smooth and doesn’t feel heavy at all. I sometimes forget that I’m even riding in a car. I’ve ridden cars driven by other people, but this is the first time it’s been this comfortable.”
His monologue encapsulates the crisp, descriptive style of Haruki Murakami, the renowned Japanese writer whose short story (of the same name) Drive My Car is based on. Murakami’s prose often lingers on the most ordinary observations of daily life, and Kafuku’s description of a smooth ride perfectly conjures that poetry of the mundane: It’s an ode to a modest job well done. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s film takes all kinds of unexpected swerves from the sparse text it’s adapting. But it triumphs because it understands the weight of those little details.
Since debuting at the Cannes Film Festival last July, Drive My Car has become one of the art-house film sensations of 2021. After winning Best Screenplay at Cannes, this dialogue-driven Japanese drama with a three-hour running time went on to win the Best Picture prize from America’s three biggest critics’ groups, a rare feat last achieved by David Fincher’s 2010 film, The Social Network. The recognition is entirely deserved for Hamaguchi, one of Japan’s most exciting filmmakers, who first caught attention with his more-than-five-hour-long ensemble drama, Happy Hour, in 2015 and the clever, bifurcated romance Asako I & II in 2018. He had another entrancing work come out in 2021, the anthology film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, but Drive My Car is his humanistic opus, a character study that feels expansive despite its tight personal focus.
The film begins with a 40-minute prologue set in Tokyo, detailing Kafuku’s partnership with his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima): She’s a screenwriter who crafts stories during sex, reciting plot points to him afterward in an almost trancelike state. The couple is haunted by the loss of a child, and their bond has frayed; early on, Kafuku realizes his wife is cheating on him, a discovery he nonetheless refuses to bring up with her. Then she suddenly dies of a cerebral hemorrhage, the plot jumps forward two years, and Hamaguchi finally allows the film’s opening credits to play. The director (who co-wrote the screenplay with Takamasa Oe) specializes in this kind of languorous but surprising pacing, laying emotional groundwork in dialogue that seems otherwise routine.
In the film’s main act, Kafuku finds himself in Hiroshima after his wife’s death, directing a production of Uncle Vanya with a cast of actors speaking different languages, and he’s assigned Watari as a driver. The two of them spend much of the film zooming around the city in Kafuku’s vintage red Saab, a splotch of jazzy color moving against the concrete highway landscapes. While Kafuku is initially skeptical of the taciturn young woman assigned to pilot his precious vehicle, they soon form an unspoken understanding. Hamaguchi lets the audience rest comfortably in the extended silences of the driving sequences, instilling the quality that Kafuku later speaks aloud: Watari is such a good driver that journeying with her becomes something pensive and revelatory.
Both Kafuku and Watari have their own personal traumas and regrets—his over the loss of his wife, hers relating to the loss of her mother—that they slowly excavate over the course of the film. Other characters veer in and out of the action too, particularly Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), an actor in Kafuku’s play who had an affair with Kafuku’s wife. The director and his actor share many prickly interactions outside of the car, but when they’re together in the back seat for a lengthy nighttime drive, the mood is more confessional. Hamaguchi films a particularly arresting speech from Takatsuki in a somber close-up, lit by intermittent streetlights, turning a preening, handsome young performer into an almost ghostly figure, haunted by his own insecurity.
The production of Kafuku’s strange play is a fascinating subplot in its own right, accentuating the fractured ways people try to communicate and bridge emotional gaps when they don’t share a language. But Hamaguchi’s most major achievement is how he turns Kafuku’s car, steered by Watari, into a meditative space, one that transforms meaningless small talk into soliloquies of enduring grief. The film’s long running time doesn’t feel indulgent at all, but electrifyingly necessary, the only way to draw out the restrained sorrows of its insular ensemble. Few filmmakers can make simple conversation a blockbuster moment, but in Hamaguchi’s hands, the audience is hanging on every character’s next word.
Listen to David Sims discuss Drive My Car on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review: