A Film That Finally Captures Murakami’s Writing

Drive My Car is a rare adaptation of the Japanese novelist’s work that brings his unique atmosphere to screen better than anything before.

Still from Drive My Car
Janus; The Atlantic

Drive My Car is a special movie. It’s a film about language, but its silences carry the most powerful moments of communication. It’s a three-hour drama about grief, but the experience of watching it is breezily loose and oddly comforting. And it’s one of very few adaptations of the renowned Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s work, although the moments that best capture his style were invented by the director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi.

Together, these contradictions make Drive My Car an electrifying watch, but a difficult one to properly summarize. Now streaming on HBO Max and competing at the Academy Awards, it’s finding wider audiences that can experience its magic for themselves.

That awards attention marks another revealing contradiction: Despite Japan’s rich film history, including the filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, Drive My Car is the country’s most-nominated movie ever at the Oscars and its first to get the nod for Best Picture. It’s also the first non-English-language film from any country selected as Best Picture by all three major American critics groups.

The recognition comes at a time of tentative hope for the future of international film. Drive My Car won Best Non-English Language Film at the Golden Globes, an award whose last two winners were Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari and Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. Minari’s nomination was controversial as a film set in Arkansas that deals with very American experiences around immigration and isolation. Despite having a script in both English and Korean, Minari was nonetheless relegated to the foreign-language category.

With international films making halting, hopeful progress toward recognition outside the old categories then, will they also find audiences? Will they—as Bong famously urged in 2019—“overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”?

Listen to David Sims, Shirley Li, and Lenika Cruz discuss on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review, where they break down Drive My Car, Haruki Murakami, and the state of international film:

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for Drive My Car.

Lenika Cruz: Drive My Car is based on a Murakami short story of the same title. It follows a theater actor, playwright, and director named Yūsuke Kafuku as he directs an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for a festival in Hiroshima. He suffers a loss at the beginning of the story and ends up forming this connection with a young woman who the festival hired to drive him in his red Saab 900. He resists this at first. But he’s won over by this quiet young chauffeur named Misaki Watari, and the two of them develop this interesting, quiet friendship.

This is a film by a Japanese director based on an original work by a Japanese writer, but the play at the center is multilingual. The actors cast in it speak their native tongue: Japanese, Mandarin, Tagalog, and Korean Sign Language. And so the notion of people reaching across the distance of language is baked into the plot. It’s about the fundamental question of how we relate to one another: To what extent can we be comfortable with the things we don’t understand about one another and still feel empathy?

David Sims: Right, it’s digging into the gulfs between people that are spoken and unspoken. It is a difficult movie to summarize and yet, once you’re watching it, it’s not an inscrutable film at all. It’s not the kind of art film that feels very distancing. It is a very human drama about humans.

Cruz: Yeah, the basics are pretty straightforward, but what sticks with you goes beyond the plot. It’s about the things that are not said, often between characters in the same scene. It’s the things that they intuit from the silences in between their words. It’s a really magical film.

Sims: It is so fascinating to watch Kafuku’s acting process play out. He’s dealing with actors who at times grow frustrated because they don’t know what their acting partner is saying. They don’t know what to react off of. The style seems to be shutting down traditional models of communication, but Kafuku just tells them to do the work and it’s all going to make sense. What was your takeaway from his method and what the movie’s saying about language?

Shirley Li: The rehearsal scenes became really meditative for me. The actors were just reading instead of emoting. That felt like a moment when Hamaguchi was actively saying, “This is what you need to pay attention to. Pay attention to the spaces.” For a couple of years now, we’ve been talking about how foreign-language films are accessible. Bong Joon Ho said that great line about how subtitles are just a one-inch barrier that we need to get over. I appreciated that this film didn’t try to indicate what language was even being spoken in the subtitles. Even if I looked away, I still understood the scene as it was playing out because I wasn’t trying to focus on exactly what was being said.

Cruz: And at no point does it explain the plot of Uncle Vanya or what parallels it might have to Drive My Car, because it’s not about that. Kafuku is constantly telling the actors to let the text live within you. Just be the vessel for the text and say the words. And once you get the rhythm of the words, some transformation will happen.

Li: It’s about the creative process and how you reach the core of a character. Reading interviews, I found one from 1990 where Murakami said he didn’t want his works to be adapted.

Sims: Yes, he’s against his novels being adapted.

Li: “It’s enough for a book to be a book,” he said. And I take the rehearsal scenes as a direct argument against that. You can make a Chekhov play absolutely understandable just through emotions and spaces and intonation, rather than the language itself.

Sims: I am a bit of a Murakami superfan. I have read the short story “Drive My Car,” which is in the collection Men Without Women. And this movie also pulls from another couple of stories in that collection. But none of the stories have the high-concept Uncle Vanya. That’s one of the many embellishments Hamaguchi is throwing onto this movie.

And what I was amazed by when I first watched this movie is that it’s very difficult to nail the slightly removed, aloof tone of Murakami. It is not something that feels automatically visual and cinematic. And Hamaguchi really just understands that atmosphere better than anyone else I’ve seen try to do it. And I really do like some of the work on the adaptations. What do you think?

Cruz: I’ve enjoyed Haruki Murakami. I’m glad you mentioned the short story. In it you see Kafuku’s backstory unfold through these conversations with his driver. But Hamaguchi chose not to use flashbacks. He wanted people to see the entire story from the beginning. And it’s so effective, I think, because, with a lot of stories about grief and loss, those flashbacks act as explanations for why a character is the way they are. But if you are just there from the beginning and you see this relationship with his wife as a living, breathing person before she dies, that simmers underneath the rest of the text and the rest of his interactions with people. You’re waiting for it to bubble up as opposed to having him just tell you. This is a movie that really shows, and tells very little. You’re constantly reading between the lines. And I think that creates a little bit of that remove you’re talking about, David. It doesn’t feel forced or cold. It’s a very warm and humane movie. And so I was also impressed by how he managed to get that tone.

Li: Yeah, he doesn’t adapt Murakami in a way that you might expect, considering the way Murakami plays with memory and nested realities, but the visuals of this film are evocative of Murakami. It’s kind of a film that I think traffics in a lot of contradictions. It’s dealing with all of these intangible emotions and ideas, and yet it feels so grounded. It earns its long running time because it needs you to immerse completely into the reality of the story itself so that you start reading between the lines. There’s one scene in particular that I think we should talk about: in the back seat of the car, when Kafuku talks to the man he’d seen his wife cheat on him with.

Now, on the surface, you could sum it up as a conversation between two men who share a love for the same woman. But the way Hamaguchi films it, the way the shadows move across the younger man’s face and across the older man’s face, and the way that you see the landscape continue to move around the car, it becomes spooky. It becomes much richer. And that’s what Murakami gets at: something very simple on the surface, but thoroughly rich and complicated.

Sims: It’s very meditative.

Li: Yes!

Sims: When I was a teenager, I was in a bookstore and I picked up a book called Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which is the first Murakami book I ever read. It’s still my sentimental favorite, even though I think he’s written better novels. When I was 15 years old, I was excited about a cool noir, sci-fi plot, but there’s a very early scene where a character in an elevator talks about the difference between understanding that the elevator is moving and not moving. Murakami has always been very good at framing this meditative space your brain can enter even in a mundane moment. And in Drive My Car, Kafuku’s resistant to having someone else drive his red Saab 900 because clearly—like his wife does when they have sex in the early parts of the movie—he enters this kind of peaceful fugue state in the car. That’s where he is at his most balanced.

And so he’s not sure if he wants Misaki Watari to drive him around. But then—and it’s a scene I love; it’s the lede of my review—early on at dinner with the theater festival people, Kafuku is asked about her driving and 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.”

That’s the Murakami vibe! He’s saying it out loud! I went to the short story and tried to find that line, but it’s not in there. Hamaguchi just gets what is so important about that frame of mind. That’s what this character is craving and that’s why he forms this unspoken bond with Watari. Ah! This movie is so good!

Cruz: It’s so good! I’ve watched it multiple times, and each time, new things jump out at me. There are so many little paths you can go down with this movie, all equally fascinating and rich. You could be talking about each of them for hours. One of the characters I found mesmerizing was Lee Yoon-a, the nonverbal actress cast in the [Uncle Vanya] role of Sonya. She’s introduced during the audition phase and her scene almost brought me to tears. It’s fairly short, but the way she communicates with her body and with her eyes—you can see immediately why she was cast.

She’s a perfect example of what we’re talking about with language and how we can say things without the traditional modes of communication. I just feel like I could talk about this movie forever.

Sims: Right, there are little eddies you can explore every time you watch it. This movie is obviously smaller than The Batman or whatever, but it is a movie that was given a shot during Omicron—a tough time for theatrical exhibition in general—and people went to see it. Critics and awards bodies highlighted it. Oscar voters paid attention. It’s a three-hour movie with subtitles. It seems like a tougher sell than it actually is. If people see it, they get it.

Read: How Haruki Murakami’s translators shaped his early novels

I love Murakami unreservedly. I know he’s got his faults, but he was big for me as a younger reader. But he is often like, “I smoked my 18th cigar and poured my 14th glass of Cutty Sark.”

Cruz: (Laughs.)

Sims: “I put on a sonata and fed my cats some sardines … And then I went to the kitchen to make some meal that sounds completely fabulous using whatever was in the cupboard … And then I reminisced on some insanely hot sex I had with someone.”

Li: (Laughs.)

Sims: “… And then the phone rang and it was a secret agent!” (Laughs.) Like, he’s got his vibes. And this movie zeroes in on the particular melancholic aspects of Murakami. It’s a little less cool. I mean, it is cool, but no one owns a jazz club or anything like that.

Cruz: I watched this film before I read the story. And if you’ve read Murakami, you know that when Misaki Watari’s character appears for the first time, he probably wrote something like “a very quiet and unassuming young woman” and probably described her in great physical detail. And indeed, the story is like, “She was a very plain and homely young lady.” And so there are some obvious Murakami elements to it, but I’m glad that Hamaguchi did not include the material in the first few pages of the short story where Kafuku expresses how he thinks women aren’t great at driving.

Sims: Right, and the character is supposed to be won over by this female driver. I’m now thinking of other Murakami adaptations. I assume you’ve seen Burning, which was a wonderful Korean film from a few years ago that’s also based on a short story. Almost everything is based on a short story. I’ve never seen the Norwegian Wood annotation, which is his only novel I know of that’s been adapted. Murakami was not thrilled with that movie, though.

Li: He’s thrilled with this one.

Sims: Yeah, he likes Drive My Car?

Li: Yeah, he’s said that he likes this one. And Bong Joon Ho also loves it. He said, “I would compare this to the sound of a bell that resonates for a long time.”

Sims: Bong Joon Ho, who is of course the director of Parasite, which won Best Picture a couple of years ago. And in terms of the Oscar conversation for this movie—and we talked about this a little bit on the Power of the Dog episode, how the voting membership’s clearly changed—there have been efforts to diversify and young-ify the voting pool, which have reaped very interesting rewards. Do you think there’s a change in how audiences are approaching international film?

Cruz: The year after Parasite, when Minari came out, the comparisons were made. It now feels like each year for the past few years, there’s a hot non-English-language Best Picture contender. And I’m grateful for that, if only for the fact that these movies are more in the spotlight.

Read: Minari and the invisible stars of Asian-led movies

Li: I largely feel the same way, Lenika. I think it’s great that there’s room at the Oscars for foreign-language films to be recognized. Sometimes we may be too hasty to see a film like Parasite winning as a harbinger for everything being great from here on out though, you know? For last year’s Golden Globes, Minari was only nominated for Foreign Language Film.

Sims: Right, because the Golden Globes have a sort of annoying rule where if it counts as a Foreign Language Film, it doesn’t count as a drama or comedy.

Li: Right, and Minari is also a deeply American story, so we saw there was a lot of debate around that. I just think it’s great that there’s a space for foreign-language films to be recognized on this level, but I also don’t think they should only be seen as foreign-language films.

Sims: Japan has one of the richest cinema histories of any country. And so it’s sort of shocking that this is the first Japanese film to get a Best Picture nomination. It’s great that the Oscars are expanding, but it does feel like there’s only space for a movie or two to break out in that way. It’s still baby steps.

It’s not just that this is a foreign-language film; it’s that this is a very quiet, very spare, three-hour emotional drama about feelings slowly being drawn out, car ride after car ride. The Oscars used to have some real middle-of-the-road tastes, and Drive My Car is in the left lane, baby!

Li: (Laughs.)