Review: Drive My Car explores what it means to be in the driver’s seat of life

Katie Jung and Katya Ulyanov

In the 2021 film Drive My Car, Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi drives viewers through the emotional journeys of two unlikely friends, artfully bringing to life Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name. 

Following his wife Oto’s (Reika Kirishima) death, actor Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) agrees to direct a multi-lingual production of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, in Hiroshima, Japan. The theatre company assigns him a chauffeur, a reserved young woman named Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura). Misaki’s silent, mournful eyes in the rear view mirror pierce the audience’s heart. 

As the audience watches the characters’ scenic drives and initially reserved conversations, Watari and Kafuku develop an unexpected, almost familial relationship. They help each other come to terms with past traumas and failures, including Kafuku’s memory of his late wife’s infidelity and Watari’s guilt over her mother’s death. As Kafuku reluctantly surrenders the wheel to Watari and takes the back seat, he finds himself beginning to open up to others, learning to trust again. 

The setting of most of the film, essential to the story, is Kafuku’s deep red Saab 900, which acts as a safe space for both the characters and audience alike to explore the deeper psychological themes of forgiveness, self acceptance, and trust. Spotlighted by the movie’s simple color scheme, the car is forever in the forefront of the audience’s vision. It stands out against the constant backdrop of snowy white, urban gray, and late-night black, as well as the scenic yellows and greens of the Japanese countryside. 

Similarly spotlighted is Kafuku’s initial inability to resume a fulfilling, genuine life after Oto’s death while he internally denies her infidelity. His refusal to be honest with himself manifests in a need for control, as reflected in his transition from stage acting to directing. The lines he recited as an actor evoke the emotions he attempts to bury. Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), the young actor who plays Uncle Vanya’s titular character, illuminates Kafuku’s controlling tendencies. Takatsuki recklessly assaults fans who take photos of him without permission and engages in a tumultuous romantic lifestyle. Takatsuki’s actions highlight the fact that Kafuku’s obsession with control results in a stagnant and empty existence.

While other characters call attention to Kafuku’s struggles, the film’s setting highlights how Kafuku personally approaches his issues. Mirrors often present in the film’s backdrop reflect Kafuku’s fear of confronting his repressed mourning. As Kafuku’s reflection strides across the face of a mirror, his movements are rushed and he never directly looks at himself. Kafuku instead seeks distraction, as illustrated by the film’s lack of a distinct soundtrack. 

Static background noise buzz throughout scenes that lack dialogue or physical action, such as shots depicting Kafuku parking his car or resting. This choice of soundtrack emulates Kafuku’s own psyche. Kafuku fills his life with static to prevent silent self-reflection. Refusing to cultivate a relationship with himself, Kafuku has yet to accept his pain; he lives only to avoid living. Only when the director incorporates periods of complete, engulfing silences is Kafuku forced to come to terms with his emotions. It is in such silent scenes that Drive My Car truly shines, admitting the audience into beautiful, and often heart-wrenching, intimate moments of character development. 

The soundtrack elevates the car’s importance to the plot, enveloping the audience with the sounds of the long-lived engine, and using the car’s cassette player to narrate the characters’ inner emotions via Uncle Vanya script readings. The recordings of the lines, read by Kafuku’s late wife, represent the ghostly grip that Oto still has on him. As Kafuku recites the lines by heart during the long rides to and from the theatre, the audience is reminded of his struggle to move on from the unchanging routine of his old life. 

When these same lines are repeated during the entire cast’s table read-through, it is clear that Kafuku’s desire to control the cast extends past his role as the director. The contrast in how Kafuku and Takatsuki read the same lines over the course of the film highlights the unpredictability and messiness of relationships. Kafuku’s inventive directing style further illustrates the messiness of interpersonal relationships, having each cast member play their character in a different language, including Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and Korean Sign Language. As the movie progresses, the audience comes to realize that empathy extends beyond language barriers, as audience members and characters alike come to appreciate each character’s multidimensionalism. 

By the end of the film, the audience becomes invested in the characters’ lives, failing to hold back silent tears, yearning for these individuals to forgive themselves and continue living to the fullest. The film gently explores the themes of intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships simultaneously, giving the characters courage to confront their past and allowing themselves to be vulnerable with others in the present. As moviegoers leave the theatre, they will find themselves filled with a melancholic sense of rebirth as they, too, accept their past as it is and look forward to a fulfilling future.