Reporting from the Denver Film Festival.
Rysûke Hamaguchi’s cinematic adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story, “Drive My Car,” opens with another Murakami short story, also taken from the collections Men Without Women. The story is “Scheherazade,” about a social worker’s weekly visits to a man shut inside his home to bring him books, groceries, and albums; have sex with him, and then tell him long, elaborate stories. The story she tells him that forms the crux of Murakami’s tale is her as a high school student breaking into her crush’s bedroom to steal small effects and leave something in return.
Hamaguchi’s inclusion of this story isn’t obvious at first, but he finds relations to “Drive My Car” in ways Murakami might not have. The idea that all the world’s a stage and we are merely players.
The “Scheherazade” segment forms the prologue of Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, with the remainder of the movie taking place two years after Kafuku’s wife’s death. Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a renowned stage actor. An arts center in Hiroshima has invited him to direct a multi-lingual version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Their only caveat: Under no circumstances is Kafuku allowed to drive himself. A few years ago, an artistic director ran someone over, and a decree was made. Kafuku resists, but the driver they assign him, Misaki (Tôko Miura), is so adept behind the wheel, Kafuku allows himself to accept the passenger’s seat.
And so it is with the play. Everyone expects Kafuku to take the role of Uncle Vanya, but he surprises them when he hands it over to Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Takatsuki speaks Japanese. Other actors speak Chinese, English, Russian, even Korean Sign Language. Kafuku rehearses the actors rigorously, teaching them pacing and cues until the performance takes on the appearance of listening and response. When it comes time to perform for an audience, a large black screen presents the dialogue in multiple languages.
It’s a fascinating approach to theater, one that Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe add to Murakami’s story. There’s a lot Hamaguchi adds, including elements from another Murakami short story, “Kino,” into his three-hour film. All the major beats and details are present, but what Hamaguchi brings in the backstory of Kafuku and Misaki, not to mention a surprise twist to the Takatsuki story, adds a great deal.
Drive My Car has one of the most assured paces I’ve seen this year. At one point, Kafuku describes Misaki’s driving like he’s floating. That’s a pretty good way to describe Hamaguchi’s script. It’s driving toward a destination, and it will get there, but it enjoys the journey along the way.
Drive My Car is playing the Denver Film Festival on Saturday, Nov. 6 at 1:45 p.m. and on Sunday, Nov. 14 at 2:45 p.m.