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Escapism & Grief in a Pair of Wheels: Ryusuke’s Drive My Car

Yes”.

Is all what Huraki Murukami wrote back to director Ryusuke Hamaguchi when he asked if he could adapt his collection of short stories book, Men and Women (2014). Ryusuke primarily adapted the Murkami’s short story “Drive My Car”, that ended being the same title for the film Drive My Car (2021), intertwining certain elements from the other short stories “Scheherazade” and “Kino”. Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor who is required to get a chauffeur to drive him in Hiroshima due to a theatre companies’ insurance policy, where he is doing a residential placement as the artistic director to a multi-lingual production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. An unlikely companionship is developed between the chauffeur and the driver throughout the film. Grief is one of the reoccurring themes explored in this film, striking various characters to experience it differently.

Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) & Misaki Waturi (Toko Miura) in a scene from Drive my Car (2021)

Ryusuke made some changes to the film by incorporating Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot and Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, both uniquely staged as a multi-lingual theatre production with various actors and actresses of different backgrounds and tongues of language.

“In a multilingual staging, of course, they’re not understanding the meaning of the words. Instead, the body language and the voice tones is what becomes more important to convey those feelings or the emotional state of the respective actors. It becomes easier to focus and react. That’s a nice way I look at it to get a more simple and strong performance

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Originally, both plays were not included in Murakami’s book, it seems Ryusuke’s intentions were to utilize the plays as an outlet to express and echo the reoccurring theme of grief. While Uncle Vanya takes the spotlight of being the highlight and focus throughout the film, Waiting for Godot is only briefly shown it deserves the honourable mention of its connection that is worth noting.

One of the film’s earliest scenes shows Yusuke playing of the lead roles in Samuel Becket’s play Waiting for Godot. Waiting for Godot tells two men expecting for a character that goes by Godot, awaiting and not moving from the spot they settled under a tree. In the film, the ending of the play is shown where both characters are fed up with Godot not showing and decide to depart and retrieve a rope to hang themselves from the tree they’ve been waiting under. Grief was accumulated over time for the lead characters Vladimir – Yusuke playing the role – and Estragon, waiting for this character Godot to come by.

How this play significantly ties in, is through the scene when Yusuke lies to Oto about needing to leave to run a workshop he is teaching, his wife asks him if they could talk when he returns tonight, to which she doesn’t specify what they’ll discuss about.

Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) walking in on his wife cheating on him

To pedal backwards, Yusuke earlier had walked in on his wife having sex with another man. Ryusuke cinematically captured this discovery superbly as Yusuke entered the apartment with the welcoming of classical music playing and slight moaning overheard in the background. The camera slowly sneaks forward to build the anticipation and positions itself to catch the reflection in the mirror that is angled to see the living room, Oto making passionate love with a stranger. The camera angle switches to see the reflection of Yusuke’s reaction, observing emotionless, then leaving without uttering a word nor a sound.

With some sense knowing what the discussion will centre around, he agrees, but ends up driving all day to avoid the dreaded conversation. He returns home at night, only to find Yusuke collapsed on the floor unconscious – a brain hemorrhage that would leave her for dead. In a way, Yusuke switched roles and was the faceless Godot without knowing, leaving Otto stranded along with what they were supposed to be talk about to be eternally lost, like Vladmir and Estragon waiting hopelessly.  

Yusuke and Otto’s relationship is worth examining of how the balance shifted. Tragedy struck Yusuke and Otto when they lost their daughter – who was only four years of age – to Pneumonia. A coping mechanism both developed over time to endure the painful grief, was Oto narrating fictional stories that came to her mind as her and Yusuke were having sex. The following morning however, much of the stories she ended up telling were absent from her mind, prompting Yusuke to then recite to her what she had spouted about, which she would take notes that would later be inspiration for writing material for screenplays. It became a ritual they abided to. Their relationship would mutate into complexion, as Yasuke confesses to being aware that Oto slept with many other men behind his back – particularly men who were the lead actors for the television shows she wrote for – without her knowledge. Yusuke’s reason of never bothering to confront Oto of this, was to keep the relationship on life support and remain undisrupted. What troubled Yusuke, was not knowing what prompted her to commit infidelity repetitively, referring it as a mysterious gaping hole of voidness. Deep down he was convinced that she still cared and loved him, but in her own odd way.

The Cassette also used for grief in a way. The cassette Yusuke plays in the car are pre-recorded lines done by Oto of the Uncle Vanya play where she reads lines of various characters in different scenes that interact with the character Ivan Petrovich – known as “Uncle Vanya” – who Yusuke has played, to which he found helpful in memorizing and practicing his lines. In the two years passed, where he is now in Hiroshima directing Uncle Vanya, he is reliant on the cassette once again to get the creative direction to maximize the play, but also in a way to keep the memories of her alive.

The relationship between Yusuke and Misaki, the chauffeur who drives him around, is interesting to see develop, as the car serves a key importance for it to occur. One of the things that allows it to progress is her excellence in handling Yusuke car that he treasures, as he said, it’s like he forgets he’s in a car when she is at the wheel; flashback to how Oto drove overall, he was critical of her and disliked how she drove. As the comfort between one another grows, she too opens up of her past. Her becoming a good driver derived from driving her mother around and how she was belittled by her from the backseat when driving on the poor roads that would prove to be more difficult to drive more smoothly, challenging her to get better in order to avoid her mother’s constant pestering as well as physicality Masaki received in the form getting her seat kicked by her mother. At the Garbage facility, Masaki reveals how her home and mother were killed in a landslide where she was from, using the car she drove her and to get around, to leave the place behind her, escaping and eventually allowing the car to take wherever, almost as she became a drifter, no sense of purpose in life.

Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Misaki Waturi (Toko Miura) embracing one another when visiting her old home

Upon request by Yusuke to visit her hometown to get away from feeling distraught of the uncle Vanya play due to the lead actor getting arrested and given the choices to either, shut down the entire production or him personally reassume the role. Misaki takes him to what remains left of her former home, standing before it, the damaged site triggers more confession and truth out of the both of them. She reveals the scar on her face was given by her mother as she frequently abused Masaki, whether if she had a metal illness or that was normal behaviour. She also confesses about the landslide not killing her mother immediately, she could have saved her if she wanted to, but chose not to. Yusuke then starts open up about he truly felt about Oto; despising her to an extent because of the cheating, but regardless still loves and deeply misses her after her death, wishing he had went that night to have the talk instead of intentionally avoiding it. Misaki’s old home in a way has brought their griefs in full circle, allowing closure for the both of them.

Towards the end of the film, Yusuke ends up deciding to take on the role of Vanya, something he couldn’t have done earlier, due to it being too much personally to handle given what has happened. Sometime later, Misaki is seen to have possession of Yusuke’s prized car and her scar is barely visible.

The car allegorizes both Yusuke and Misaki guilty conscience they had carried for both not saving their loved ones from their fates, but also used to bond and relate over their respective griefs clawing at them, and to finally heal. Both have moved on their own way; Yusuke passing on his beloved car to Misaki, someone who appreciated the vehicle, who is no longer the drifter she was once was and drives with purpose going forward.

Written by Adrian Butcaru

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