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Broken Vessels

Janus Films

Drive My Car (2021)

“Performing allowed me to be someone other than myself. And I could revert back when the performance ended,” Haruki Murakami wrote in the short story “Drive My Car,” anthologized in “Men Without Women.” “But the self that one returned to was never exactly the same as the self that one had left behind.” These words are left unspoken by actor-director Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) to his chauffer, Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura), in the film adaptation directed and cowritten by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. Rather, they are faithfully enacted.

In Mr. Hamaguchi’s version, Kafuku is in the midst of mounting a production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” which proves to be a vehicle for performers (and viewers) to load up their emotional baggage and stake personal investments in it. This notion is reenforced by Kafuku’s multilingual staging with actors respectively performing in Japanese, Mandarin, Filipino, Korean and Korean sign language – a method of seeming madness that makes perfect sense in the end. Because they do not understand one another, one actor cuts off the other during an audition, and each performer must knock after each line throughout the table read. Yet those who don’t speak any of the above languages probably will not discern the multilingual aspect when individual performances start to click seamlessly. Chekhov breaks language barriers because people engage with his text by drawing on their personal well of experiences and emotions to make it their own – much like the central conceit that Misaki will eventually acquire a red Saab identical to Kafuku’s. “Vanya” allows Kafuku to articulate suppressed feelings toward his unfaithful wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima).

“Vanya” isn’t the only narrative vessel. Oto is a television screenwriter whose creativity is most florescent during sex. She relays to Kafuku a story about a school girl repeatedly surrendering to compulsion, breaking into her crush’s home when no one’s there and waiting to get caught to put a stop to the insanity. Like a lamprey, she is overpowered by her instincts. Mr. Hamaguchi has demonstrated an affinity for acts of impulse previously with “Asako I & II” and “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” but here rash decisions are more explicitly cast as cries for help. Oto’s tale of course is itself a metaphor for her own infidelities, to which Kafuku chooses to turn a blind eye for fear of ending their marriage. He will come to regret his inability to connect with cues in her storytelling.

Kafuku later becomes acquainted with Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), Oto’s paramour, though here under entirely different circumstances than what Mr. Murakami has envisioned. Takatsuki auditions for “Vanya,” and lands the lead role in spite – or maybe because – of his affair with Oto. Takatsuki himself appears to be overcome with grief, spiraling in self-destructive ways and desperate for the final straw. He actually attempts to absolve Kafuku – telling him it’s entirely possible Oto’s love for her husband and desire for other men aren’t mutually exclusive – but Takatsuki is unable to spare himself.

Mr. Hamaguchi’s fascination with the communal impact of a disaster is evident in the major role the 2011 Tohoku earthquake plays in “Asako I & II.” Here, like Chekhov’s prose, catastrophes can be internalized and personalized. Kafuku’s “Vanya” is produced by a theater festival in Hiroshima, target of an American atomic bomb during World War II. Misaki hails from Hokkaido, where the 2018 landslide crushed her home and claimed her mother’s life. She blames herself, just as Kafuku blames himself.

Like “Vanya,” personal histories exchanged between Kafuku and Misaki allow them to empathetically project themselves onto each other’s accounts. Kafuku initially resists the idea of allowing Misaki to take the wheel, despite his having caused an accident due to a glaucoma-related blind spot. He spends his commute running lines of “Vanya” with prompts Oto has recorded on a cassette tape. It’s a private space, and he brooks no intruders. Over time, Kafuku allows Oto’s voice to fade into the background and begins making pleasantries with Misaki. His daughter, who died at age four, would be the same age as Misaki had she lived. Misaki grew up not knowing her father. When she holds herself responsible for her mother’s demise, Kafuku tells her that if he were her dad, he would wrap one arm around her and assure her everything is fine, but alas he isn’t. Yet that is exactly what he does when the two make an impromptu jaunt to visit the ruins of Misaki’s childhood home.

Mr. Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” isn’t a verbatim adaptation in the sense that the color and model of Kafuku’s car are kept consistent – they’re not. But the filmmaker accurately renders the truths told by Mr. Murakami. Like all of its characters, Mr. Hamaguchi has taken a yarn for a spin and transports it to his own.


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