It is both reassuring and unnerving that you’ll never fully know the person you’re married to. On the plus side, they can always surprise you — as the years go by, they’ll change and evolve — but on the other hand, that human being sleeping next to you will always be on some fundamental level a mystery. You cannot fully know them because you will never be them — they are their own collection of quirks, insecurities and odd little curiosities that exist entirely separate from you. If anything, spending more time with that person only makes the gulf more profound — they are a riddle you will never solve.
Among the things that’s so beautiful about Drive My Car, the acclaimed drama from Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi, is that it’s all about a question that cannot be answered, the one that its main character spends three hours of screen time wrestling with. In fact, for most of Drive My Car, he doesn’t verbalize that question, but the mystery is there the whole time, culminating in a revelation that, in hindsight, we were building toward from the start. The man cannot grasp who his wife was — and her death has done nothing to clarify that opacity.
The film, which is playing in New York but will be moving across the country soon, stars Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yusuke, an actor and theater director who, at the start of Drive My Car, is married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a playwright who has taken to telling him story ideas that come to her while they’re having sex — an unusual arrangment that requires him to remind her of what she said the next morning. But it’s not the only way that she seems a bit out of reach — as if she’s just passing through Yusuke’s life, on another wavelength — and Hamaguchi (whose well-regarded Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy also came out this year) films their scenes with a calm, almost icy steadiness. We get only glimpses of their relationship — for instance, they lost a child a long time ago — and we gather that they’re content but also maybe harboring some resentments. Some marriages are like that.
One day, Yusuke goes out of town for work, only to arrive at the airport to learn that the flight’s been canceled, so he drives back home in his Saab — and discovers his wife in bed with someone else. He slowly walks out, Oto and this stranger unaware of his presence. Afterward, Yusuke never brings it up, keeping this revelation to himself, but soon after Oto tells him that she needs to talk to him about something. She doesn’t say what. The next time Yasuke sees her, she’s dead of a cerebral hemorrhage.
I’ve just described Drive My Car’s first act, which is merely a prologue for the main story. It’s now two years later, and Yusuke is — well, how is he? Nishijima’s stoic performance offers no hint of the character’s inner life, but the viewer can deduce that he’s not over the twin shocks of Oto’s unfaithfulness and sudden death. Tellingly, he’s still driving around in his old Saab listening to the audio recording she made of the play Uncle Vanya for him, speaking all the other lines and then pausing so he could say his character’s dialogue. It was the couple’s technique to help him memorize his part, and now it’s all he has left of his dead wife. Maybe if he listens to the cassette long enough, he can figure out who she was and if she ever really loved him.
The bulk of Drive My Car is devoted to an offer Yusuke receives, ironically enough, to direct a production of Uncle Vanya at a festival in Hiroshima. But there’s a catch: He’ll need to be transported to and from his hotel to the rehearsal space by Misaki (Toko Miura), who’s been hired to be his driver. (Long story short, the festival doesn’t want to deal with the same liability they faced when they let another director drive himself around.) Yusuke is resistant — he likes being in the car alone so he can work on the play by listening to his wife’s tape — but he gives in, setting in motion a series of car rides between this man and his younger driver.
That might suggest that Drive My Car is some riff on the Driving Miss Daisy/Green Book narrative template, but this adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story is, thankfully, not tempted to indulge in such hacky tendencies. Yusuke and Misaki will develop a bond, but it’s far more complicated and mysterious — and that goes double for the film’s actual central tension. One of the actors he casts for Uncle Vanya is Koji (Masaki Okada), a young TV star who’s recovering from a recent tabloid scandal — he was involved with an underage girl — and who knew Oto. In fact, Yusuke is positive that Koji was having an affair with his wife — as Yusuke later admits, he’s fairly certain his wife had several affairs, not just with the mystery man he walked in on earlier in Drive My Car. But does Koji know that Yusuke knew?
Regardless, Yusuke has decided Koji will perform the play’s title role, even though he doesn’t have the chops to pull off one of Chekhov’s most memorable and compelling characters. Yusuke hasn’t chosen to do this because he believes in the guy — passive-aggressively, he wants to see this kid fail as a very specific form of revenge for what Koji did. Not that Yusuke ever verbalizes that — Drive My Car is a film filled with ambiguities and things left unsaid — and as a result, there’s no scene where Yusuke and Koji have it out. Instead, Hamaguchi lets that tension quietly settle over the proceedings.
The last time a Murakami short story was turned into a film, it was Burning, the best movie of 2018, which starred Yoo Ah-in and Steven Yeun as very different rivals for the heart of Jeon Jong-seo’s unknowable young woman who eventually goes missing. (Or did Yeun’s character kill her?) That film was also suffused with mystery, but in addition it shares with Drive My Car a narrative that revolves around a romantic triangle — except, with the Hamaguchi film, the three legs involve a cuckold, his dead wife and the young, shallow stud he’s pretty sure slept with her. In other words, one of the main characters is permanently silent, and the other two don’t talk about it, focusing instead on mounting this production of Uncle Vanya. What’s striking is that, in both movies, the female object of affection cannot really speak for herself and remains an enigma for the two men obsessed with her. They love a person whom they can’t even begin to understand.
You get the feeling that both Yusuke and Koji are doing Uncle Vanya as a way to reconnect with Oto, but Yusuke refuses to broach the subject of the affair. Maybe it’s pride, maybe it’s sorrow, maybe it’s that he knows that nothing this young man says will properly explain to him who Oto was. For two years, Yusuke has had to live with the shame that he wasn’t enough for his wife — she needed other men to fulfill something inside her — and that he’ll never know what it is she wanted to talk to him about that last fateful day of her life. The more time he spends with Koji — each time refusing to bring up what he most wants to discuss — the more bewildered he is. This guy? This is the person Oto chose over him? It doesn’t make any sense to Yusuke — but then again, there were several things about Oto that didn’t make sense to him.
Movies often have resolutions — characters get their aha moment and happily move on with their lives — but Drive My Car recognizes that what Yusuke seeks is beyond his grasp. And I think Yusuke realizes it, too. And yet, he keeps listening to her tape — and he allows Koji into his orbit, even though everybody knows Yusuke would be far better as Uncle Vanya than this kid. But no matter what he does, he’ll never be able to fathom Oto, let alone bring her back. For Yusuke, Oto causes as much sorrow dead as she did when she was alive.
Drive My Car features several exchanges between Yusuke and Misaki as she drives him around. Slowly, it dawns on him that she’s about the same age as his daughter would have been if she had lived. The film’s great final irony is that it’s Misaki who ultimately explains to Yusuke what he was too thick to figure out on his own — he finds resolution, although the answer to his question may not be as satisfying as he’d wished. I’m not going to reveal what Misaki says, but anyone who’s struggled over a love that didn’t quite work out will feel it in their bones. Maybe the amount of time we spent unraveling the riddle of that other person was the mistake. Maybe they were simply who they were. Trying to see them through our own fractured, distorted lens was where everything went wrong.