Drive My Car: Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s Ravishing Meditation on Grief and Art–One of Year’s Best Films

Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s Drive My Car debuted in competition at the 2021 Cannes film festival, where it deservedly won the best screenplay award.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Hidetoshi Nishijima, left, and Toko Miura in a scene from "Drive My Car."
Hidetoshi Nishijima, left, and Toko Miura in a scene from “Drive My Car.” (AP)

Writers Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe’s have done a brilliant adaptation (and expansion) of Murakami Haruki short story, which appeared in his 2014 collection, Men Without Women.

The film unfolds as a complex character study of a repressed middle-aged theatre actor and director, Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who grieves for his late, loving but unfaithful wife.

When the tale starts, Yûsuke is a successful (and experimental) actor-director, specializing in multilingual productions of modern European dramas. He’s currently onstage with Waiting for Godot while preparing for Uncle Vanya.

His wife, Otto (Reika Kirishima) is a former actress and TV writer who gets ideas for stories during sexual encounters. Part of the wife’s secret life involves grief for a lost child, but their relationship continues, based on shared experiences.

Yûsuke and Otto discuss and develop her story ideas as they drive in his red Saab. Yûsuke also uses his car as rehearsal space to listen to tapes of plays, practicing his lines, while his wife reads the other parts.

One day, upset at witnessing his wife having sex with a young actor, he has a car accident. In the medical tests, he learns he has glaucoma, a blind spot alongside with an emotional one.

He arrives in the city of Hiroshima for a theatre festival to direct a multilingual production of Uncle Vanya in Japanese, English, and Mandarin. However, feeling that Chekhov is too “emotionally dangerous” for him to perform, he casts one of his wife’s lovers, an actor named Koshi (Masaki Okada) in the title role.

In their ensuing bizarre interactions, he also encourages the young man to open up and confess to his insecurities.

During the rehearsal period, Yûsuke is provided with a driver, Misaki (Tôko Miura), a chain-smoking woman from the country whose only skill is driving.

It’s to the director’s credit that he illustrates the poetic quality of the most “routine” events, such as Yûsukehe’s rhythmic daily journeys in his beloved red Saab.  The car serves as both a private and public space, a profane as well as a scared setting.

(For another original use of a car, and mechanic objects, please see Titane, the French entry for the Best International Feature Oscar).

She is compelled to listen, along with Yûsuke (and the viewers), to the voice of his late wife reading the dialogue of Uncle Vanya.

There is extensive use of Chekhov’s famous play for a good reason: Among other things, it’s a drama of regret that deals with different men who are in love with the same woman.

Eventually, Yûsuke confesses to his doubts and regrets about his late wife. Was he dishonest with his wife by not confronting her about her infidelities? And would that have made a difference, bringing them closer, or perhaps driving them further apart?

Drive My Car was initially set in Busan, South Korea, but the locale was changed to Hiroshima, due to restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

End result is a subtle, understated meditation on the complexities and mysteries of human connection and how art and life intersect in exhilarating, often unexpected, ways.

The spirit of Chekhov (who’s one of my favorite playwrights) hovers in the background (and then foreground) and is honored by the film’s compassionate regard for its characters.

The film’s running time–three hours–might seem excessive, but it is not. Instead, we get a richly detailed, multi-layered tale that takes its time in exploring significant themes–loss, remorse, regret, forgiveness, self-acceptance–and the undeniable role of art in processing grief.

It may be too early to declare Drive My Car as a masterpiece, but it’s safe to say that in its quietly ravishing moments (which are plentiful), it approximates the nature of a great musical orchestration.


The movie had won the Gotham Award for Best International Feature and the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Picture.