Drive My Car: Narrative Structure (Detailed Plot), Critical Status

Drive My Car is the first Japanese film nominated for the top award, Best Picture Oscar.

It later became the second non-English-language film to win Best Picture from all three major U.S. critics groups (LAFCA, NYFCC, NSFC); the first was Wild Reeds in 1995.

Actor and theater director Yūsuke Kafuku is married to Oto, a screenwriter. Oto conceives her stories during sex and narrates them to Yūsuke. After watching her husband in a performance of Waiting for Godot, Oto introduces Yūsuke to her frequent collaborator, the young actor Kōji Takatsuki. When Yūsuke returns home early one day, he finds his wife having sex with a young man, presumably Takatsuki. He leaves silently without being noticed and does not bring it up with her. One day, as Yūsuke is leaving for work, Oto tells him she wants to talk to him later that evening. Yūsuke returns home late to find Oto dead from a brain hemorrhage. After her funeral, Yūsuke has a breakdown during a performance of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and is unable to continue the show.

Two years later, Yūsuke accepts a residency in Hiroshima, where he will direct a multilingual adaptation of Uncle Vanya. Yūsuke casts Kōji, whose career has recently been hurt by improper conduct, as Uncle Vanya despite his young age and concerns for his erratic behavior. The theater company requires that Yūsuke not drive but be chauffeured in his own car, a red 1987 Saab 900 Turbo. He objects at first, but relents after the reserved young female chauffeur, Misaki Watari, reveals herself to be a skilled driver.

One night, Yūsuke meets with Kōji at a bar, where Kōji admits to loving Oto but does not mention having sex with her. During their drives, Yūsuke and Watari begin to bond as Yūsuke tells her about Oto and the loss of their daughter, who would have been Watari’s age. Watari tells him about her abusive mother who died in a mudslide five years earlier.

After another outing at a bar, Yūsuke criticizes Kōji’s lack of self control. As they’re leaving, Kōji slips away briefly to follow a man who had been taking photos of him without permission. During their drive home, Yūsuke reveals to Kōji that he knew of his wife’s affairs but kept quiet for fear of losing her. Kōji shares one of Oto’s stories that Yūsuke had never heard in its entirety. Some days later, the police arrive at a rehearsal and arrest Kōji because the photographer he fought with has now died from the injuries he sustained in their fight. The directors of the residency offer Yūsuke a choice: either step into the role of Vanya or cancel the play altogether.

Yūsuke asks Watari to take him to her childhood home in Hokkaido. During their car trip, Watari reveals that she could have saved her mother in the mudslide, but chose not to. Yūsuke reveals that he might have saved his wife had he come home to face the discussion she wanted to have. They arrive at the remains of Watari’s childhood home and share a tender moment. They comfort each other and then return to Hiroshima, where Yūsuke assumes the role of Vanya and gives a challenging but impassioned performance before a live audience.

In the present day, Watari shops for groceries in Korea. She gets into the red Saab, where a dog waits for her in the back seat.

Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yūsuke Kafuku
Tōko Miura as Misaki Watari
Masaki Okada as Kōji Takatsuki
Reika Kirishima as Oto Kafuku, Kafuku’s wife
Park Yu-rim as Lee Yoo-na
Jin Dae-yeon as Gong Yoon-soo
Sonia Yuan as Janice Chang
Ahn Hwitae as Ryu Jeong-eui
Perry Dizon as Roy Lucelo
Satoko Abe as Yuhara

Ryusuke Hamaguchi co-wrote with Takamasa Oe the script, which is primarily based on the short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami from his 2014 short story collection, Men Without Women.

The script also features elements from Murakami’s stories “Scheherazade” and “Kino” (both also part of “Men Without Women”).

The film was originally set in Busan, South Korea, but was changed to Hiroshima due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hamaguchi wished to incorporate the Beatles’ song “Drive My Car,” which the film and story are named after. However, it was difficult to get permission, and he instead included a Beethoven string quartet, which is directly referenced in Murakami’s original story.

The original story features a yellow Saab 900 convertible, but it was changed in the film to a red Saab 900 Turbo in order to visually complement the Hiroshima landscape.

The visual style is simple, conventional and straightforward, but it propels a narrative that’s ultra-complex and multi-nuanced, resulting in an engrossing and exalting viewing experience.

Critical Status:

The film competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Fest where it won three awards including Best Screenplay. Hamaguchi and Oe became the first Japanese individuals to win the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes.

It was picked as the Japanese entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 94th Oscars, making the December 2021 shortlist.

It was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Hamaguchi, Best International Feature Film, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Hamaguchi and co-screenwriter Takamasa Oe.

It is the first Japanese film nominated for Best Picture, and Hamaguchi is the third Japanese director nominated for Best Director since Hiroshi Teshigahara in 1965 and Akira Kurosawa in 1985.

Drive My Car appeared on over 89 film critics’ top-ten lists for 2021, the most of any foreign-language film that year. The film ranked first and second on 23 lists.

It became the latest (and the first non-English-language film) of the only six to win Best Picture from all three major U.S. critics groups (LAFCA, NYFCC, NSFC).

The other five are: Goodfellas, Schindler’s List, L.A. Confidential, The Social Network, and The Hurt Locker.