Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s ‘Drive My Car’ Heightens the Senses in Grief (Review)

"We shall hear the angels, we shall see the whole sky all diamonds, we shall see how all earthly evil, all our sufferings, are drowned in the mercy that will fill the whole world. And our life will grow peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress…. You've had no joy in your life; but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait…. We shall rest." - Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov

Drive My Car (2021) is for thespians. It is for those whose only way of communicating with the exterior world is through art. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s lyrical film on grief is an ode to the bohemian soul whose existence can only be measured through notes on a music sheet or words on a page. The critical hype surrounding this film made me wary going into it. During awards season, it is hard to parse out whether the hype surrounding a film comes from critics who are more predisposed to laud anything that is only ever just slightly good, or if the film in question is truly worth fawning over. However, not only did Drive My Car exceeds my expectations, but it also left me emotionally overwhelmed. As a slow and painful exposition of loss, the film acutely portrays the cruel banality of grief in ways that are rarely seen in mainstream cinema. Sometimes, these mainstream explorations of loss are overshadowed by beautiful cinematography or the self-importance of a director’s vision, which makes Drive My Car’s quiet and moving sincerity all the more resonant.

What makes Drive My Car poignant is its simple premise. I gravitate towards films that focus on how characters’ complex emotions — even in situations that seem completely ordinary — carry the most narrative weight. After all, most of real life is surprisingly ordinary. But our feelings about the ordinary rarely are. In Drive My Car, a widow mourns the loss of his wife, who has died of a sudden brain aneurysm. Throughout the film, Hidetoshi Nishijima’s character, Yūsuke Kafuku, reconciles with her death by reconnecting with the people in his life, allowing him to access both his humanity and theirs. Oto Kafuku, played by Reika Kirishima, doesn’t become just another hollow plot device to better serve Nishikima’s character. The dead wife whose beauty and elusive personality haunts, rather than fills, the screen but remains just that, an illusion by the film’s end. Oto starts and ends as an active participant in this story, despite her death one-third of the way in. You get to know Oto almost as intimately as Kafuku did throughout their marriage. You learn about her virtues and flaws, her insecurities and fears. She becomes so authentic that there’s a pang in your own heart over her death by the time the film ends. 

Reika Kirishima as Oto Kafuku & Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yūsuke Kafuku (COURTESY: Janus Films)

Exploring death is not an isolated venture in Drive My Car. While grief can feel like a deeply intimate and personal experience — and it so often is — it is also a collective emotion that brings people together. Most of us have been and will go through grief, and this collectivity has the potential to realign our world views. Trauma has a way of drowning us in sadness and painting new colors to our lives. Kafuku is already familiar with loss. It is not his first time experiencing grief. Nor was it Oto’s. They were both castaways after losing a child, adrift on separate islands. Dealing with their loss in different ways ultimately made them strangers to each other. Throughout it all, the love was there. In addition to grief, the film also focuses on the love that binds two people to each other even after they have lost something priceless. The loss of a child is a kind of grief that leaves raw scars in the soul, and the film shows how this unimaginable pain can make parents feel like their souls are festering. But in the midst of so much loss is the presence of an equally generous love — the love Kafuku has for Oto and the love they have for their child.

Drive My Car spends a liberal amount of time dissecting this kind of loss throughout the film in waves. First, through the death of Oto’s death, Oto’s betrayal, Misaki Watari’s (Tôko Miura) own tale of abuse and loss, to the revelation of Oto’s and Kafuku’s daughter’s death. All these waves of grief slowly unveil themselves to viewers like the perfect narrative current of an Anton Chekhov play, which is fitting to the overall double narrative taking place. Chevkhov’s Uncle Vanya functions like another character in the film. Carving out each of the characters in the film through the power of words, especially when layered to Oto’s voice through the recordings. Chekhov’s work gives new meaning to the characterization of each character. For Kafuku, it’s the line through which he can connect with Oto. For Misaki, it’s a way to reconcile with her abuse and the death of her mother. It reconnects her to the people around her, no longer feeling adrift in a world that cast her aside. For Park Yu-rim‘s Lee Yoo-na, it’s turning words into gestures that ring just as strong as the spoken word.

Park Yu-rim as Lee Yoo-na & Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yūsuke Kafuku (COURTESY: Janus Films)

How do words begin to properly articulate the messy and often ambiguous terrain of feelings and emotions? Because all Kafuku yearns for is to speak the language that he has once shared with Oto. After all, love is about inventing your own singular language, and the loss of this whole other world can be soul-crushing. All Kafuku wants is one more conversation with Oto, to listen to one of her stories and maybe learn the ending to them. The elusiveness of closure is why Kafuku keeps playing that tape of Oto during his car rides home. It is a simulation of a conversation he is having with his deceased wife through Chekhov’s own words. The magic of art is that it can act as a buffer between pain and mourning. Art serves a reparative function and gives expression to an unspeakable loss. The beauty of art is that it allows Kafuku to reckon with Oto’s death, the infidelities in their marriage, and to cope with the realization that he may never know what she was going to tell him on the day that she passed. Kafuku may never get real closure but art — like Hamaguchi’s film — gives us a precise semblance of one. Sometimes, that is enough.

Tôko Miura as Misaki Watari & Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yūsuke Kafuku (COURTESY: Janus Films)

Perhaps this review merely waxes lyrical on a film about death and nothing more. What makes this film any different from others? What film has not spent time and time again discussing mortality and death? Many. But not enough of them reckon with the cruel banality of mourning. We may be tempted to believe that grief is an endless stream of tears or violent screams into the void. In Hamaguchi’s film, however, most grief is just a numbness that comes from realizing that what is so ordinary and simple — like wanting another conversation — will always be papered over with a deep sadness. Drive My Car shows us that sometimes, reckoning with the mortality of our loved ones can feel like nothingness. Grief can be a hollow and desolate vacancy that siphons all emotions from someone until there is nothing left. In honoring that part of grief, Drive My Car honors the inexplicability of death, which is a feat that not a lot of other films tend to do. Others tend to ignore it, hide from it, or glamourize it. But in the long, quiet drives between Kafuku and Misaki as they silently measure one another and are on equal footing when it comes to despair, death is just another present part of their lives.

Is Drive My Car the epitome of cinematic auteurism? Is it breaking the wheel of filmmaking? I genuinely can’t begin to answer that question. Art is subjective, and while still receptive and necessary to imminent criticism, is still a personal experience between yourself and what is presented. Drive My Car is one of those pieces of art that live past the screen. It transcends language, cultures, and setting as it comes down to one of the most universal experiences there are: love.

Rating: 9/10

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