Sunday, January 16, 2022

271. Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s ninth feature film “Doraibu mai ka” (Drive My Car) (2021), based on his co-scripted screenplay, adapting a fascinating short story written by the celebrated contemporary Japanese writer Haruki Murakami: An unusual script structure comprising a 39-minute prologue, followed by the main tale, and tying it all up with a stunning, minimalist, micro-epilogue


Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car will appeal to different folks for totally different reasons. Those familiar with Haruki Murakami’s written work flock to watch cinematic adaptations of his written works such as the Korean director Chang-dong Lee’s Burning (2018), Japanese director Anh Hung Tran’s Norwegian Wood (2010) or the Japanese director Jun Ichikawa’s Toni Takitani (2004), among the nine such feature films already released.  Drive My Car is the latest cinematic adaptation of the nine films and is based on a short story with the same title as the film. 

The film Drive My Car is equally interesting for readers who love Anton Chekov’s famous play Uncle Vanya. They will be pleasantly surprised that it still can be staged in myriad ways, though purists will find Andrei Konchalovsky’s 1970 film version of Uncle Vanya with Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy, Sergei Bondarchuk and Irina Kupchenko, as the definitive cinematic adaptation.

However, director Hamaguchi leaps beyond the original tales of Murakami and Chekov with a stunning screenplay melding both the literary works. Those who have read Murakami’s short story will easily spot that Chekov’s play is barely discussed in the short story, while the film discusses the casting, the rehearsals and the staging of the play in considerable detail. There is a reason for it. More on that later.

Kafuku's wife Oto (Reika Kirishima),
an actress-turned-playwright,
 who appears only in the prologue

Evidently Hamaguchi had the tacit approval of Murakami (who is credited as the second among the three co-scriptwriters, the third being Takamasa Oe). Murakami’s tale is essentially of the happily married middle-aged couple, Kafuku (a stage actor who eventually becomes a stage director) and his wife Oto (an attractive stage actress flowering into a playwright over the decades). The couple have an active sex life and Oto gets her creative ideas as a playwright post-coitus, narrating it to her husband before writing it on paper. (This aspect of the tale is incorporated by the scriptwriters from another Murakami short story called Scheherazade.) Both thespians are in love with each other. Some 20 years before, a child was born to Kafuku and Oto, that did not survive beyond 3 days after birth. Both grieved and mutually decided not to procreate another child. In spite of their mutual love, the wife has trysts with other actors on the sly, which the husband had sensed and discovered to be true. As the uxorial love between the couple was not affected, the husband opted to never confront his wife with his knowledge of his wife’s infidelity. One day, his beloved wife of 20 years dies. In the film, Drive My Car, Oto’s death is unexpected. In the short story, the husband and wife knew Oto had cancer; Oto was hospitalized and only allowed Kafuku, Oto’s mother and Oto’s sister to visit her—no one else.

After the screen credits, the substantive main tale of the film is presented. The Saab car is an interesting subject for both the film and the short story. In Murakami’s tale, the Saab car is yellow; in the film, it’s red. In the prologue, Kafuku’s fondness for this vehicle recalls novelist Robert Pirsig’s hero and his philosophical fondness for his motorbike in his famous autobiographical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values. Kafuku, who loves his car and is a careful driver, involuntarily involves it in an accident due to a blind spot in his vision (real and metaphorical), soon after discovering his wife in bed with a lover. It is the red Saab that links the prologue, the main tale and the epilogue—hence the Pirsig connection. Not even Kafuku. In fact, Kafuku is “physically absent” in the epilogue. Kafuku’s love for his Saab is as strong as his love for his dead wife Oto. When Kafuku, is invited to a Japanese city of Hiroshima to direct and present an experimental Uncle Vanya, with performers speaking different languages, we are indirectly made to realize that considerable time has passed after Oto’s death as Kafuku has evolved from a famous actor playing Uncle Vanya in the play to be respected at that point of time as a famous director of the Chekov play. Thus, it is in the main portion of Hamaguchi’s film that we encounter for the first time Kafuku’s female driver Misaki, suggested by the drama company funding and contracting Kafuku to stage the play. As per their rules of that company, all major creative figures are not allowed to drive cars, during period the play is being rehearsed and performed publicly. This would not seem out of place for a viewer who has not read Murakami’s short story.  However, Murakami’s short story begins with Misaki being employed by Kafuku soon after Oto’s death and the Saab accident, at the behest of the garage owner who repaired the Saab, following the accident.

The Saab car flanked by its owner Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) (left) and his personal
driver Misaki (Toko Miura) (right)

Hamaguchi’s film now reintroduces Oto’s final illicit lover, Takatsuki, briefly shown in the prologue twice, once having sex with Oto and then at Oto’s funeral where Takatsuki condoles Kafuku. Takatsuki is picked by Kafuku in the film to play Uncle Vanya, a role Kafuku had perfected as an actor in earlier stage productions in Japan—despite Takatsuki being too young to play the role. Kafuku’s ulterior design is to get to befriend Takatsuki to figure out what attracted Oto to Takatsuki for a brief period.

Kafuku (right) engages Takatsuki (Oto's lover, left)
in conversations relating to Oto

The deliberate switching of chronology and changes in the introduction of the driver Misaki serves a bigger role in Hamaguchi’s film than in the short story—he introduces two new characters that are not part of the Murakami story. They are a male official of the drama company and his Korean wife who is an actress, who cannot speak but communicates in the sign language. These two important characters are not part of Murakami’s story.  The Korean actress is cast by Kafuku in an important role in the experimental production accentuating that the world is a global village. These additional characters are creations of co-scriptwriters Hamaguchi and Oe, without tampering much with Murakami’s original creations of Kafuku, his wife Oto, his driver Misaki and Oto’s last lover Takatsuki.

Further, the unusual rehearsals and performances of Uncle Vanya in the film Drive My Car that take up considerable screen time of the 3-hour film are not even a part of the Murakami short story. In the short story, there is no mention of Takatsuki’s arrest by the police midway for crimes barely discussed in the film during a rehearsal of the Chekov play—all these are creations of Hamaguchi and Oe. So is the entire trip of Kafuko and his driver Misaki to Misaki’s house where she and her mother lived, before her mother’s death, opening up parallels in their lonely lives. The lonely Misaki and the widower Kafuko realize the difficult years of their past and that like Sonya and her Uncle Vanya need to move on with positive ideals. Both love driving the Saab car with its manual gear shifts, without literal or  metaphorical jerks.

To the credit of Hamaguchi and Oe, their additions to the Murakami tale lifted up the story to a new level. Their stunning minimalist epilogue urges the viewer to figure out much of the tale that is left for the viewer to figure out and savour. For one, the epilogue is set in the pandemic—so the time has moved forward from the main portion of the film. Secondly, the concept of the experimental version of the play with characters speaking in different tongues, with a written script projected above the stage to help the audience, in many ways reflects Chekov’s hope and dream when he wrote the play after visiting Siberia that ends with the words of Sonya to Uncle Vanya: “…We will live a good life. We will look back on it with a smile. My sweet uncle, we will hear angels, see the riches of heaven, and look down on earthly evil. All our suffering will become good that covers the earth. I believe it. I believe it.

 The plain and physically unattractive driver Misaki, in the film and in the story, listens to the recording of the play as she drives Kafuku around and identifies herself with Sonya of the play, who like Misaki is not physically attractive. Thirdly, and most importantly. the epilogue is not set in Japan but in Korea. Misaki, the red Saab, and the dog that belongs to the Korean actress (who communicates through sign language) have moved on to Korea. (If you can’t read the two different languages, you will note the side of the road they drive on has changed in the epilogue from the main film) Hamaguchi forces the viewer to connect the dots and figure it all out at the end of the film. A reflective viewer would note the wider connection between a play performed in different languages and the Corona virus  pandemic that affected all parts of the world (indicated by the masks worn in the epilogue). This is undoubtedly one of the finest, complex, and mature adapted screenplays in recent times. It’s a also a good example of a film that cajoles a lazy film viewer to read the original written work to appreciate and compare both mediums. If one reads Murakami's short story, any intelligent viewer will be able to grasp the importance of a creative and well-adapted screenplay, which leaves the original tale, to the extent shown in the film, almost intact. Thus both Murakami and Hamaguchi would be pleased with their distinct products in two different mediums.


P.S.  Drive My Car is one of the author's best films of 2021. The film won the Best Screenplay award, the FIPRESCI prize and the Ecumenical Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival; the Silver Hugo jury prize at the Chicago International Film Festival; the Kieslowski award for the best feature film at the Denver International Film Festival; the Golden Globe for the Best Motion Picture in a non-English language at the Golden Globe Awards and the Oscar for Best International Film. It is expected to win more accolades. Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s Uncle Vanya (1970) can be accessed with English subtitles on YouTube free of cost.