clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The intricate literary layers of Drive My Car

How the Best Picture nominee digs into Murakami and Chekhov.

A young woman driving a car with a man in the back seat.
Drive My Car is based on the Haruka Murakami story of the same name, but it doesn’t stop there.
Janus Films
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Near the end of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Drive My Car” — on which the multi-Oscar-nominated film is sort of based — two middle-aged men, both actors, are at a bar. One is Kafuku, whose wife died years ago after a short bout with cancer. The other is Takatsuki, the last man with whom Kafuku’s wife had an affair before her diagnosis.

Kafuku knows, or is fairly sure he knows, about Takatsuki’s relationship with his wife, and he’s also pretty certain that the other man truly loved his wife and hasn’t recovered from the loss. He initiated the friendship with motives that weren’t entirely clear even to himself; he wants to hear more about his late wife, but he also wants to better understand her reasons for sleeping with Takatsuki, and maybe punish Takatsuki, too.

But to Kafuku’s surprise, over a few months of drinking together, the pair have struck up a companionable and affable relationship without ever revealing to one another what actually happened. Now, having edged near the subject, Kafuku has opened up a bit, telling Takatsuki that he grieves not having known his wife as well as he wished he did. The other man seems on the verge of revealing what Kafuku already knows, but instead his heart opens and he says a wise thing:

The proposition that we can look into another person’s heart with perfect clarity strikes me as a fool’s game. I don’t care how well we think we should understand them, or how much we can love them. All it can do is cause us pain. Examining your own heart, however, is another matter. I think it’s possible to see what’s in there if you work hard enough at it. So in the end maybe that’s the challenge: to look inside your own heart as perceptively and seriously as you can, and to make peace with what you find there. If we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.

Kafuku is startled by the normally reserved Takatsuki’s conviction and clarity, and their gazes meet. “They could see a certain sparkle of recognition in each other’s eyes,” Murakami writes.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film Drive My Car differs substantially in its details from the story from which it draws its name, but this theme — of the strange human struggle to actually know anyone, to speak and be heard and understood — ties the two together strongly. To write the Oscar-nominated screenplay, Hamaguchi used the framework of “Drive My Car” but mixed in two other stories, “Scheherazade” and “Kino,” both of which appear with “Drive My Car” in Murakami’s 2014 collection Men Without Women, and drew out a brief mention of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in the original story into a full narrative thread.

In Hamaguchi’s spin on the story, the intricacies of language serve as a kind of metaphor for communication itself — a metaphor that’s also of a piece with Murakami’s use of the Japanese language. Drive My Car locks into this theme and amplifies it across its three-hour runtime, tugging at threads in the story and spinning them into variations. We spend our lives trying to know one another, to speak across the barrier of the self, but everything gets in the way, starting with words themselves.

Kafuku is the protagonist in the film, too. He’s also an actor whose wife, after an affair, has died; he never asked her about her actions and now carries around regrets. As in the story, Kafuku is being driven around by a young woman named Misaki, his chauffeur, who has a tremendously sad past of her own.

But in adapting the story, Hamaguchi changed a lot about Kafuku’s life. When the film opens, Kafuku’s wife, named Oto, is still alive; in the movie’s first moments, she tells him a story that’s actually told by a character in “Scheherazade.” It’s a story about a teenage girl repeatedly sneaking into the home of her crush, leaving small possessions behind and taking some of his, trying to absorb herself into him. In the film, Kafuku isn’t sure if the story is made up or drawn from his wife’s girlhood; in “Scheherazade,” the same confusion exists between the woman telling the story and the man listening.

In the film, after Kafuku’s wife dies (in this version, of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage), we jump ahead in time two years and discover that he’s directing a production of Uncle Vanya at a theater festival in Hiroshima. The festival has hired Misaki to drive him from his hotel to the rehearsals every day. In both versions of the story, Misaki is about the age that a daughter Kafuku and his wife lost in childhood would be, and he seems to see her through that lens.

Two men sit at a bar. The younger one looks at the older one.
Masaki Okada and Hidetoshi Nishijima in Drive My Car.
Janus Films

Meanwhile, Takatsuki (younger in the film than in the story but still Oto’s former lover) auditions for Uncle Vanya and is cast — to his consternation — in the lead role, for which he’s much too young. In the play, Vanya is an old man at 47 (the play is set in the 1890s) whose life is heavy with regret — he has toiled for years at the rural estate of his former brother-in-law, and with his reappearance Vanya finds he has nothing of his own. Though Takatsuki’s career has run on some hard times thanks to his foolishness, he’s still young and full of his own ego. As in the short story, Kafuku and Takatsuki strike up an uneasy friendship over late-night whiskey, neither quite telling the other what both know about Oto. But Hamaguchi weaves elements of “Kino” into Takatsuki’s story (notably, a confrontation between him and another man that goes tragically south) and the character becomes not just a figure of uneasiness for Kafuku but a figure of what happens to a man who doesn’t know himself enough to be honest.

Yet it’s mostly in the way Hamaguchi uses a non-Murakami text — Chekhov’s play — where the themes of Drive My Car start to emerge, themes voiced by Takatsuki in the story. Kafuku’s production of Uncle Vanya is performed (in a move that’s never explained) with each performer speaking their own language: Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, and even Korean Sign Language. They can’t understand each other; they are responding to something beyond just the words of the play. Kafuku’s rehearsal process involves asking them to drain all emotion from their performance, letting the words alone take root in them and grip them.

And those words are powerful, even when Kafuku’s processes frustrate his cast. One evening, the actress who communicates in Korean Sign Language tells him that she has found, in the words of Chekhov, a great deal of healing from her past hurt, when she had to quit dancing after a miscarriage.

But Kafuku’s experience with the play is more complicated. At the time he discovered his wife’s infidelity, he was performing onstage as Vanya and nearly had a breakdown mid-show; now, directing the play, he refuses to play the character himself, as everyone expects. “Chekhov is terrifying,” he tells someone, by way of explanation. “When you say his lines, it drags out the real you.”

Some of that has to do with the character of Vanya, whose soul has grown twisted with self-pity and rage at the disappointment of life. “Oh, how unbearable!” Kafuku says, quoting Vanya to Misaki in the story. “Is there no help for me? I am 47 now. If I live till 60 I have 13 more years to endure. Too long. How shall I pass those 13 years? What will help me get through the days?” Some of Vanya’s regret and anguish has embedded itself in Kafuku’s lonely heart, and Misaki recognizes it in her own.

But Chekhov’s lines have another meaning for Kafuku: They’re his last tenuous connection to Oto. (This part is present in the short story, too, though Kafuku is being shuttled around by Misaki because he’s acting in a production of Uncle Vanya.) Before Oto died, she recorded one side of Uncle Vanya on cassette tapes so that he could practice his lines while he drove in his car. Now, years after her death, he’s still listening to them, though he’s not performing Vanya himself. It’s Oto’s voice, the words she says mediated through the tape deck, that keeps her alive to him.

Yet her persisting presence has also rankled in his soul because the question of why he couldn’t really know Oto fully, why she wasn’t satisfied with him, has never gone away. It eats at him. It keeps his heart closed. As Takatsuki puts it in the story, the idea that it’s possible to see someone fully can only cause us pain because “it’s a fool’s game.” Talking, telling stories, trying to make oneself known — we might as well be playing roles on a stage, talking in different languages.

Which might be why the role of Vanya, and the words of Chekhov, mean so much in the end to Kafuku; as he says, they “drag out the real you.” Portraying a man who is so weary of life he wants to die, reserved Kafuku can tap into the emotions he’s buried deep inside. It’s only in confronting his feelings of regret, feelings he’s shoved down deep, that Kafuku can find a way to move beyond his grief and care for others again. When he finally agrees, with no other options, to take on the role of Vanya again, it unlocks his heart once more. Nothing gets easier, but for the first time in a long time he can reach across the divide of language and self and feel once more.

And that means Drive My Car, perhaps a little ironically, is built around what Takatsuki says to Kafuku, both at the bar in the story and in a car after a moment of decisive violence in the film: that the work of life is to seriously look inside ourselves and make peace with what we find. That “if we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.” In the place where language falls away, we come to terms with what we’ve lost in the past, and we determine to go on living.

Drive My Car is playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.