“Drive My Car” begins in a late dusk glow. Oto (Reika Kirishima) tells her husband, Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), about an idea for a new television script. In post-coital afterglow, Oto narrates the story of the screenplay that has been cooking in her head. This time, it’s a bit outlandish: A girl breaks into the house of the boy with whom she’s smitten and deposits an unmissable sign that she was there — a tampon or her underwear — before she takes a small token for herself. These details are relayed back to her by Yusuke, whose job is to recall the pieces Oto forgets the morning after.
Ryususke Hamaguchi, in his phenomenal second feature of this year, uses this sequence to convey a subtle sense that something is building. “Sequence” is a generous term: Hamaguchi lets “Drive My Car,” based on the Haruki Murakami short story of the same name, cascade across its three-hour runtime without self-indulgence. So, instead of cutting when Yusuke flops over to go to sleep, the film expands on the scene. It’s a Hamaguchi hallmark to see the same value in silence as in spectacular dialogue — in the film’s titular car, there is either silence or speech, but always consistent contemplation.
Two years after Oto’s death, Yusuke, a theater actor and director, takes off to a residency in Hiroshima. Oto’s voice is still there, forever impressed on a tape she made of the dialogue of “Uncle Vanya.” He fills in the lines for his part as he drives his Saab. That’s just one component of a film filled with layers of storytelling. As the film continues, Hamaguchi synthesizes the subtleties of his story’s strands into a pressure cooker where Yusuke’s emotions simmer.
At first, he’s angry that Oto betrayed him. Yet, by the film’s end, resentment transforms into love and, if not forgiveness, then understanding. Intervening meditations on art and life invite, in the enormity of the film’s country-trotting, comparisons to a comet streaking through the stars. But, it’s just a car.
And drive it, Yusuke does. Until he’s forced to accept a chauffeur as a condition of his residency. This chauffeur, Misaki (Tôko Miura), runs from the guilt of a complicated past. She shares this with Yusuke, but she’s far more unassuming than he is. Yusuke is a bit too cool for cool; in Nishijima’s performance, audiences see a character of professional composure who only ever breaks down after performing certain lines of “Uncle Vanya.” That play, Yusuke explains, tears him up internally. All the reserved man wants is to go on unnoticed, but life keeps imitating art.
Misaki is quiet, but perceptive. She watches Yusuke from the rear view mirror. Eventually, she becomes his counsel. This car serves as its own counselor to Yusuke: He asks Misaki to take him somewhere he can think, and she tells him to hop in. He treats his car with care, and given her respectful nature, she wants to do the same. Misaki notices him. People around Yusuke — people audiences might think are too dull to understand him — notice him too.
The film’s best scene is set in the backseat of a car. Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a violent and unpredictable actor, sits next to Yusuke. The actors look directly at each other and at the camera. One tells stories, and one asks questions. At some point, the roles become reversed. In a way, the viewer’s perception of these characters transforms as well. The characters break the fourth wall, and the wall between them breaks down.
They address each other, the camera and the viewer. There’s no longer anything standing in the way of their humanity. The scene ends after Takatsuki recites the story that Oto tells Yusuke at the beginning of the film. Yusuke thinks he knows it, but Oto’s story has a different ending. As Hamaguchi forces his characters through fire, viewers simultaneously experience their losses and, cathartically, rejoice in their infinitely delicate surprises.