It has been awarded the top prize by Los Angeles, New York, and the National Society of Film Critics. It was named one of the best films of 2021 by the Seattle Film Critics Society and is Japan's entry to the Academy Awards.
This is all because the sublime and understated Drive My Car, directed with a masterful hand by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, is something truly special. It's an abundantly patient and deceptively quiet work, the type of film that comes along only ever so often. The praise can't prepare you for the experience of watching it gently unravel in front of you.
Loosely based on a short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami from the 2014 collection Men Without Women, the film remains something all its own. It places us in the meditative mind of the middle-aged Tokyo stage actor and widower Kafuku. Played with grace and kindness by Hidetoshi Nishijima, he is grappling with the unexpected loss of his wife, Oto, and trying to find a way forward in his life. Early scenes show the two shared a deep bond that felt as natural as it did all-encompassing. However, a painful deception, as well as the loss of a child, complicated their decades-long marriage.
Left adrift without her, Kafuku takes an arts residency at a theater festival in Hiroshima, where he spends six weeks on rehearsals and two weeks for performances. The play is Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, and the approach taken is an ambitious one. The play will run in multiple languages—Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, and Korean sign language—and the cast takes on roles different from their ages. Much of the film is built around this production, with Kafuku meticulously guiding the preparations and trying to find something resembling peace in the work. But it's a central relationship that takes place off the stage that proves to be the most arresting.
While working on the play, Kafuku is assigned a driver for safety reasons. The younger Misaki, played with measured confidence by Tôko Miura, will become his confidant and eventual friend. The two slowly begin to share everything, ultimately learning how a painful past unites them. There's a simple beauty in how Misaki's life brought her to Hiroshima and found her driving a red Saab for a director she would otherwise never have met.
The film is one of two that Hamaguchi has released this year, the other being the similarly noteworthy Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. There has been a lot of discussion about which is better, though I'd argue both set out to achieve something different and do so in their own ways. What unites them is their commitment to their characters. There isn't a weak note of a performance to be found anywhere. We're lucky to have to decide between two great films by a single director.
Most centrally, Drive My Car is a story of about loss. It isn't told with big moments of explosive pain. Instead, Hamaguchi places a great deal of trust in the audience to take in the film's slow, methodical pacing over nearly three hours. The experience is more than worth it, washing over you as it washes away the stoic exterior of Misaki and Kafuku. The shot that stays with me is a joyous one: when the two unlikely friends share a smoke and raise their hands in unison out of the sunroof of the car, dueling lit cigarettes burning free in the night sky.
You can see Drive My Car at SIFF through February 10.