What “Drive My Car” Reveals on a Second Viewing

Widely celebrated on last year’s festival circuit, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” is the focus of renewed attention owing to its four Academy Award nominations. It’s an exquisite Tower of Babel of a film—a thrilling mélange of Japanese, Korean, English, Mandarin, Tagalog, Indonesian, German, and Malaysian. All these languages, with the crucial addition of Korean Sign Language, are braided throughout (the gorgeous signing by the actress Park Yurim just about breaks your heart). In addition to Best Picture, “Drive My Car” is nominated for Best International Feature—if it doesn’t win in that category, it’s not clear what the award is for.

It’s a film that, even in Hamaguchi’s native Japan, is inconceivable without subtitles. Captioning is both layered onto and represented in the film: it is, as they say in film studies, both diegetic and non-diegetic. The protagonist, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theatrical director known for his unconventional methods, casts a play with actors of diverse nationalities who perform their roles in their native tongue. When we first see him on stage (he’s by turns an actor and director), he’s playing Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” speaking his lines in Japanese; the production’s Estragon replies in Indonesian. The film’s subtitling game is so strong that it requires three distinct typographies: roman type for translation from Japanese; roman type in parentheses for translations from all other languages (in the U.S. release, English is not subtitled); and italic for translations of sign language, as well as from signage (“Flowers & Vegetables For Sale” at a roadside shop). The film immerses us in what the French literary theorist Roland Barthes called “the pleasure of the text,” and the film proves to be a master class in one of his key concepts: intertextuality. In Barthes’s formulation, every text is woven together from disparate elements—among them, other texts. Every text, consciously or not, is “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”

A film that takes its title from and announces itself as “based upon” a Haruki Murakami short story would seem to be explicitly acknowledging its literary debts. Yet this is a bit misleading. “Drive My Car” does lean most heavily on the Murakami story of the same name (“Doraibu mai kā” in the original Japanese publication), but while “Drive My Car” provides the film’s spine, Hamaguchi has said that he found the story’s ending “abrupt,” telling an interviewer, “I felt like I needed to take that story somewhere beyond where it ends on the page.” He found the material to do so in two other stories from the 2014 collection in which “Drive My Car” appeared. The film’s most important and explicit intertext is Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”; the play’s titular character is Kafuku’s signature role as an actor, and most of the film focusses on a production he’s been brought to Hiroshima to direct, two years after his wife’s death. It’s a play he literally knows by heart—not just his role, but those of every character. While being driven the hour to and from the theatre every day, Kafuku listens to a tape of the play, recorded for him by his late wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), in which Vanya’s lines are left out; he supplies them from the back seat. This preparation is part of the Kafuku “method.” “The flow of the entire play,” he explains to his driver, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), “has to be memorized.”

We’ve recently been reminded by Isaac Butler’s new book of the lasting influence of Method acting. Kafuku’s method, on the other hand, is resolutely anti-Method: submit yourself to the text without any preconceptions, read the text without supplying any external emotions. He attempts to impose this discipline on Koshi Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), the young actor whom he’s cast as his Vanya, only to be interrupted by Janice Chang, another member of the cast:

Kafuku: Try focussing on your text. All you have to do is read it.

Janice: [sotto voce] We’re not robots.

K: What do you mean?

J: Of course we’ll follow all of your instructions. But we’re not
robots, and I think we’ll do better if we know what your intent is.

K: You don’t have to “do better.” Just simply read the text.

She all but cries out the quintessential (or clichéd) question of the Method actor: “What’s my motivation?” For Kafuku, the text reads us, and reveals us to ourselves. As he later explains to Takatsuki, “Chekhov is terrifying. When you say his lines, it drags out the real you.”

Kafuku, we quickly realize, fully intends for Chekhov to terrify Takatsuki in a very particular way. (Plentiful spoilers ahead.) Kafuku knows, without having confided it either to Takatsuki or to Oto before her death, that the two had been sleeping together. In a twist on Prince Hamlet’s play within a play, Kafuku believes that “Vanya” is the thing wherein he’ll catch the conscience of—well, not the king, but his wife’s matinée-idol lover. At the table reading, Takatsuki (as Vanya) is visibly shaken to be drawn into exchanges such as these:

Astrov: … you’re in love with his wife?

Voynitsky [Vanya]: She’s a good friend of mine.

A: Already?

V: What do you mean by “already”?

A: There’s a proper order for a woman to become a man’s friend. First
she’s an acquaintance, then she’s a lover, and, finally, she becomes a
good friend.

Shakespeare’s Claudius only had to sit in the audience while his treachery was hinted at; Kafuku makes Takatsuki confess his infidelity in front of his director, the man he’s wronged.

The film’s most powerful narrative device is a near-continuous deployment of this type of dramatic irony. It’s not there in any of the Murakami source material; along with screenwriter Takamasa Oe, Hamaguchi has realized the eerie dramatic potential of Chekhov’s words when wrested from their original context. We’re first made aware of the uncanny relevance of the text of “Vanya,” written more than a century earlier, almost twenty minutes into the film. Kafuku has walked in on, but remains unseen by, Oto and Takatsuki making love. He turns around quietly, gets back in his car, and begins to rehearse his Vanya. But “Vanya” takes him right back to the scene he’s trying to forget:

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