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Japan’s Oscar Entry Drive My Car Is a Gorgeous Tale of Loss and Forgiveness

People need to feel close to one another. This sounds familiar. The truth is that real closeness goes far beyond appreciation for—or adoration of—another person. It requires a fortitude that’s almost steely, an openness to self-examination that can be as painful as it is edifying. That’s one of the ideas at the heart of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s swimmingly gorgeous three-hour drama My Car. The movie is tender like a rainstorm: only in the aftermath, after you’ve allowed time for its ideas to settle, does its full picture become clear. It’s the kind of movie that makes everything feel washed clean, a gentle nudge of encouragement suggesting that no matter how tired you feel, you can move on in the world.
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Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the widower of middle age at the heart My Car may seem to be moving along through life, but he isn’t really. He’s an acclaimed actor and the proponent of an innovative style of theater, in which not all the performers speak the same tongue: the dialogue is projected, translated into multiple languages, above the stage. Kafuku’s wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), a television writer, has been dead for two years: we meet her in the movie’s opening scenes, which give us a sense of the couple’s respectful but somewhat detached relationship. They’ve lost a child; Oto has been unfaithful. But it becomes clear that her sudden death has affected Kafuku in ways he hasn’t reckoned with.

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Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in ‘Drive My Car’

To mount Uncle Vanya’s production, he accepts an appointment at Hiroshima’s theater festival. He is provided with a chauffeur by the festival, a young, sullen woman from Japan, Misaki (Toko Miura), to drive him from rehearsals to his Saab 900 car, which he treasures. Misaki waits for him, smoking and reading, as he goes about his business; the two don’t talk much—until they do. The bond between them deepens gradually, even as Kafuku staves off some emotional turmoil he hadn’t been expecting: Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a handsome young TV actor, has auditioned for the play, and Kafuku casts him in the lead role—even though Takatsuki’s mere presence stirs up some particularly painful memories of his late wife.

Drive My Car is a story of loss and forgiveness—not just the act of forgiving another person, but also of forgiving oneself. This movie was adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story “The Name of Forgiveness”, which is part of his collection. Men without Women Hamaguchi—who cowrote the script with Takamasa Oe—fleshes out Murakami’s potent, economical tale without ever making it feel padded or bloated. With his words and ideas, Murakami provides the roots; Hamaguchi explores the branches and tendrils of feeling that stem from there, using Chekhov’s language—its dialogue of regrets and longing, and of the importance of capturing the fleeting joy of life as we’re living it—to find purchase between the boughs.

DRIVE MY CAR
Hidetoshi Nishijima, Reika Kirishima

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

Miura and Nishijima are great here as they try to get out of different kinds of guilt. As the driver Misaki, Miura’s guardedness gives way to cautious warmth; the more we learn about her the more we warm to her—her gradually unfolding sense of freedom sets something free in us, too. And Nishijima, as a man who can’t bring himself to embrace the fullness of grief, holds a reservoir of weariness behind his boyish features. His sorrow is too much to bear because he hasn’t even begun to try to understand it. It’s the playboy heartthrob Takatsuki, in a shimmering rush of dialogue that could almost be a miniature roadmap for getting through life, who gives Kafuku the key to understanding everything that he’s walled off in himself. I’ve mentioned that Drive My CarThe trip takes approximately three hours. If you are willing to let it go, time will fly by. And when you look at the ribbon of road behind you, you might not believe how far you’ve come.

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