In a culture where nobody wants to slow down, it ironically takes a movie centered around a car to teach the importance of slowing down to smell the cool breeze. Drive My Car may be the type of film tailor-made for arthouse viewing only—it’s a foreign language film from Japan, it’s three hours long, it’s quite monotone in its pacing, its budget clearly wasn’t very big, but for those who do have the chance to see it, please do. It will only do good for you as you prepare for yet another confusing year of pandemic distress.
The man of focus in this movie has glaucoma, a type of vision loss, which makes you worried about how things will go with him later, and large bodies of water are constantly seen everywhere to represent how insignificant his ego really is compared to those he must influence, and those who influence him. The red car he drives pops out on the freeway, making him look like he thinks the life he’s headed toward is significant, even though everyone’s after the same goal as him. Back when he was married, he associated himself with Buddhism, but after his wife’s sudden death, he’s never seen practicing it, giving subtle hints as to how he’s processed such trauma. While the result may be quite tiresome, it still offers a great love letter to the power of what a single car can do to one’s past and future.
There are still some noticeable issues though, the first one being the strange creative choice that the opening credits don’t happen until almost thirty minutes in. For the rest of the three-hour runtime, there’s hardly any conflict between characters when they talk, they just mostly agree with one another. You could sense the struggle in adapting the book this is based on, as the opening monologue is obviously pulled straight out of that novel. Plus, full typed text projects onto the screen as an email is read, which frankly, is just a lazy way to convey exposition.
Rather than the script, the power erupts from the eye, which makes all the actors look gorgeous in the careful color scheme centered around its use of red and blue. In addition, there’s a mute woman who communicates in Korean Sign Language and represents what this whole film is all about: continuing to live even if you think you have nothing to say. So while writing is not this film’s strong point, it makes up for that in the power of pictures when there’s nothing worth hearing.
With that said, this perhaps would have worked better as a silent film akin to those made in the 1920s, because this film is best at the art of silence; in the snow, the quiet is loud enough to make you contemplate the things you’ve lost in the past. If the entire movie kept silent like that, then maybe then there would have been a greater reliance on pantomime to convey character relationships rather than the current traditional way. Many of the characters outside of the main character just don’t get enough interaction time with one another, and in turn, don’t get enough development. The cardboard-thin characterizations of the supporting characters probably would have worked better in a black and white silent feature, but even so, there are some mediocre filming tricks that would translate poorly into that medium. These include the shaky camera used while filming the main car moving from outside and the excessive smoking used to illuminate the lighting setups. Even so, director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi makes sure the end product encourages the audience to live more productive lives, particularly because the way he tells this story is so true to life: long, often uneventful, but always moving forward, even during the slow moments that force you to look back.
There’s a scene where these actors are auditioning for the play about to be put on by the main character, and these auditions are so good, you can’t tell whether the actors are supposed to be acting or not. It’s a strong representation of how acting ironically brings out a person’s true hidden self, which makes itself best known in the powerful use of monologues. It’s amazing how a movie under the proper director can take on the same emotional gut-punch a stage play can.
It all works to the effect of how realistically the film portrays survivor’s guilt, a condition that becomes evident in the little ways the victim lives his life. The one in focus here still plays cassette tapes in this car he’s owned for fifteen years, and it’s always the same tape he plays—the reason why is actually quite sad. It’s just like how he uses an old-fashioned record player instead of a modern music player to suggest his living in the past. Even his reaction to his wife’s affair is more detached from the present than you’d expect, but at the same time, much more realistic. Aside from the commentary on the human mind, there’s excellent perspective given here about what Japan-Korean relations are like right now; to top off the long emotional ride, hitting you and sticking to you in a way no movie ever had before, the very last scene takes the script’s timeline right into the Covid pandemic, a reminder that this is a movie about the here and now.
So with that said, you may be like countless others in the world who are feeling nostalgic for the way things used to be. Or you may be on the opposite end of that spectrum and are craving to know what the years ahead have in store. Though odds are, you suffer from both. If that’s the case, congratulations: you’re a human being. Thus, you could really use the guidance of Drive My Car to know how to make peace with the past in order to aim for a more fruitful future.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!