Monday, June 27, 2022

The Intricate Literary Layers of the Oscar-nominated Drive My Car

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Near the end of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Drive My Car” — on which the multi-Oscar-nominated film is more or less based — two middle-aged men, both actors, are sitting in a bar. One is Kafuku, whose wife died years ago after a brief bout with cancer. The other is Takatsuki, the last man Kafuku’s wife had an affair with before her diagnosis.

Kafuku knows, or is pretty sure he knows, about Takatsuki’s relationship with his wife, and he’s also pretty sure that the other man really loved his wife and hasn’t recovered from the loss. He began the friendship with motives that were not entirely clear even to himself; he wants to hear more about his late wife, but he also wants to better understand her reasons for sleeping with Takatsuki, and perhaps punish Takatsuki as well.

But to Kafuku’s surprise, after a few months of drinking together, the couple has entered into a friendly and affable relationship without ever revealing to each other what really happened. Now that Kafuku has moved closer to the subject, he has opened up a bit and told Takatsuki that he regrets not having known his wife as well as he would have liked. The other man seems about to reveal what Kafuku already knows, but instead his heart opens and says something wise:

The proposition that we can see perfectly clearly into the heart of another seems to me a foolish game. I don’t care how well we think we need to understand them, or how much we can love them. All it can do is hurt us. Examining your own heart, however, is another matter. I think it’s possible to see what’s in it if you just work hard enough at it. So in the end that may be the challenge: look into your own heart as sharply and seriously as possible and make peace with what you find there. If we hope really to see another person, we must start by looking within ourselves.

Kafuku is startled by Takatsuki’s normally reserved conviction and clarity, and their eyes meet. “They could see a certain sparkle of recognition in each other’s eyes,” Murakami writes.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Movie drive my car differs considerably in its details from the story from which it takes its name, but this theme – of the strange human struggle to really know someone, speak and be heard and understood – strongly ties the two together. To write the Oscar-nominated screenplay, Hamaguchi used the frame of “Drive My Car”, but mixed it up with two other stories, “Scheherazade” and “Kino”, both of which appear with “Drive My Car” in Murakami’s 2014 collection. men without women, and made a brief mention of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in the original story in a full narrative thread.

In Hamaguchi’s spin on the story, the intricacies of language serve as a kind of metaphor for communication itself – a metaphor that also fits Murakami’s Use of the Japanese Languagedrive my car joins this theme and amplifies it over the three hour runtime, pulling threads in the story and turning them into variations. We spend our lives trying to get to know each other, talking about the barrier of self, but everything gets in our way, starting with the words themselves.

Kafuku is also the main character in the film. He is also an actor whose wife, after an affair, has passed away; he never asked her about her actions and now regrets it. As in the story, Kafuku is driven around by a young woman named Misaki, his driver, who has a very sad past herself.

But by adjusting the story, Hamaguchi changed a lot in Kafuku’s life. When the film opens, Kafuku’s wife, named Oto, is still alive; in the early moments of the film, she tells him a story that is actually told by a character in ‘Scheherazade’. It is a story about a teenage girl who repeatedly sneaks into her lover’s house, leaving behind small possessions and taking some of his own, trying to absorb herself into him. In the film, Kafuku isn’t sure if the story was made up or derived from his wife’s girlhood; in “Scheherazade” the same confusion exists between the woman who tells the story and the man who listens.

In the movie, after Kafuku’s wife dies (in this version, from a sudden brain haemorrhage), we jump ahead two years and discover that he is directing a production of Uncle Vanya at a theater festival in Hiroshima. The festival hired Misaki to drive him from his hotel to rehearsals every day. In both versions of the story, Misaki is going to be about the same age as a daughter Kafuku and his wife they lost in childhood, and he seems to see her through that lens.

Masaki Okada and Hidetoshi Nishijima in drive my car
Janus Movies

Meanwhile, Takatsuki (younger in the film than in the story, but still Oto’s former lover) auditions for Uncle Vanya and – to his dismay – is cast in the lead role, for which he is far too young. In the play, Vanya is an old man of 47 (the play is set in the 1890s) whose life is heavy with regret – he has toiled for years on his former brother-in-law’s estate, and on his return Vanya finds that he has lost none of it. has itself. Although Takatsuki’s career struggles due to his folly, he is still young and full of his own ego. As in the short story, Kafuku and Takatsuki form an uneasy friendship over late-night whiskey, and neither of them tell each other what they both know about Oto. But Hamaguchi weaves elements of “Kino” into Takatsuki’s story (particularly a showdown between him and another man who tragically heads south) and the character becomes not just a figure of unease for Kafuku, but a figure of what happens to a man who doesn’t. t knows itself enough to be honest.

Yet it is mainly in the way Hamaguchi uses a non-Murakami text – Chekhov’s play – where the themes of drive my car begin to emerge, themes voiced by Takatsuki in the story. Kafuku’s production of Uncle Vanya is performed (in a move that is never explained) with each performer speaking their own language: Mandarin, Japanese, Korean and even Korean Sign Language. They cannot understand each other; they respond to something beyond just the words of the play. Kafuku’s rehearsal process involves asking them to take all the emotion out of their performance, letting the words take root within them alone, and grab them.

And those words are powerful, even when Kafuku’s lawsuits frustrate his cast. One evening, the actress who communicates in Korean Sign Language tells him that, in Chekhov’s words, she has found a lot of healing from her past, when she had to stop dancing after a miscarriage.

But Kafuku’s experience with the piece is more complicated. The moment he discovered his wife’s infidelity, he was performing onstage as Vanya and nearly had a breakdown halfway through the show; now that he’s directing the play, he refuses to play the character himself, as everyone expects. “Chekhov is terrible,” he says to someone by way of explanation. “When you say its lines, it drags out the real you.”

Part of it has to do with the character of Vanya, whose soul has become twisted by self-pity and anger at life’s disappointment. “Oh, how unbearable!” says Kafuku, quoting Vanya to Misaki in the story. “Is there no help for me? I’m 47 now. If I live to 60, I’ll have 13 more years to go. Too long. How do I get through those 13 years? What helps me get through the days?” Some of Vanya’s regret and fear is embedded in Kafuku’s lonely heart, and Misaki recognizes it in her own.

But Chekhov’s lines have a different meaning for Kafuku: they are his last weak connection to Oto. (This part is also present in the short story, although Kafuku is tossed around by Misaki for acting in a production of Uncle Vanya.) Before Oto died, she took one side of: Uncle Vanya on cassette tapes so he could practice his lines while driving his car. Now, years after her death, he still listens to them, although he doesn’t perform Vanya himself. It’s Oto’s voice, the words she says through the tape deck, that keeps her alive for him.

But her persistent presence also gnawed at his soul, because the question of why he couldn’t really fully know Oto, why she wasn’t happy with him, has never gone away. It eats him. It keeps his heart closed. As Takatsuki puts it in the story, the idea that it’s possible to see someone completely can only hurt us because “it’s a silly game”. Talking, telling stories, trying to make yourself known – we might as well play roles on a stage and talk in different languages.

That may be why Vanya’s role and Chekhov’s words ultimately mean so much to Kafuku; as he says, ‘they drag out the real you’. By portraying a man so tired of life that he wants to die, the reserved Kafuku can tap into the emotions he has buried deep inside. Only by confronting his feelings of regret, feelings he has hidden deep inside, can Kafuku find a way to overcome his grief and start caring for others again. When he finally agrees, with no other options, to reprise his role as Vanya, that unlocks his heart again. Nothing gets easier, but for the first time in a long time he can reach and feel across the dividing line of language and self.

And that means drive my carmaybe a bit ironic, is built around what Takatsuki tells Kafuku, both at the bar in the story and in a car after a moment of decisive violence in the film, that the life’s work is to look seriously within and make peace with what we find. That “if we hope to really see another person, we must start by looking inside ourselves.” In the place where language falls away, we come to terms with what we have lost in the past and decide to move on.

drive my car is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

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