Drive My Car: an introspective story of acceptance and growth

Today I’m writing about the much lauded yet somewhat overlooked Drive My Car, which I had the pleasure of watching recently.

Drive My Car is a Japanese drama film directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi and based on a short story by famed author Haruki Murakami. The film released in 2021, receiving four nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and winning the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.

If you’re living in Japan and you’d like to watch the movie subtitled, you’ll have to wait for the international Blu-ray release. I was lucky enough to watch it abroad.

While the movie has certainly earned accolades, it flew under the radar at release. The film failed to make much of a dent in the box office, and did not crack the top 100 highest grossing film of 2021 in Japan, unable to compete with higher-budget offerings. Like many others, I only heard about Drive My Car after its Oscar nominations, despite liking Haruki Murakami and other Japanese films based on his works.

The movie starts with a married couple’s post-coital brainstorming of a TV show script. Sex is a way for Oto Kafuku (Reika Kirishima) to find inspiration for her scripts. Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theatre director, loves his wife dearly, though doesn’t necessarily express this outwardly. One day, Yusuke comes back home early to find Oto cheating on him, possibly with actor Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), although Yusuke cannot be sure, able only to see the man’s back. Before Oto notices Yusuke’s presence, he decides to leave and feign ignorance, afraid of how the affair could affect his relationship. This pretence continues until one day Oto tells Yusuke that they need to have a conversation after he finishes work. Yusuke comes back home to find his wife dead from a brain hemorrhage. Two years after Oto’s death Yusuke finds a job in Hiroshima. It is here where Yusuke will learn to move on and accept his wife’s death through his relationships with his new coworkers, including Takatsuki himself, and his personal driver Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a quiet young girl with a dark past.

The first sign that the film is unafraid to break convention is the moment chosen for the opening credits — after Oto’s death, 40 minutes into the movie. The move came as a bit of a surprise at first, but while an unconventional choice, it makes perfect sense from a storytelling point of view. Those 40 minutes are there to set up Yusuke’s growth for the remaining 140, and mark a new chapter in the movie, as in Yusuke’s life. The introduction is no longer and no shorter than it needs to be, and while the three-hour runtime will put some people off, those three hours are perfectly paced and thoroughly engaging throughout, and cannot be condensed without negatively impacting the story of Yusuke’s journey. I can say I didn’t look at my watch a single time.

I haven’t read the story the film is based on, but avid readers of Murakami will see some of his trademark style here. The quiet male protagonist, the young girl as co-protagonist, the violent past of some of the characters, and the deep looks into their psyche. As with other Murakami stories, this one is very sexual in nature, though not explicit past the first act. Unlike other Murakami works, however, the story remains grounded in reality and stays away from his typical magic realism elements, more akin to Norwegian Wood than 1Q84.

To be sure, there are some tropes to be found here — the moment Yusuke has to come back home early there probably isn’t anyone in the audience surprised to find his wife cheating. Knowing Murakami’s storytelling preferences, I suspected the driver would be a young girl, as well. Past the first act though, when the true story begins, the film takes you on an unexpected ride, and the characters’ growth throughout the movie is completely earned.

Translating Murakami’s intimate style to the screen isn’t an easy task, but Hamaguchi and his team have done a great job of conveying the characters’ complex feelings through photography, editing, and nuanced acting. Drive My Car is an excellent example of “show, don’t tell”, with very deliberate long, wide, and somewhat plain shots. A great example of this comes later in the movie, when a close shot of Yusuke is followed by one of Takatsuki’s back. Yusuke suspects that to be the same back he saw the day he found out about Oto’s infidelity, but this is never explicitly stated. In fact, there’s very little talking about what happened that fateful day, and yet the movie effortlessly takes the audience along Yusuke’s journey. Everything is implied and nothing needs to be said. Drive My Car is not afraid of silence or long conversations in foreign languages, and gives every scene time to breathe and set up the mood. The exaggerated, theatre-like acting that is present in many Japanese movies is totally absent here, and the actors do a brilliant job of conveying emotions through very naturalistic and nuanced acting.

Yusuke’s journey is not the only one the film delves into. As you might have guessed from the title, Misaki, Yusuke’s personal driver, is instrumental in helping him move on. Her story, however, is not simply there in service of Yusuke’s. Her own journey is as essential for the movie to work as Yusuke’s. In fact, there are several other story arcs, and the film doesn’t neglect any of them, smartly realising that they are all as important to make the whole work.

Drive My Car is a great adaptation of Murakami’s introspective writing to the silver screen, and a great film in its own right. It more than makes up for its lack of budget with brilliant acting and pacing, and is indeed one of the best movies of 2021. It’s one of those movies that stays with you long after the credits roll, always a sign of a great film. It’s unfortunately not easy to watch subtitled if you live in Japan, but it is well worth seeking out.

Hi, I’m Sergio.
I’m from Spain, lived in the UK for seven years and came to Japan in 2012.
I majored in journalism in London and have been teaching English in Tokyo.
I like traveling, cycling, photography, movies, and spending time with friends.
I wrote articles about life in Japan as a foreigner and anything that I might find interesting.
My email is ” “, by all means contact me about anything!



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