Widely celebrated on the festival circuit last year, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” is receiving renewed attention due to its four Oscar nominations. It’s an exquisite Tower of Babel from a movie – a thrilling mix of Japanese, Korean, English, Mandarin, Tagalog, Indonesian, German and Malay. All of these languages, with the crucial addition of Korean Sign Language, are braided throughout (actress Park Yurim’s gorgeous signature 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 unclear what the award is for.
It’s a film that, even in Hamaguchi’s native Japan, is inconceivable without subtitles. Subtitling is both superimposed and represented in the film: it is, as we say in film studies, both diegetic and non-diegetic. The protagonist, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater director known for his unconventional methods, performs a play with actors of various nationalities who perform their roles in their native languages. When we see him for the first time on stage (he is in turn actor and director), he plays Vladimir in “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett, pronouncing his lines in Japanese; Production tarragon responds in Indonesian. The film’s subtitling game is so strong that it requires three distinct typographies: Roman type for translation from Japanese; Roman characters in parentheses for translations of all other languages (in the American version, English is not subtitled); and italics for sign language translations, as well as signage (“Flowers and vegetables for sale” at a roadside store). The film immerses us in what French literary theorist Roland Barthes called “the pleasure of the text”, and the film proves to be a masterclass in one of its key concepts: intertextuality. In Barthes’ formulation, every text is woven from disparate elements, including other texts. Each text, consciously or not, is “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture”.
A film that takes its title from a short story by Haruki Murakami and advertises itself as “based on” would seem to explicitly acknowledge its literary debts. However, this is a bit misleading. “Drive My Car” draws the most on Murakami’s story of the same name (“Doraibu mai kāin the original Japanese publication), but while “Drive My Car” provides the backbone of the film, Hamaguchi said he found the story’s ending “abrupt”, telling an interviewer, “I had felt like I needed to take this story somewhere beyond where it ends on the page. He found 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 “Uncle Vanya” by Anton Chekhov; the play’s main character is Kafuku’s signature role as an actor, and most of the film focuses on a production he was brought to Hiroshima to direct, two years after the death of his wife. It’s a play he literally knows by heart, not just his role, but that of each character. While being driven on time to and from the theater 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 omitted; he provides them from the back seat. This preparation is part of the Kafuku “method”. “The flow of the whole game,” he explains to his driver, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), “has to be memorized.”
Isaac Butler’s new book recently reminded us of the lasting influence of the method game. Kafuku’s method, on the other hand, is resolutely anti-Method: submitting to the text without a priori, reading the text without bringing in external emotions. He attempts to impose this discipline on Koshi Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), the young actor he cast as his Vanya, only to be interrupted by Janice Chang, another cast member:
She almost shouts the quintessential (or clichéd) Method actor’s question: “What’s my motivation?” For Kafuku, the text reads us, and reveals us to ourselves. As he later explained to Takatsuki, “Chekhov is terrifying. When you say his lines, it brings out the real you.
Kafuku, we quickly realize, understands that Chekhov terrifies Takatsuki in a very particular way. (Lots of spoilers ahead.) Kafuku knows, without having confided in either Takatsuki or Oto before his death, that the two had slept together. In a twist on Prince Hamlet’s play in a play, Kafuku believes “Vanya” is the thing he’ll catch the consciousness of – well, not the king, but his wife’s morning idol lover. During the table reading, Takatsuki (as Vanya) is visibly shaken at being dragged into exchanges such as these:
Shakespeare’s Claudius only had to sit in the audience while his betrayal was brought up; Kafuku makes Takatsuki confess his infidelity in front of his director, the man he wronged.
The film’s most powerful narrative device is an almost continuous deployment of this type of dramatic irony. It’s not there in any of Murakami’s source documents; with screenwriter Takamasa Oe, Hamaguchi realized the uncanny dramatic potential of Chekhov’s words when torn from their original context. We first become aware of the strange relevance of the text of “Vanya”, written more than a century earlier, nearly twenty minutes after the start of the film. Kafuku entered, but remained unseen, with Oto and Takatsuki making love. He turns around quietly, gets back in his car and begins to repeat his Vanya. But “Vanya” brings him right back to the scene he tries to forget: