We're probably due a Ryûsuke Hamaguchi moment, and it may now be upon us. Until now, the issue has been how best to bring the 43-year-old Japanese writer-director in off the festival circuit. His breakthrough film, 2015's Happy Hour, ran five hours and 17 minutes, suggesting he might not be the easiest fit on the same release schedules that found elbow room for his compatriots Hirokazu Kore-eda and Naomi Kawase; more perplexingly, his 2018 follow-up Asako I & II sounded like a double bill, yet ran one minute shy of two hours. Drive My Car - Hamaguchi's three-hour adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story; yes, you read that correctly - is currently being talked up as this year's Parasite, the subtitled contender with the strongest chance of breaking the English-language stranglehold on the Oscars' Best Picture category. (It's already won multiple American critics' year-end prizes.) Oddly, it actually has more of the critically reviled Green Book in its narrative DNA, but then this is a movie that tells multiple stories simultaneously, some of them more obvious than others.
For all that Hamaguchi has been hailed as the great revelation of 2021 - a second festival fave of his, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, is set to open in the UK next month - the surprise is that there's nothing wildly beyond the cinematic pale here. Drive My Car trades in an only slightly more elevated form of the naturalism Kore-eda has typically traded in - and just as we critics have ecstatically lapped up that for two hours, so it stands to reason we should be more ecstatic still about lapping it up for three. I wonder if this particular Hamaguchi film has become the global breakthrough because its characters work specifically in the arts, thereby passing through a milieu that's either recognisable or aspirational. In any event, the film's virtues are those that have long been championed within the arthouse sector: quietly unflashy storytelling, a gentle espousal of humanist values, a flash or two of ultra-tasteful sex, and more than a passing nod to one of the quote-unquote higher artforms in the highly detailed theatrical backdrop. (In the film's lengthy audition and rehearsal sequences, Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe do with Chekhov text what the crowdpleasing Green Book did with pizza: folding it up into vast wedges and shoving these into their characters' maws for them to chew over.) As old-school as that two-door Saab, the film took home the Best Screenplay prize from Cannes, and its strengths are indeed literary. The bulk of the drama develops from a neat, well-turned story idea: that after taking a hiatus for personal reasons, Yūsuke gets back on the road, headed for a theatre festival in Hiroshima with a new female driver in Misaki (Tôko Miura, who has something of Diane Morgan's benumbed, hangdog quality) and a tape of his wife's line readings that functions as both sonic comfort blanket and existential satnav.En route, this pair begin to gather up other stories, and the film begins to circle several tenets: that life itself may be no more or less than a matter of story-gathering; that our collected yarns and legends are a form of baggage we carry around with us; that we might find solace, strength, inspiration or merely escape in the stories of others. You tell me your tale, and I'll tell you mine. (The car provides a perfect forum.) Around its midway point, Drive My Car starts to assume an especially elegant shape: we get the daily rehearsals for the production of Vanya Yūsuke has been appointed to oversee, followed by highlights of the hour-long drive back to Yūsuke's lodgings on what we're told is an isolated island. (Here, solitude; there, company.) Neither of these A and B plots deviate much from their expected trajectory. At the theatre, Yūsuke drills a moderately eccentric troupe who include a hearing actress who insists on performing in Korean sign language (the film's one real fanciful touch, though one with a lovely payoff) and a tearaway leading man who once cuckolded his director; there is vacillation, disagreement and a last-reel intervention from the law, but in the end, the show triumphantly goes on. In the car, Yūsuke goes from being grumpy around Misaki (she's been forced on him by the theatre festival; he'd far rather drive himself, for which we understand be alone) to being less grumpy, indeed openly convivial. He enters this relationship in the backseat, and ends up sitting alongside his driver in the front, one final round of storytelling bestowing a kind of parity upon them.
What is exceptional about Drive My Car - and this may well account for all those five-star reviews - is Hamaguchi's uncommon lightness of touch. Not once does the film force anything upon us as A Pivotal Scene; there are no raised voices until the final performance of Vanya (and even there, it's Chekhov's fault); the one tragedy at the heart of this plot is taken on board altogether phlegmatically. (One later act of violence is elided to such a degree you wonder if everyone on screen has forgotten about it - crucially, Hamaguchi hasn't.) All these set-ups, all the film's interactions, are allowed to settle on the screen like snowflakes, and it is ultimately a film that works by accumulation: three hours of small, delicate observations about its characters that make those characters only more interesting to spend time with as characters. Maybe that's why Hamaguchi keeps returning to the push-and-pull of the rehearsal room, where the goal is to nudge a text in the direction of truth; he may even have located an ideal directorial style in Misaki's driving, said to be so smooth you don't notice you're being driven. This filmmaker is rather more openly self-reflexive than, say, the revered Kore-eda has generally been. From the title right through to its final-reel snowscapes, Drive My Car is neither short on nor shy about foregrounding metaphors for its own making. Yet it's a good deal more successful about integrating these elements than Kore-eda was in 2019's clunky The Truth. And Hamaguchi retains a genuinely affecting emotional dimension, born of where these roads carry these characters. One of the more gently worn aspects of the rebuilding process described here is that Yūsuke should be heading to Hiroshima, of all places: a location the film wields as ultimate and clinching proof of our capacity to go on, even in the wake of disaster.
Drive My Car is currently playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.