Crossing ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘Uncle Vanya’ ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (濱口 竜介,) has combined the works of two great writers–Haruki Murakami (村上 春樹) and Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)–to construct a delicately tragic film about intersecting lives, “Drive My Car.”


The Car

The car in question is a red Saab. Think of how unusual is must be for a Japanese man in Japan to own and drive a Swedish car. Not a Toyota, Nissan or Honda. Not even a Hyundai from South Korea, although this film includes Korean actors as South Korean characters and during its pre-pandemic planning stage was originally set to be filmed in Korea. A Swedish car. This isn’t a new car, but an old car, a Talladega Red 1990/1991 Saab 900 Aero coupe. This familiar with Japan will understand that for someone who lives in the city like Tokyo, owning a car means being able to prove that you have a place to park it and having an old car means going through numerous onerous steps to keep it. The car itself and its color tells us something about its owner, Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima). He is peculiar, sometimes impractical and well-to-do. 

If someone has the opportunity, one should ask the director why a red car was chosen instead of a yellow. Was it availability? Was it meaning? Red in Japan and much of East Asia is a color of celebration. In Japan, it is also often a color associated with girls. I wonder if Murakami has a specific reason for making it yellow. 

“Drive My Car” is the name of one of Murakami’s short stories in the “Men Without Women” collection (女のいない男た), but the film also incorporates another story in the collection, “Scheherazade.” The journey of the main character, Yūsuke Kafuku, along with the person who drives his car, veers away from the book, taking a detour, a fork in the road devised by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe. 

In the Murakami short story, the protagonist is named Kafuku and he is a widowed actor who is forced to hire Misaki Watari to drive his car because his license has been revoked. Watari drives him around Tokyo, often to bars, and he talks about his late wife and her infidelity. According to other sources, the color of the car in the short story was different (yellow), but red was chosen for the film. 

The Plays

In the film, “Drive My Car,” things transpire differently, but to understand some of what Hamaguchi and Oe are saying you need to know a little bit about two plays: Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” 

The Dublin, Ireland born Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) wrote in both French and English and died in Paris. He finished his most famous tragicomedy “Waiting for Godot” in 1953 in French. During World War II and the Nazi German occupation of France, Beckett was part of the French Resistance. He was more than a man of thought. Those familiar with “Waiting for Godot” know it is about two men in bowler hats–Vladimir and Estragon. Vladimir is the heavier of the two and he’s the restless one, while Estragon seems tired. Estragon might be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; he is often forgetful, but this is also a narrative tool. There are three other characters, Lucky, Pozzo and the Boy.  

The play is about waiting and uncertainty: 

Often perceived as being tramps, Vladimir and Estragon are a pair of human beings who do not know why they were put on earth; they make the tenuous assumption that there must be some point to their existence, and they look to Godot for enlightenment.

Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya”  is also less than happy. 

Ivan Voynitsky, called Uncle Vanya, is bitterly disappointed when he realizes that he has sacrificed and wasted his life managing the country estate and business affairs of his former brother-in-law, Serebryakov, who, Vanya discovers, will never be anything more than a pedantic second-rate academic. Sonya, Serebryakov’s daughter and Vanya’s assistant, silently endures her unrequited love for a local physician. Vanya attempts to shoot Serebryakov but misses, and little changes. Neither of them can give up the work, however meaningless, to which they have devoted their lives.

All the characters seemed to be filled with regret over living hopeless lives and resent and sometimes blame each other for their unfulfilling lives. There’s an excellent version of this play available on Amazon Prime Video (for pay) or for free on PBS Great Performances. Tony Award nominee Conor McPherson adapted this version, which was directed by Ian Rickson for the stage and for the screen by Ross MacGibbon. Recorded in August 2020 at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London when the sold-out run was closed due to the conoravirus pandemic, this Great Performance premiered 7 May 2021. 

The titular Uncle Vanya has given up his half of the estate in order to support his brother-in-law, yet the sacrifices Vanya has made don’t stop there. Now, realizing that his widower brother-in-law, who has married a much younger wife, is not a great academic and is so self-involved he barely thinks of anyone, but himself even though his daughter by his first wife lives on the estate. Vanya feels despair. Yet Vanya and Sonya see no other path than to continue on as things have always been. 

The Characters

People who read Japanese will immediately sense an irony in the main character’s surname, Kafuku (家福). Ka (家) means house. Fuku (福) means fortune, blessing, luck or wealth. Yet there is another kafuku (禍福) a homophone that pairs opposites together–misfortune and fortune, misfortune and prosperity, downs and ups. This is not unlike the two masks that are often used to represent theater–comedy versus sadness which is also represented in “Waiting for Godot.” 

There is a Japanese saying that: kafuku wa azanaeru tsuna no Hitoshi (禍福は糾える縄のごとし) or “misfortune and fortune are interwoven like strands of a rope.” The protagonist’s first name, Yūsuke (悠介), isn’t a name of good fortune or virtue (e.g. bravery) or even place (e.g. first son). Yū (悠) means distant or longtime. Suke (介) means  in-between or mediate. What’s more interesting is the name of the wife, Oto (音), which means sound in Japanese. Her full name essentially means the sound of misery and happiness.  

Oto will introduce her husband to Takatsuki Kōji, a younger man who is a television actor but admires the husband. Taka (高) means high or expensive. Tsuki (槻) means a Zelkova tree. Zelkova trees are native to Japan, Korea and eastern China. But Takatsuki is also a homophone for a word that means one-legged table for one person (高槻)

 Kō (耕) means tillage or plow.  Ji (史) means history.  This is also not a particularly promising first name, but this first name has many homophones, including public announcement (公示), happy event (好字) or temptation (好餌). The name of the driver, Watari Misaki, is also curious. Wata (渡) means to cross or migrate. Ri (利) means advantage or gain. In Japanese, watari (渡り)means migration or crossing. Misaki means a cape or promontory.  

Drive My Car: The Movie 

The film begins with a husband and wife, Yūsuke(Hidetoshi Nishijima 西島秀俊)  and Oto (Reika Kirishima 霧島れいか) Kafuku. She is telling him a story, because it’s her habit to weave tales while having sex (“Scheherazade” from “Men Without Women”). She’s a screenwriter, working in an office. The two seem happy, but there is something between them that they can’t speak about which will be revealed eventually.  Yūsuke drives a red car and listens to recordings of line readings to plays while driving. He performs in a local production of “Waiting for Godot” where his wife introduces him to a young actor,   Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada 岡田将生), who admires Yūsuke’s work.  

Later, Yūsuke prepares to fly abroad to participate in a festival, but his flight in cancelled. When he unexpectedly returns home, he discovered his wife having sex with a younger man. Instead of confronting the couple, he checks into a hotel.  After he returns, his wife informs him that they need to discuss something yet that talk never takes place. When Yūsuke comes home, he finds his wife already dead, her body betrayed her (cerebral hemorrhage). 

 Two years later, Yūsuke is facing some troubling effects of old age. He has eye problems. He also seems busy but isolated. He has agreed to direct a multi-lingual version of “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima with some stipulations: That he be put up somewhere that requires a drive, during which he’ll listen to the recordings made by his wife. His intention is to drive himself, an unusual and isolating practice in a country that has an excellent public transportation system including the high-speed trains (Shinkansen). Due to past problems, the festival has its own requirements: Yūsuke must have a driver. That driver is, surprisingly, a quiet young woman, Misaki Watari 渡利みさき(Toko Miura 三浦透子). 

The young man who has been a rising star and perhaps Oto’s lover, Takatsuki auditions for a role. Takatsuki likely wanted to be the handsome doctor, but ends up being cast as Uncle Vanya. He is essentially replacing Kafuku in his signature role, one that Kafuku now refuses to tackled any more. Kafuku feels that being on stage strips away the mask one wears in every day life, one’s public face (建前, tatemae) and reveals one’s true self and feelings (本音, hon’ne). Hon’ne literally means, “true sound.” The “ne” is another reading (yomikata) for the character used for the wife’s name, Oto. 

Takatsuki’s career has stalled; he was involved in a scandal and the claustrophobic island culture is unforgiving. In this fishbowl nation, the gaze of the curious cellphone-wielding public and amateur and professional paparazzi, is inescapable. As his name suggests, he will be unable to avoid temptation and like Uncle Vanya, he will explode into regrettable violence.  Takatsuki’s actions will send threaten the production and send Kafuku and his driver on a real journey in search of clarity. 

The Immersive Experience 

During the film, Takatsuki is puzzled and even frustrated by Kafuku’s insistence on reading the script over and over with each actor using their own native language. This might be puzzling to some, but it seems to be in line with applied linguistic practices. When we are babies, we come into a world that incomprehensible sounds and actions, but through repetition understanding slowly dawns on us. We slowly learn, first through listening comprehension and then learn to speak. This is the usual path unless one has hearing disabilities. Yet each language also has body language, something that is also an important part of communication. 

When I learned Japanese, I was in Japan, only aware of a few words because my mother didn’t want us to attend Japanese school. Maybe we could not afford it. My mother told me her main objection was that it was at a Buddhist temple. In any case, I went to Japan and learned the language, but mostly I listened. I listened to my teachers, the commercials and then announcements in the train and subway stations. That is a type of immersion that helps one to learn a language faster than just reading in a class for one hour a day. 

Later, I would be a teaching associated at UCLA in a beginning Japanese program that was partial immersion–the classes were conducted in spoken Japanese but the lectures were in English. Later, I would spend a summer in Vermont at Middlebury College, enrolled in an immersion program for Mandarin Chinese. Students signed a pledge to strive to speak only in our target language. The dormitories were separated by languages and students were assigned to specific floors depending upon their language level. My only respite was visiting the Japanese dormitory when I could speak Japanese or when I went into town.  

In time, you begin to recognize words, the rise and fall of sentence melodies and the physical aspects of communication. I believe this is what Kafuku is doing in his rehearsal sessions during “Drive My Car.” Learning a foreign language as an adult requires one to open oneself up to embarrassment and the possibility of making mistakes. It requires someone to be flexible and keenly observant. It means one must listen to what other’s are saying, even when it doesn’t make sense. It requires one to be willing to change and learn and to not be hindered by false pride or ego. When I was teaching at UCLA, one thing we thought was important–that the class be small and have a balance of men and women. A class with too many men were likely to have problems that would not be seen in a class that was predominately female. 

There’s a lot to digest in Hamaguchi and Oe’s 179-minute film and like Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” the problems are not neatly wrapped up and adorned with a bow at the end. Like Uncle Vanya, Kafuku is a man re-evaluating his life, and yet realizing there is so much outside of one’s control. The pandemic which caused this production to shift from South Korea to Japan, has given us all a lot to think about, too. By incorporating South Korean sign language, Hamaguchi has provided some lovely images. It’s the kind of film that I think should be watched over and over again by people interested in language, film and culture.  

“Drive My Car” made its world premiere on 11 July 2021 at Cannes where it won Best Screenplay, the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Earlier this month, it won Best Foreign Language Film at the 79th Golden Globe Awards.  

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