Japanese Movie ‘Drive My Car’ Wins 4 Oscar Nominations, Including Best Picture: NPR

Oscar nominee drive my car draws on a story by acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami and its trademark themes of loss and guilt – and the interplay of art and life.


The Japanese film “Drive My Car” picked up four Oscar nominations this week, including Best Picture. The film is adapted from a short story by one of Japan’s most famous writers, Haruki Murakami. NPR’s Anthony Kuhn explains how the film builds on some of the writer’s signature themes of art and life, loss and redemption.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The film begins in a dimly lit dreamlike state. Kafuku, actor and theater director, is in bed with his wife, Oto. They lost their young child and they deal with it through a kind of creative therapy, making up stories during and after sex. Actor Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Kafuku.

HIDETOSHI NISHIJIMA: (Through interpreter) My character is a person who loves and understands his wife more than anyone.

KUHN: One thing Kafuku doesn’t understand is why his wife sleeps with other men.

NISHIJIMA: (Through interpreter) You think you understand yourself better and trust yourself more than anyone else. But still, there is a place in the heart that you cannot understand.

KUHN: Oto seems about to confess her infidelity, but before she can, she suddenly dies. Then the story fast forwards two years. It’s 40 minutes into the movie, and it’s only now that the opening credits roll.


KUHN: Kafuku deals with his pain by acting or pretending to be someone else. Among the roles he plays is the main role in Anton Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya”, about the frustrated caretaker of a Russian country estate. Kafuku’s moving stage is an old red Saab two-door sedan, which doubles as his wife’s rolling sanctuary. He practices his lines on the way to the theater with a recording of his wife reading the other parts. Later, Kafuku takes up residence at a theater festival. For insurance reasons, they assign him a young driver named Misaki.


NISHIJIMA: (As Yusuke Kafuku, through an interpreter) Sorry, but I still haven’t agreed to have you as my driver.

KUHN: …he said, barely controlling his irritation. Actress Toko Miura talks about playing Misaki.

TOKO MIURA: (Through interpreter) She says she’s sensitive when people lie. I think that means she can understand people’s feelings, and that way she can choose her words based on who she’s talking to.

KUHN: Misaki starts off as tough and frosty, but Miura says she’s actually an honest and empathetic character.

MIURA: (Through an interpreter) In many ways, I wanted to be like her, and if I were to meet her, I would say, let’s be friends.

KUHN: Misaki listens as Kafuku practices his lines from the piece. The lines are like subtext or a story within a story, echoing or mirroring what is happening between the characters in the film. Sometimes they are clear. Sometimes they are ambiguous. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi explains.

RYUSUKE HAMAGUCHI: (Through interpreter) They are both very controlled personalities. They are not the type to express themselves. So I started with Kafuku speaking Uncle Vanya’s lines so the audience would think that Vanya’s words represent Kafuku’s emotions.

KUHN: During conversations in the Saab, Kafuku and Misaki gradually open up to each other and discover their shared feelings of loss and guilt. Kafuku later admits that Misaki’s driving is so smooth that he forgets he’s in a car. At the theater festival, Kafuku directs “Uncle Vanya”. He makes an unusual choice for the lead role, a young actor who happens to be his late wife’s former lover. Kafuku talks with the actor over drinks at a bar.


NISHIJIMA: (As Yusuke Kafuku, through interpreter) That’s what you think. He and I share the same pain because we loved the same woman.

KUHN: In fact, the two men reveal facets of the wife that the other had not known. The young actor ends up giving Kafuku advice on his wife’s inner demons, as well as his own. Actor Hidetoshi Nishijima says Kafuku may have chosen the young actor partly as a form of revenge.

NISHIJIMA: (Through interpreter) I think he gave the role to the actor because of a rather dark, clear and deep feeling. While I was playing this scene, I had such an indescribable feeling.

KUHN: Later in the rehearsals, there is a dialogue between South Korean and Taiwanese actresses. Kafuku tells the actors, stop. Something important has just happened.

MATTHEW STRECHER: For me, that was one of the many really important moments in this movie.

KUHN: Matthew Strecher is a professor of modern Japanese literature at Sophia University in Tokyo. He says this scene touches on a frequent theme in the works of Haruki Murakami, from whom the story was adapted.

STRECHER: Because that was the moment when the barrier between fact and fiction collapsed, which always happens.

KUHN: When that barrier breaks down, you may find yourself forgetting that the people you’re watching are actors and they’re performing in a play and not talking to you directly.

STRECHER: But I think that’s true for all of Murakami’s writings. You go through history and then you end up rewriting history anyway in your own image and discovering that it’s also about you because all of his stories are about things that we all are about.

KUHN: Kafuku directs “Uncle Vanya” with actors from several countries, each speaking their own language with subtitles. Strecher says it’s Hamaguchi’s way of bringing Murakami’s writing to life, which transcends language and nationality.

STRECHER: He does that through his writing style, by writing this incredibly translatable Japanese, and he does that by putting his stories in places where it could be anywhere. They’re set in Tokyo, but they don’t have to be.

KUHN: Hamaguchi also managed to turn Murakami’s approximately 40-page short story into a three-hour film. It may sound like building a small house in a sprawling mansion, but Hamaguchi describes it differently.

HAMAGUCHI: (Through an interpreter) I don’t think Murakami’s story is a small house but a big story, of which only small parts are shown and other parts are hidden. And my job was to dig up this important hidden part, like digging up ruins.

KUHN: Hamaguchi says another director once described the act of revealing what is hidden in this way.

HAMAGUCHI: (Through interpreter) The camera has x-ray eyes, and it can even film a person’s soul. I never believed it, but now I do.

KUHN: But Matthew Strecher says that in Murakami’s works there are no easy answers to issues like loss. All people can do is keep on living, which the characters of “Uncle Vanya” also conclude. Perhaps that’s why “Drive My Car” doesn’t end triumphantly but ambiguously, summed up on Misaki’s face with just the slightest hint of a smile.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.


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