Let Me Drive My Car, Please

In 2020, former Albanian Jan Galligan was living in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he had moved in 2010 with his wife, the artist Lillian Mulero. There, they write on art and film for En Rojo the cultural supplement of Claridad, the island’s Independista newspaper. That year, Nippertown published a discussion of Sam Mendes World War I drama 1917, based on a series of emails between Galligan and longtime Albany photographer and art blogger David Brickman.

This year Galligan and Brickman take a look at the highly regarded Japanese film Drive My Car, considered by many to be a shoo-in for the 2022 Best Picture Oscar.

by David Brickman

One thing I like about Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is that it asks a lot of questions. Is this movie about love, death, family history, or life itself? 

I think the creative process is the hub of the wheel in this film, around which all other themes revolve. The main character, stage actor, and theater director Yūsuke is, above all, an artist, and the film spends a great deal of time exploring his creative process, strange though the process may be.

I like how the narrative represents the power of art to comfort us amid the stress of living our lives. Even the stoic driver is ultimately moved by this power, though at the same time it nearly tears Yūsuke apart – certainly a valid point regarding art.

Few films or stories can bring those concepts home the way this one did for me.

Another unique aspect of the film is that it uses so many languages. The New York Times review lists these: Japanese, Korean, English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia, German and Malaysian. That’s nine – ridiculous! And wonderful. I never even heard of Bahasa before this (though an online search identified it as standard Malay, a lingua franca I had heard of before). Many people are put off by a movie if it’s in just one language not their own, so this is probably a big drawback for selling the film. However, I just loved the internal Babel of it all.

A lot of people will also shy away from this movie because it’s three hours long, and that’s a shame. I mean, if a movie’s really good, wouldn’t you WANT it to be long? Which reminds me, the movie is also, definitely, about sex (curiously, the word in Japanese for sex is sex … I have to wonder what the Japanese called sex BEFORE they knew of the English language?). Personally, I like it when something good lasts a long time, including movies.

What else? I am trying to avoid spoilers here. I went into this film knowing three things: The title; that the story involved grieving of some kind; and that it was long and in Japanese. Four things. And that the critics all loved it. So, five things. That was more than enough for me. In fact, I only learned as the opening credits rolled that it had anything to do with the writing of Haruki Murakami, which was a delightful coincidence, as that same morning, when I got the answer to The New Yorker‘s online Name Drop quiz, it was – you guessed it – Haruki Murakami!

So I guess I was ready for this particular movie on that particular day.

From what I understand, the titular story by Murakami is specifically about the process of opening up to a stranger while she drives your car. In the film, this happens … but there are so many other elements.

For example, the car is an old, meticulously maintained, bright red Saab 900 Turbo, equipped with standard left-side drive. In Japan, they drive on the “English” (left) side of the road using right-hand drive. Even so, this hurdle is never commented upon – Misaki, the young female driver simply gets in and expertly guides the vehicle forward.

Owning this car for fifteen years, Yusuke has made the choice to go against the grain – as most artists do, one way or another. This driving anomaly figures into the ongoing imagery of the film and, quite pointedly, if subtly, into the movie’s very short, tantalizingly mysterious epilogue.

A key element of the film is the “play within the play” going on throughout the story, a common enough device, but still worthy of a good deal of discussion on its own. In this case, the play is Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which spookily mirrors the deeper issues of Yūsuke’s psyche, allowing him to inhabit uncle Vanya all too well (along with a snippet of Waiting for Godot, which is equally telling).

Lacking theatrical expertise, I can’t judge the subtler aspects of the stage performances, but they seem genuine enough, as do the many rehearsal scenes that serve to develop the secondary characters in the  film. Based on all that, I think it’s fair to surmise that Hamaguchi has fully embraced Shakespeare’s statement (via Hamlet) that “the play’s the thing” which ultimately provides an alternative vehicle to free Yūsuke from his torments.

In conclusion: Drive My Car is one heck of a ride.

DRIVE MY COMPUTER: confessions of an aging power user
by Jan Galligan

I was there since before the beginning. Twenty years old, fresh out of art school, making drawings and taking photographs for science. I remember when the DEC PDP-11 arrived at the laboratory. Four megs of memory, 16-bit processor, it only took up a small space in the corner of one room. Not that I used it, but the group of computer nerds who did showed me the many amazing things they had discovered about small cellular structures. 

That was a long time ago. Now I’m a retired septuagenarian, living on an island, connected to the world by way of a small arsenal: Laptop, palmtop, and my new iPhone with 1.5 TB of memory and a 32 GIG processor. Small as it all is, it has all outgrown me. Now, I can’t find my data, can’t quite figure out how to get the pictures from my phone to the laptop, and, while reading books on the palmtop, I have a hard time getting Nook to take me back to my library.

Right now I’m in the middle of reading Drive My Car, one of the stories collected in Haruki Murakami’s book Men Without Women, which borrows its title from Hemingway’s book of the same name. I really got into Murakami’s fictional world when I read IQ84, his version of Orwell’s 1984, an intense, compelling novel about a woman in a taxi who, stuck in a traffic jam, leaves the car and ends up in a mystery. Trying to navigate the 30 pages of Drive My Car, I feel like I’ve got an IQ of 84. 

Drive My Car gets going by criticizing women drivers, even as the main character Kafuku, an actor who lost his license for driving drunk, is being chauffeured around by Misaki, his new hire.  

This, of course, reminds us of that old Beatles song: Baby, you can drive my car, and maybe I’ll love you. Not that Kafuku actually gets on with Misaki, but as they drive around, he does tell her about all the secret affairs his late former wife had, not to mention the affair he had with one of her former lovers, beep beep beep beep, yeah.

There are affairs of the heart and there are affairs of the mind, Murakami has the tendency to conflate the two. Here’s a short example from this short story:

… the proposition that we can look into another person’s heart with perfect clarity
strikes me as a fool’s game. I don’t care how well we think we should understand
them, or how much we love them. All it can do is cause us pain. Examining your
own heart, however, is another matter. I think it’s possible to see what’s in there if
you work hard enough … 

Suffice to say it remains complicated, whether love or this complex tale that Murakami has concocted. In a car, on the road, driving around, or being driven, telling one’s life story, or listening to someone else’s story – in the end, it’s a long and winding road.

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