April 6, 2022

Measuring Sadness in “Drive My Car”

By Stuart Mitchner

My point of entry to Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Oscar-winning picture Drive My Car was through the title, which his film shares with the opening track on Rubber Soul and the story by Haruki Murakami that opens his 2017 collection, Men Without Women. The Beatles connection continues in the next story, which begins and ends with a character who composes and sings deranged lyrics to “Yesterday.” The second track on Rubber Soul gave Murakami the title for his 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood, a book I look forward to reading, along with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which Patti Smith celebrates in her memoir M-Train.

The Cities Game

Finding Murakami in the environs of Hamaguchi was like discovering a thriving metropolis enroute to another, smaller, newer city. Now I’m heading down the road to a sprawling composite of Hamburg, Berlin, and Paris, Texas named Wim Wenders, which I first visited in his film The American Friend, released in 1979, the same year Murakami published his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing. Somewhere in the same enormous state (think of Texas, Ohio and New Jersey all in one), you’ll find Jim Jarmusch Junction, mapped out somewhere between Hoboken, Memphis, and Paterson.

Chekhov and Jarmusch

Along with the prospect of a film centered on the staging of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, what finally convinced me to take a three-hour ride with Hamaguchi last month was the Jarmusch Junction ambiance I saw in the posters for Drive My Car. Shown standing on either side of the gleaming vehicle that will become the theater intime of their relationship are Uncle Vanya’s director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a tall fortyish Vanyaesque man who looks as if he hasn’t had a laugh since childhood, and his driver Misaki (Tôko Miura), a sad-faced twentyish woman in a baseball cap, over-sized man’s jacket, and Converse sneakers, who looks as if she’s never smiled in her life. Suddenly, it’s deja vu all over again, I’m in Jarmusch’s Memphis in 1989 with a couple of Japanese teens, perky Mitsuko and solemn Jun (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase), just in from Yokohama aboard the prematurely white-haired director’s Mystery Train. Almost 30 years later Nagase will return to Jarmusch as the Japanese poet in Paterson, which Hamaguchi includes on his projectr.tv list of his ten favorite films since 2010.

Colonizing the Subconscious

I’ve reserved a separate paragraph for the vehicle featured on the posters for Drive My Car, a gleaming Saab 900 Turbo of as loud a red as the jacket worn by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the night clerk in a down-and-out hotel in Mystery Train Memphis, where a woman just in from Rome awakens in the night to the ghost of Elvis singing “Blue Moon.” More to the point, given the East-West genealogical/geographical span of Wenders to Jarmusch to Hamaguchi, the resplendent Saab is a cinematic descendant of the bright orange VW Beetle that steals the closing scenes of The American Friend, as seen by the late Robby Müller. The cinematographer of choice for Wenders and Jarmusch, Müller was behind the camera for  Kings of the Road (1977), a film in which one of the title characters delivers a line that covers the whole cross-cultural landscape: “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious.” The statement is relevant to Hamaguchi and especially Murakami, who has sometimes been chastised by the Japanese literary establishment for being subject to decadent Western influences such as Kafka, Kerouac, Billie Holiday, and the Beatles.

Chekhov in the Car

Ira Gershwin was presumably thinking of Chekhov when he wrote the lyrics for brother George’s “But Not For Me,” in which love leads to “more clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee.” The mood created by that melancholic ballad fits the mood of Drive My Car. One of the intimate pleasures of both film and story is the way Uncle Vanya deepens the relationship between Kafuku, the director who plays cassette tapes of the play in the car (he eventually takes on the title role himself), and sad-eyed, chain-smoking Misaki, whose quiet mastery of the art of driving soothes his spirit. By the time she surprises him by quoting lines from Vanya’s loving niece Sonia (she’s been listening, too), she has managed to unsmilingly, effortlessly reach you and touch you almost before you know it, whether you’re watching the film or reading the story.

Smoke Signals

In Murakami, the sequence where Misaki becomes Sonia begins with reference to her smoking, which she usually does by exhaling up through the open sun roof or out the window. Watching her take “a deep drag, her eyes narrowed in pleasure,” Kafuku says, “tobacco’s a killer,” to which she replies, in characteristic deadpan style, “Being alive is a killer, when you think about it,” rousing a laugh from her chronically deadpan passenger. After she says “That’s the first time I’ve seen you laugh,” he’s finally moved to tell her, “There’s something very attractive about you. You’re not homely at all you know.” (She’d been described in those terms by the garage owner who recommended her chauffeuring skills). After admitting that her features are plain, “like Sonia’s,” a reference to the Chekhov character that delights the dour director (even if he is unable to show it), she recites Sonia’s line, “ ‘Oh how miserable I am, I can’t stand it. Why was I born so poorly favored?’ “ At that, he briefly joins her in the play, reciting Vanya’s lament (“ ‘Oh how unbearable! Is there no help for me?’ “), wherein Vanya bemoans being 47, with 13 more years of life to endure.

Hamaguchi makes visual poetry of the union between Kufuku and Misaki with a single image implying a bond on another, more unusual level than the one between friends or lovers or family. Both the driver and the passenger sitting next to her are smoking when suddenly, as if by some telepathic agreement, each holds a lighted cigarette up through the open sun roof, two hands raised skyward, as if the cigarettes were miniature torches sending smoke signals into the void. The slow subtle maturing of the relationship may be the best thing about the film, as it is in Murakami’s story, which Hamaguchi and his players bring movingly to life. The gesture with the cigarettes held high also suggests a nod to Jim Jarmusch, who shot an entire film called Coffee and Cigarettes.

Hiroshima Mariupol

Most of the driving in Murakami’s Drive My Car takes place on streets, boulevards, and expressways in and around Tokyo, where Murikami ran a coffee house and jazz bar called Peter Cat before he published his first novel (his first job was at a record store). It’s our good fortune that various twists of fate led Hamaguchi to film in Hiroshima, a choice that immediately makes viewers subconsciously mindful of the current wartime moment in Ukraine when cities like Mariupol have been razed to the ground. At the heart of the film, on drives between rehearsals for Uncle Vanya, you’re aware of a big, handsome modern Japanese city of wide boulevards, parks, rivers, and bridges surrounded by spectacular views of Hiroshima Bay. But it’s impossible not to feel haunted by the thought of what happened on August 6, 1945, and of the mesmerizing 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, directed by Alain Resnais, who said, “In Hiroshima, more than in other places, what matters is to live …. one feels a violent desire for life, a will of sudden sensations.”

Speaking at an Academy Awards press conference following Drive My Car’s win as Best International Feature, Hamaguchi said, “Hiroshima guided the story where distraught people seek to find hope.”

Measuring Sadness

Murakami’s collection Men Without Women begins with “Drive My Car” and ends with the title story, in which the narrator remembers listening to “rock and blues” when he drove: “Derek and the Dominoes, Otis Redding, the Doors,” and no doubt Rubber Soul by the Beatles. The woman he’s missing and mourning in a sort of prose poem remembrance loved “elevator music … Percy Faith, Mantovoni,” which she insisted on listening to when they were in the car (“She knew all there was to know about all the innocent music in the world”). Now the narrator misses elevator music. All her tapes, which she used to carry around in a paper bag, are lost. “I mean, my car doesn’t even have a tape deck anymore. When I drive now, I use an iPod with a USB cable.”

Earlier in “Men Without Women,” there’s a paragraph that resonates in “Drive My Car,” both film and story. Trying to deal with the loss of the woman who loved elevator music, the narrator thinks about the everyday things he might have been doing when he lost her. “No one can keep their eyes on someone every second. You have to sleep …. Have to slice onions …. Check the air in your tires.” Then: “After she left, no one knows how wretched I felt, how deep the abyss. How could they? I can barely recall it myself. How much did I suffer? How much pain did I go through? I wish there was a machine that could accurately measure sadness, and display it in numbers that you could record. And it would be great if that machine could fit in the palm of your hand. I think of this every time I measure the air in my tires.”