The tricky business of turning a Haruki Murakami story into an Oscar-worthy drama
Drive My Car, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, has won a Golden Globe award for best foreign film and is now the subject of considerable Oscar buzz. Hamaguchi is getting plenty of credit for bringing one of Murakami’s highly sensitive, introspective visions to the screen. The consensus among many critics is that he has done something pretty daring in making an arty drama full of meditations on love and loss that takes plenty of time (three hours) to get where it’s going.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
On many levels Drive My Car is an impressive film, with fine performances and disarming humor amid the pathos. But critics who rush to praise the movie fail to mention that, for all his bold artiness, Hamaguchi has done a bit of surgery on Murakami’s short story in order to make something approximating a conventional, linear, marketable drama. I guess whether Hamaguchi has skillfully transposed elements of the tale in a bold act of artistic license, or has mangled it, depends on your point of view.
“Drive My Car,” the story, which appears in Murakami’s splendid and resonant collection Men Without Women, is about a middle-aged stage actor named Kafuku who has never been the same since the death of his wife after a long illness. In the course of discussions with his new driver, a 24-year-old woman named Misaki, Kafuku engages in reflections on the death of his wife, on her lack of faithfulness to him during their marriage, and on a subsequent chapter of his past that haunts him. After the tragedy, we learn, Kafuku began hanging out with another actor, Takatsuki, who was one of his wife’s lovers.
The Takatsuki of the short story is in his early forties and not an especially accomplished actor. The bonding between Kafuku and Takatsuki is bittersweet. It’s nice that they can drink and talk for hours on end without Kafuku wanting to kill him, but the sadness of Kafuku’s desperation to hold onto whatever scraps of his dead wife’s identity he can lay his hands on, even recollections from a man who went behind his back and slept with her, is quietly wrenching. The ghosts of the dead stare him down everywhere. The significance of Misaki’s age is that she is exactly how old the daughter he conceived with his late wife would be now, had the baby not died in her third night in the hospital nursery.
In the story, all Kafuku’s memories of the death of his wife and of Takatsuki come out in the course of his endless talks with Misaki as she drives him around. The question Murakami poses is whether Kafuku’s discussions with a woman half his age can provide any sort of catharsis for all his sorrow and loss.
In the movie, director Hamaguchi rearranges the plot in the interest of giving us a much juicier, and more conventional, drama. We see Kafuku walk in on Takatsuki and his wife going at it on the couch, and then leave without the two noticing his presence. Then Kafuku’s wife dies instantaneously from a cerebral hemorrhage, rather than from a drawn-out illness as in the story. When Kafuku travels to Hiroshima to act in a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the theater company assigns Misaki as his driver and then has him pick out actors to audition for the play, one of whom, surprise, surprise, is Takatsuki, who is not the forty-something wannabe of the story but a young, handsome, sexy, dashing hunk.
Rather than remembering his interactions with Takatsuki, as in the story, Kafuku undergoes them in “real time”—in between his jaunts around town in the car driven by Misaki, and, in a late scene, during one of those long drives, at night, where Takatsuki gives a long-winded monologue on identity, love, and loss. Kafuku, Takatsuki, and Misaki. Talk about a bizarre love triangle. As you can guess, much of the energy and tension in the film grows out of Kafuku’s face-to-face conversations and head-butting with the arrogant young aspiring star who went behind his back. Whether Kafuku will be magnanimous, whether he even should, whether he ought to try to understand Takatsuki or bash the guy’s head in, how he should act in this totally bizarre situation keeps the viewer guessing and on the edge of his seat.
Hamaguchi has loaded his screen adaptation of Murakami with references to Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Beckett, but some of us will think inevitably of another literary genius. Here, thanks to his restructuring of the story’s timeline, Faulkner’s adage that the past is not dead, it’s not even past, is true in the most literal possible sense. Call it artful or call it slick. Hamaguchi has achieved the feat of bringing the work of a great contemporary to the screen, and has made a powerful and haunting film, but has also, sadly, acknowledged the persistence of cookie-cutter templates in filmmaking.