How Drive My Car Uses Beckett and Chekhov to Redefine Storytelling

Movies Features Ryusuke Hamaguchi
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How <i>Drive My Car</i> Uses Beckett and Chekhov to Redefine Storytelling

When we first meet Drive My Car Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), he is putting on a production of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist tragicomedy Waiting for Godot, a play that follows two men as they anticipate the arrival of an enigmatic and ineffable figure named Godot, who never ends up showing his face. Perhaps Godot is a work about uncertainty, disappointment, madness; or perhaps it is about hope, or God, or war. The truth is, when he was alive, Beckett famously refused to provide a definitive answer for what Godot actually represents, and now, 30 years after his death, the question remains on our minds.

But, let’s face it: That elusiveness is exactly what’s so fun about the play. Godot is a transformer. A chrysalis bursting with possibility. A Freudian ideal that says so much more about his audience than about himself or anyone else. And for Yusuke, Godot represents the possibility of storytelling. Storytelling is integral to Yusuke’s life. It of course plays a large role in his fruitful career of staging plays, and he even goes to great lengths to play into the medium’s possibilities by staging multilingual versions of classic works. But storytelling is also the principal connective tissue between him and his wife, TV writer Oto (Reika Kirishima), who weaves fantastical yarns while they have sex, coming closer to a fully developed story with every encounter. When Oto unexpectedly dies one night of a brain aneurysm, Yusuke’s relationship to storytelling radically shifts. He is no longer Godot’s Vladimir or Estragon, standing on a country road, bursting with possibility. Instead, he now only knows how to look backwards: Back at the idyllic life he had with his wife that was shattered by premature death, and at the questions he never asked her about her secret lovers.

And so when, two years later, Yusuke decides to stage an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s realist play Uncle Vanya, the pivot makes perfect sense as a reflection of his storytelling career’s trajectory. Vanya follows a quartet whose interlaced lives lead the titular character to become hyper-aware of his own mortality and regret. In this sense, Vanya is something of an inverse of Godot—the former being a story permanently facing backward, while the latter peers inquisitively forward.

Yusuke’s new relationship with his own existence doesn’t just manifest through his art. Before he starts rehearsing Vanya in Hiroshima, the company he is with assigns him a driver to shuttle him to-and-fro in his beloved bright red Saab. The driver in question is Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a quiet young woman with whom, despite Yusuke’s initial resistance, he discovers a genuine bond. As the two drive through Hiroshima, they discuss their individual relationships with loss. Yusuke tells Misaki about the death of his wife, and, a couple decades prior, the death of their young daughter. Misaki tells Yusuke about her abusive mother, whom she allowed to die when their house was crushed in a landslide—a choice which she now deeply regrets.

In a film chock-full of stages and productions, the Saab turns out to be the central setpiece. It’s worth noting here that the Haruki Murakami short story upon which the film was based takes place almost entirely within the confines of this car. Where Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation weaves in episodic meditations on our protagonist’s domestic and professional life, Marukami allows all of the information required for us to understand Yusuke—and for Yusuke to understand himself—to manifest as a conversation with a relative stranger.

Regardless of the form implemented, it is a strange choice, by any account, to have a story about infidelity, loss and creation be so clearly focused on a simple commute. This is exactly where Godot reappears in the film’s narrative. As Drive My Car progresses, the Saab inadvertently begins to represent a new Godot-like character for our floundering protagonist, allowing his life to take a new shape within its walls, just as the very idea of Godot shows Vladimir and Estragon what they truly yearn for. At first, he and Misaki’s conversations mirror those in Vanya, all pointing inward and backward. He tells her about how, the day Oto died, she said she wanted to talk to him about something, and he never got to hear what it was. Even two years later, he is still constantly plagued by regret at this missed opportunity. This feeling rings true for Misaki, who relates it to the regret she feels regarding her relationship with her mother.

But as the long car rides proliferate, Yusuke and Misaki are able to perceive their regrets as possibilities. Misaki helps Yusuke reframe his relationship with Oto not as a lost opportunity, but as one that might help him engage more closely with his art—and perhaps eventually play the role of Vanya without fear. This manifests, in particular, when Yusuke asks Misaki to show him where her childhood home was destroyed. There, Hamaguchi shoots the landscape with wide angles, infusing the location with possibility, as opposed to the suffocating remorse Misaki once associated it with.

There is a direct correlation between Yusuke and Misaki visiting the latter’s childhood ruins and the former deciding to step into the role of Vanya himself. Yusuke had previously cast Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) in the role of Vanya, despite Koji being at least a decade too young to play the part. This casting choice speaks, in large part, to Yusuke’s fear of aging into oblivion, and his longing to return to a past that was still ripe with possibility. By reimagining Vanya as someone who still has his life ahead of him, perhaps he can also reimagine the hopelessness of the role.

But Koji also represents a more personal element of our protagonist’s past: In the first act of Drive My Car, Yusuke walks in on Oto having sex with a younger man—one that, based on our brief glimpse, is more than likely Koji. Following his wife’s death, Yusuke befriends Koji in an effort to untangle the mystery that is his late wife. Despite his efforts, though, their relationship doesn’t illuminate anything about Oto. Instead, it brings Yusuke closer to a new version of himself, a truth which is illuminated in a car ride he and Koji take together. They discuss Oto, but, despite the climactic confrontation taking place in the Saab, no real resolve is reached—further recalling the stunted plot of Godot and its ethereal ability to help focus its protagonists’ desires.

In one of his conversations with Misaki, Yusuke explains his complex relationship to acting. He says that, once he has immersed himself in a role, it is immensely difficult for him to re-emerge back into his real self. This is why, for the majority of Drive My Car, he refuses to entertain the idea of playing Vanya. Already tormented by regret and abandon, he believes that a performance as Vanya would be impossible to come back from. But when Koji is arrested and cannot perform as Vanya, Yusuke, emboldened from the recontextualization of loss that Misaki’s car rides has brought him, decides to play the role. The final image of Drive My Car sees Misaki stepping into Yusuke’s Saab. We don’t know where she’s going—which version of Godot she is chasing and will likely find, unlike Vladimir and Estragon who waited for Godot to come to them—but we know that it could be anywhere. At one point, Yusuke asks, “What should I do about my life and love?” Hamaguchi would say that you simply take it and drive on, away from the rubble of an abandoned home, toward a new relationship with the past.


Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.