Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

“What can we do? we must live our lives” comes a constant refrain echoing the closing words of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya offered by the self-sacrificing Sonya resolving to find joy in suffering if only in the promise of a better world to come. Freely adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s profoundly moving Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー) is study in grief, loss, and how you learn to live after the world has ended but also of how we pull each through, finding new ways to communicate when words alone can’t help us. 

Words are, however, where we begin with a woman half in shadow an accidental Scheherazade spinning a bizarre tale of a high school girl’s first love. Oto (Reika Kirishima) claims the story is not about her, but as we’ll later discover in some ways it is if perhaps not literally. A long-married couple, this is part of their marital routine, screenwriter Oto telling stories to her theatre director husband Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) she asks him to remember and repeat back to her in the morning. Only one day, having accidentally stumbled in on his wife and her lover only to leave quietly saying nothing, Yusuke claims not to remember. She tells him she wants to talk, but he is afraid of what she’ll say and delays coming home, finding her collapsed in the hallway on his return having passed away from a cerebral haemorrhage. The story remains incomplete, a perpetual cliffhanger never to be resolved. 

Two years later Yusuke is a haunted man still listening to the cassette tape Oto left for him of her reading all of the other lines of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya save for those of the title character which he was to play himself. This time he’s been selected as an artist in residence at at a theatre in Hiroshima where he’ll once again stage Vanya in his signature multilingual performance style. He’s specifically asked for accommodation an hour’s drive away with the intention of maintaining his usual routine of listening to the tape on his way to rehearsal but, following previous incidents, the theatre has a policy of hiring their own drivers in this case a young woman, Misaki (Toko Miura), who eventually wins him over through her capability and care while, ironically, mimicking the very qualities he demands of his actors in her wounded stoicism. 

The car in a sense represents an inviolable space of intimacy, a space that Yusuke had been reluctant to allow anyone to enter, even Oto remarking on his discomfort with her in the driver’s seat as she took him to a doctor’s appointment where he learned he was losing the sight in his left eye, clarifying with the doctor that for the time being at least he’d be OK to drive himself. Misaki assumes he doesn’t want her to drive his car because she’s a young woman, but thereafter is careful to maintain distance respecting his space for her sake as much as his own mindful of her role as a “driver” until he begins to invite her in if originally more out of politeness or consideration than a desire for company. 

Misaki has her own story, a story she too is originally reluctant to share but in its way echoes his as someone trapped in grief and guilt ironically unable to move forward but driven by the quality of Oto’s voice and the ritualistic call and response implied by its lacunas. Too afraid of its implications to take the role himself, Yusuke casts Oto’s lover, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) a young TV actor with impulse control issues whose career has apparently been ruined by scandal, as Vanya a man approaching 50 whose illusions are painfully shattered, forcing him to realise that he’s wasted his life on a futile ideal. The three of them, each eventually entering the confessional space of the car, share more than they might assume but it’s Takatsuki who holds the key revealing another piece of the puzzle with unexpected profundity that in its own way lays bare a truth Yusuke had been unwilling to see about his relationship with his wife, the shared grief that both bound and divided them, and the poetic import of her death. 

Rather than Vanya, the film’s prologue saw Yusuke perform in a multilingual production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the author’s well-known phrase “I must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on” perhaps equally apt even as Yusuke moves slowly away from the role of Vanya before finally assuming that of Sonya in echoing her words while comforting the filial figure of Misaki even as she explains to him that as in Vanya the fault was not in his convictions but in himself that he couldn’t accept the contradictions of his wife and in that sense had not understood her or himself well enough to know he should have braved the hurt of confrontation. Yet as Takatsuki had said, you can’t ever really know another person, there’s always a part of them forever out of reach all you can do is try to make peace with your own darkness. 

For Yusuke communication occurs indirectly, through allegory or half-truth, and through the unspoken or unintelligible. His multilingual approach in which lines are read coldly at half-speed is intended to draw out the feeling that lies beneath them, the final most profound moment delivered in silence as a former dancer breaking free of her bodily inertia delivers Sonia’s closing monologue with all of its melancholy serenity in Korean sign language her arms draped angelically over Vanya’s shoulders in a gesture of the utmost comfort. Touching in its ambiguities, Hamaguchi’s quietly devastating emotional drama for all of its eerie uncanniness finally places its faith in simple human empathy as its haunted souls learn to live with loss finding in each other the strength to go on living.


Drive My Car screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Last Quarter (下弦の月 ラスト・クォーター, Ken Nikai, 2004)

Last Quarter posterTo begin on a cynical note, Last Quarter (下弦の月 ラスト・クォーター, Kagen no tsuki Last Quarter) is a film with a wide variety of marketing hooks. The first being that it’s an adaptation of a much loved short manga series by the well respected mangaka Ai Yazawa (Paradise Kiss) so it has its shoujo pedigree firmly in place. Secondly, pop star HYDE of L’Arc-en-Ciel is central to the production as he both stars in the movie as the ghostly love interest/deathly spirit and repeatedly sings his own songs throughout the film including over the end credits. Thirdly, it also stars actress Chiaki Kuriyama well known to overseas audiences thanks to Kill Bill and Battle Royale. You’d think with all these high quality ingredients first time director Ken Nikai would be able to cook up quite a feast though he does somewhat over egg the pudding.

After a brief dream sequence, the action kicks off at the 19th birthday party of British rock obsessed Mizuki (Chiaki Kuriyama) which takes place in a Mod inspired bar. Unfortunately, her best friend gets very drunk indeed and takes this opportunity to show Mizuki a photo of herself and Mizuki’s boyfriend in a compromising position. Mizuki throws a shoe at the no good philanderer and walks out on her own party ending up at a mysterious Western style mansion occupied by a sad man playing a guitar. She hits it off with “Adam” and decides to jack in her unhappy family life with her father and step-mother to leave for England with him. Sadly, she gets hit by a car on her way home only to wake up trapped inside the house and having lost all memory of who she formerly was. Soon enough, another girl, Hotaru (Tomoka Kurokawa), turns up and, assuming she’s a ghost, decides to help her “cross over” , but it’s all a little more complicated than Hotaru and her team had bargained for.

Last Quarter takes on an oddly imbalanced feel as it veers into star vehicle territory putting HYDE and his title song centerstage at the expense of Mizuki who ought to be the protagonist of the story. Understandably, as she’s fallen under the curse of the house, Mizuki is a mostly passive force throughout the film, entirely reliant on the efforts of the gang of three who are trying to help her by figuring out what’s really going on. The mystery element itself is quite an intriguing one but is often frustrated by the importance placed on the supernatural romance. Stretching plausibility to the limit, the events in question span 30 years and two continents to spin a yarn of pure love enduring beyond the grave. Pure love and grudge movies aren’t usually allowed to mix and they don’t quite here although Last Quarter certainly has elements of both.

Last Quarter’s biggest failing is in its production values which are generally on the low side. Nikai aims for an urban gothic aesthetic and achieves something close to sense of European decadence but opts to avoid the darkness inherent in the genre for a fairytale atmosphere. The effects are very highly stylised and old fashioned but Last Quarter doesn’t even attempt to make that work in its favour so much as offering it at face value.

In essence, Last Quarter often feels like an overblown music video for its rock star actor even if he actually has a relatively small role. Director Nikai has often worked with the band before and (apparently) there is a degree of recurring symbolism here that long time fans will instantly pick up on but will leave the casual viewer a little confused. Very firmly aimed at a younger teen female audience, Last Quarter will play best to fans of non-threatening supernatural romance but even then they’d be best advised to avoid thinking any of this through and simply enjoy the ghostly shenanigans for the ridiculous rag tag narrative they are. An interesting mix of ‘60s mod rocker cool with its parkas and vespas, and full on gothic with byronic heroes sitting in decaying mansions in the middle of creepy forests singing about their broken hearts, Last Quarter is incoherent to say the least but fans of its rockstar leading man will likely find their perseverance rewarded.


Last Quarter is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD in the US courtesy of Geneon.

Unsubtitled trailer:

A Stranger of Mine (運命じゃない人, Kenji Uchida, 2005)

stranger of mineSometimes life throws you a pretty crazy night but unbeknownst to you the whole world has gone crazy too. For the disparate group of people at the centre of Kenji Uchida’s A Stranger of Mine (運命じゃない人, Unmei Janai Hito) , this proves to be more than usually true. A cute romantic encounter may end up going in a less than cinematic direction while ex-girlfriends, detectives and even the yakuza all conspire to frustrate the lovelorn dreams of a nice guy businessman who never even realises the total chaos which is ensuing all around him.

The film begins with a sad scene of a woman, Maki, carrying large bags and forlornly dropping a key through a letter box. She pawns what looks like an engagement ring and thinks about what to do next. Whilst sitting alone in a restaurant, a man asks her to join him and she is overjoyed to find some company. The man is Kanda, a small time detective and childhood friend of businessman Miyata who is also broken hearted as his girlfriend has left him. The girlfriend, “Ayumi”, is not all she seems and is already mixed up with yakuza boss Asai. Mix in a MacGuffin of some missing money and one ordinary night among millions just got very complicated indeed!

Uchida starts out with a fairly standard indie rom-com approach as the two brokenhearted jilted lovers Maki and Miyata are brought together by Kanda’s machinations but just as we think we’re about to head into some kind of Before Sunset scenario our perspective shifts and we find out just why it is that Kanda seems to be acting so manically. In fact, he’s been looking out for his friend all along but it’s getting kind of complicated at his end and the one thing he 100% does not want is for the rather innocent Miyata to figure out that he’s at the centre of dangerous mob caper because his ex-girlfriend, whom he still think is an angel, is really not the innocent flower he thought she was.

Just another night in the city, the point of view shifts around these five characters whose lives intersect like cogs turning some giant, unseen machine. We’re shown one set of events only to have our understanding of them undercut by seeing them again from another angle. Everything is a coincidence, or maybe nothing is, but each of these five characters wade into each other’s story leaving a drama filled wake with only poor Miyata seemingly oblivious to what’s really going on.

A Stranger of Mine plays like an extremely complex farce in which fate conspires to have some fun with five ordinary people and Uchida mines the situation for all the (sometimes dark) humour it can offer. Loosely split into three sections divided by title cards bearing the names of the characters, the film takes inspiration from classic Hollywood screwball comedies and film noir whilst adding a more modern, non-linear approach as Uchida plays and replays his scenes to make us see that things are not always the way they look at first glance.

While obviously a low budget, independent effort, A Stranger of Mine offers surprisingly high production values and boasts excellent performances from its tightly composed cast. The script is fiendishly complicated and exacting yet Uchida pulls it off with a keenly observed eye. Though improbable, the events are never implausible and play out with a kind of off beat inevitability that further underlines the film’s mildly ironic, comic tone. Gleefully playful, A Stranger of Mine may appear a little slight on the surface, but just as its multi-layered narrative suggests, the perspective only deepens on a closer look.


Unsubtitled trailer: