Drive My Car explained: the meaning and the ending of the movie

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This article reveals the explained plot and the detailed events in Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s movie Drive My Car, revealing its meaning and storyline. We recommend you to read it only after watching the movie, and not before, in order to preserve the pleasure of the first vision.

A Brief History of Cars
A Brief History of Cars

The confessional, in religious practice, is a place that is anything but equal. In fact, a dialogue takes place in which only one of the two subjects is called to open up to an interlocutor who, in a position of clear authority, remains mute until the moment of acquittal. It is not accidental, in the confessionals, the presence of a separation grate: the admission of one’s sins takes place not before a man, but with an official of God. The catharsis process concerns only one of the two bystanders, as the the other holds the only role of confessor.

Instead, there are different practices of confrontation in which both the people involved confide in and reveal each other, taking on the cross of the other: overcoming the crisis affects both of them equally, creating a relationship of mutual formation. The theater, in this sense, can be seen as a symbolic place of confidence: in the role play between actor and spectator, the relationship that is established is a moment of growth both for those who attend and for those who act. It is an exercise not different than the intimacy between two lovers, which always involves a role-playing game, or the dialogue between two friends at the counter of a bar, late at night. Above all, the confession that becomes mutual confidence is typical of the narrative archetype of the journey: immobilized in the shared and limited space of a means of transport, the two interlocutors make a journey not only horizontal along the geography of the territory, but also vertically through the depths of one’s own soul and of others.

Theater, erotic intimacy, exchange of friends and the car as a place of confidence and overcoming a mourning are recurring elements in Drive my car by the Japanese director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, a dramatic film of great psychological introspection that collected many awards all the world. Curiously, even its great rival in recent international cinema, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, is a story of formation founded on the concept of mourning that can only be overcome through artistic practice and sharing. The specificities of Drive my car, however, make it a unique and complex work, perfectly integrated into Japanese culture and at the same time universal in its reflection on pain. It is necessary to take a step back to understand its meanings, the references, the psychological dynamics expressed and the ending, which to many seemed enigmatic and which in reality, in its synthetic ability to suggest, is of poignant delicacy.

A game of fate, fantasy and tragedy

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Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s previous film, based on the subject of Haruki Murakami and winner of the 2021 Grand Jury Prize in Berlin, is called Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. It is an episodic story focused on themes such as relationships, resentment and the intersections of the case. The theatrical role-playing game is present above all in the third and final chapter, in which two strangers meet, mistaking each other for old friends from high school and, once the misunderstanding has been revealed, they decide to continue pretending to have always known each other in order to take charge of the one of the existential weight of the other. The work, in addition to representing a detailed and in-depth cross-section of the peculiar socio-cultural dynamics of Japan, stands out for the touch of the author, who is also delicate in dealing with cruel issues and capable of rediscovering poetry in everyday life, the extraordinary in common relationships. It is a film full of reflections and dual references, light despite the strong emotional impact of the stories.

Drive my car is of a completely different opinion, the undoubted selectivity of which is evident above all from the duration of almost three hours. The protagonist is the actor and theater director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who has a sentimental and artistic relationship with the screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima). The latter’s habit is to conceive her own stories and tell them to her husband continuously, especially in her moments of eroticism and intimacy. Yusuke lives for his work and for his partner and, when he learns of his constant betrayals, he decides to keep quiet. A sudden cerebral hemorrhage cuts off Oto’s life, plunging Yusuke into a crisis that also affects his artistic career. The opportunity to start a new professional life came two years later, with the assignment of directing Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the very opera during which Yusuke suffered a seemingly definitive nervous breakdown, close to the death of Oto.

The director thus moves, aboard his faithful red Saab, to Hiroshima: during the journey to that city, which for the history of Japan is as much an open wound as those of the protagonist, the opening credits are placed of the work. This is not a random choice: the actual story of Yusuke’s catharsis begins at the fortieth minute of the film with the transfer of him. Accompanying him is a means of transport which for him is the place of the most hidden soul, an inviolable shell that gives him comfort and at the same time imprisons him in the past. The Saab was present during the trips with Oto and the discovery of her betrayals, and it is there that Yusuke locks himself up to listen to the tapes with the recorded voice of his deceased companion: these are the same stories that she told him in bed, in a dark room as dense as the shadow that weighs on his life. The car for Yusuke is an impenetrable armor: however, it will be a curious game of fate, once again, to reveal it.

Two solitudes

The production of the show for which he was called, knowing its emotional instability, requires Yusuke to have an assistant to act as a driver. At first reticent, precisely because the red Saab represents for him the last anchor in a lost world, made up of illusions to keep alive, the director finds in the very young Misaki, his driver, first a companion figure and then a real and proper reference for dialogue and exchange. She is exactly the age that Yusuke and Oto’s daughter would be, if she had survived. Like Yusuke, Misaki is also a veteran of the mourning of a person close to her, her mother, and does nothing but wonder if he could have saved her or not. The imperative / invitation that gives the title to the film is dedicated to Misaki herself: “Drive my car”. If the car represents for Yusuke the unspeakable of his past, the grief he does not want to overcome, letting another person drive it means allowing him to take charge of it and respond accordingly. The model is not that of the confessional but of a mutual growth, of mutual belonging. Yusuke and Misaki, in their being at the same time compromised with their own demons and willing to overcome them together, are two solitudes that meet together.

In addition to Misaki, the young and promising actor Kōji Takatsuki also takes over in Yusuke’s life, hired for the lead role in the show. Kōji, probable Oto’s ex-suitor and in mourning as much as Yusuke over the woman’s disappearance, is as talented as he is hysterical and unruly. His relationship with Yusuke is, at the beginning, the archetypal one of the clash of opposites: an elderly teacher, impassive and legitimate companion of Oto the one, young impulsive pupil and a loving rival the other. Furthermore, the part for which Kōji is destined in the representation is the same one that he had seen the collapse of Yusuke two years earlier. The leitmotif of theater as a game of mirrors returns here, so dear to that Western auteur cinema that has found a central theme in the relationship between mentor and pupil, and between opposites and the like, from Ingmar Bergman to the more recent Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) by Oliver Assayas.

The relationship between Yusuke and Kōji will not have a positive conclusion for both. Initially conflicted, their relationship seems to improve just before Kōji is arrested for being guilty of an assault. The dialogues with him, late at night after rehearsals and sitting at the counter of a bar, have the effect, for Yusuke, of observing his story with Oto in a more detached way and with different eyes, but not only: given the ‘forced absence of the main interpreter, the representation of Uncle Vanya needs a new protagonist. The part will be up to Yusuke, who will find redemption and catharsis from his past not only in the revenge on what for him was at the same time heir, rival, enemy and friend, but above all in recovering the role he was stuck on years before. This is what Kōji, a victim of experiencing himself exactly as Yusuke risked being, failed to do, abandoning himself to instinctive self-destruction.

An ending that looks to the past and opens up to the future

The relationship between Yusuke and Misaki ends differently. The two, as different as they are similar, are reflected in that timeless capsule that is the red Saab. From being a place of closed isolation in oneself, the car has become a place of communion. A journey to Yusuke’s childhood home is an opportunity to add a third dimension to the first two that we mentioned previously: the director and his driver no longer move only horizontally and in depth, but also through time, in search of the repressed and the recognition of an inner strength that seemed buried.

If the film updates us explicitly about Yusuke’s fate, showing us his triumphant return to the scene, Misaki’s future appears more interpretable. The final scene of the story shows her, some time later, aboard Yusuke’s red Saab, alone, in the company of a dog: did Yusuke perhaps give her the car, as a sign of total trust or personal liberation from the burden of the past? Did the two continue to cultivate a relationship even after the events narrated in the film? What matters is that it is clear that Misaki too has overcome her grief, finally serene and ready to start a new life thanks to the experience shared with the actor.

The directorial eye of Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, in telling the story of two subjectivities that only in the reciprocal exchange can come to terms with themselves, lingers on the close-ups and ennobles the characters, giving space with sober staging to the delicacy of the gestures and expressions. Drive my car is a film that owes a lot to the dialogic apparatus of the screenplay, but is never verbose: the refinement of the writing, capable of crossing universal themes and entrusting them to such well-defined interpreters, makes it one of the most poignant works of this season. The camera follows the characters and enhances their inner processes of mourning and self-acceptance. “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops.”, says Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot, a work cited in the film: yet, in Drive my car, we witness that relational miracle whereby dialogue manages to stop, at the same time, the tears of both.