I’m not one for conducting interviews with filmmakers; I find it stressful and nerve-wracking. However, when it’s someone I really admire I can’t pass up the opportunity. My first was a long time ago, and I had the honour of it being with Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi. He passed away a couple of years ago; a sad day. His 1977 comedy-horror House is one of the most insanely inventive films I’ve ever watched: a gonzo-surrealist masterpiece that has to be seen to be believed. When I asked him if he was influenced by surrealist film-makers such as Luis Bunuel, his response was ‘Yes, I like those films, but Ozu is the most surrealist director.’
Yasujiro Ozu’s films are revered as the most traditionally Japanese in style, and usually depict the everyday lives of the nation’s people in a realistic fashion, exemplified by the depiction of postwar Japan in 1953’s Tokyo Story. I found Obayashi’s answer cryptic and I didn’t really understand. There was nothing dreamlike about the films I had seen from Ozu. Upon watching Drive My Car, Japan’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, it suddenly dawned on me what Obayashi meant.
Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, my favourite author. Murakami specialises in heartbreakingly realistic stories and conversely surreal flights of fantasy. Drive My Car is the former, and is without doubt the best film interpretation of Murakami’s prose, in my opinion. Other efforts were admirable, such as 2018’s Burning, but none have captured the tender intimacy and wisdom of the world he creates like Drive My Car.
Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a successful stage actor and is married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a screenwriter. One day Oto dies of a cerebral haemorrhage, and two years later Kafuku takes a job preparing actors for the play closest to his heart, Uncle Vanya by Chekhov. Kafuku becomes close with his driver, who takes over the wheel of his old 1987 Saab 900 Turbo. It’s a beauty of a car that almost becomes a character in itself, lavished with long lingering shots and pivotal dialogue scenes taking place in its interior. This relationship, along with another with an actor under his tutelage, makes Kafuku confront his grief and the illusory nature of memory.
Like Parasite, the Korean film which won the Oscar for Best Picture two years ago, Drive My Car is a film of such depth that taking it all in is overwhelming. Unlike Parasite, it unfolds gently and tenderly, moving with complex rhythms, which means it becomes an effort of pure cinema. The film takes you out of time, and you’re unaware of the three hours of your life it takes up.
Towards the end of Drive My Car the revelation hit me: my interpretation of Obayashi’s comment on Ozu is that the very act of filmmaking is surreal: to condense life into a manageable narrative, to impose the conditions of film technique onto a story. So, the films of Ozu and now efforts such as Drive My Car, in striving to communicate real life, are the most surreal of all. They give us a reflection of reality, and in doing so envelop us in a dream.
Drive My Car is currently on Mubi