VIFF 2021 Review: Drive My Car (ドライブ マイ カー)

A young Hiroshima chauffeur (played by Toko Miura) and the director she drives around (played by Hidetoshi Nishijimi) form an unexpected bond in the Japanese film Drive My Car.

Drive My Car is one of two Japanese films I saw at the VIFF on Saturday the 9th. It’s a film that turns out to be more than what one expect of it.

The film begins with Yusuke Kafuku and his wife Oto. They appear happily married at the start. Oto is a housewife while Yusuke is a stage actor, and doing very well. Oto frequently gives Yusuke story ideas which he could one day adapt and direct, even while they both have sex! They were parents to a daughter, who died at a young age 20 years earlier. They still hold a religious memorial for her on the anniversary of her death. He has just finished doing a play with rising young Japanese actor Koji Takatsuki. Soon after, he is given an assignment to do a directing job in Russia. Just before he is to board the plane at Narita, he’s told of a one-day delay. He goes back to his house, only to find Koji having sex with Oto, which they don’t notice. Days later, Yusuke has a car accident and learns of glaucoma in his right eye. Yusuke tries to recover, but soon, Oto dies of a hemorrhage.

Yusuke needed two years to recover from this all. It started affecting his work as he had trouble dealing with his first role after her death: the role of Vanya in Uncle Vanya. His first project is to co-direct a multilingual adaptation of Uncle Vanya with a Korean director names Lee Yoon-a. It is to be staged in Hiroshima during a theatre festival. One thing is that Yusuke meets a young woman named Misaki. She is to be his driver from hotel to theatre. Yusuke doesn’t like the idea of a driver. He wants to do his own driving. However festival insurance rules means having a driver for the directors is a must. One of their directors from years past died in a car accident during production. That’s why directors for this company have drivers. Yusuke reluctantly agrees to allow her to drive his Saab.

The drives to and from the theatre start without conversation. Misaki simply drives Yusuke to the theatre. Some friction starts when Yusuke wants to use the car’s tape player to recite his lines: something he commonly does as he rehearses shows. It starts with friction, but she complies. Yusuke and co-director Lee start the auditions for the play. They audition many actors from various parts of Asia and other countries. The languages vary from Japanese to Korean, Taiwanese and even Korean sign-language. One of those auditioning is Koji. Koji switch from television to theatre after his career was one tabloid scandal after another. You can tell Yusuke has feelings of contempt for him. Yusuke declines to be an actor himself in the production because of how emotional Chekhov’s works are too emotionally draining.

The film starts read-through rehearsals. Most are Japanese-speaking, but there’s also Korean-speaking, a Taiwanese-speaking American and the woman who does Korean sign-language. Koji has also been cast in the play. Both Yusuke and Lee go through the rehearsals. The friction is no bigger than your typical friction on a theatre set. Misaki continues to drive Yusuke and the two start to develop conversation. Misaki is a chain-smoker and just briefly tells Yusuke of the death of her mother in a landslide disaster.

As the play starts progressing to the physical rehearsals, where an LED screen above flashes the dialogue in many languages to the audience, the play gets its common friction. If there are any hostile feelings between Yusuke and Koji, Yusuke keeps it to himself. He has to get along with Koji as they are producing. One night, the director Lee invites Yusuke to dinner at his house. Misaki is also invited. Lee meets the wife, who is the actress who is performing in sign-language. It’s a happy marriage.

One night Yusuke and Misaki go into the town for drinks. They come across Koji. Koji is at the bars hoping to get away from it all. However people trying to get his photo annoys him even to the point he gets violent with one. Since Koji is too drunk to drive, he gets a ride with Yusuke from Misaki. During the time, Koji confesses his affair with Oto. He tries to give Yusuke words of comfort of what a wonderful woman Oto was. He even tries to suggest that it was through Oto they meet by fate here.

Just a week before the show is about to start, it was learned that Koji is under investigation for committing manslaughter from that night at the bars. The play continues rehearsals despite the temporary detainment of Koji. After the rehearsal, Yusuke allows Misaki to go to the area where the landslide that took her mother happened. They go to the area. Misaki starts letting out her feelings and breaks into tears. There, Yusuke also confesses his failings to Oto after the death of their daughter. He too is in tears and they embrace together. Uncle Vanya is then staged with Misaki watching from the audience. She watches the ending scene with intensity where the actress playing Sonya signs about the need to stoically carry on living in the face of crushing disappointment. The film ends in a questionable way.

This is a rare story. This is a case of a director of theatre being escorted by a young driver who’s the same age his late daughter would be. We don’t notice it at first, but both are hurting inside and both need healing. Over time, they are mostly silent. Then over time, they strike up an unlikely friendship that eventually takes them to where they grieve together. One is first tempted to think around the middle of the film, Yusuke would soon be romantically interested in Misaki, but that’s for you to judge for yourself.

It’s not just about Yusuke and Misaki. It’s also about Yusuke trying to make peace with himself as the husband who failed. Maybe he blames himself for Oto’s premature death. It’s also about making peace with Koji, Oto’s ‘other man.’ In a lot of ways, it’s about Yusuke criss-crossing with a lot of people as he’s on his journey to heal and make peace. He’s a man trying to heal from his failed marriage and his driver is trying to heal from her mother’s death which she blames himself for. Yusuke is a television actor who quit television for theatre after his daughter’s death. Koji, the ‘other man,’ quit television for theatre with the scandals of his behavior plaguing his life. Yet they find themselves working together in the film. It could be a case where the fates are a case where Oto brought them there to forgive each other, as Koji suggested.

The mixing in of the story of Uncle Vanya being done in multilingual fashion adds into the story. I think that’s the point of the story. I believe it’s to show how art is universal in its feelings and connections. Art transcends language barriers to deliver the feelings of love and hurt we all share. Even the detail of the play that’s being staged in Hiroshima has a bearing of importance in this story.

This is a smart film about a director who is trying to make peace over the sudden death of his adulterous wife. The inclusion of a ‘chauffeur’ who herself hasn’t fully come to terms with her mother’s death in a disaster and the young actor in his play who was one of his wife’s ‘other men’ adds to the story of the healing process for both the director and the driver. One glitch about the film is that it goes for a long period of time. Possibly too long. Even at the start, forty minutes of story go by before the opening credits roll. The story in itself is almost three hours long. It’s a very good story that deals with universal human emotions intertwined with art, but it is drawn out for too long of a period of time. You’re left wondering if all that time was really worth it.

This is a very good film for director/writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi. He’s had renown before for his filmmaking like Wheel Of Fortune and Fantasy and Happy Hour. Here he creates a smart film of three people that need healing and how it’s through the power of art that they are able to make it happen and be given the will to live despite all that’s happened. There are some noticeable mistakes like the length of the film and the ending that gets you wondering, but it’s still a good film to watch. Hidetoshi Nishijima does a great performance as Yusuke being a man that needs healing, but doesn’t show it on the outside. Toko Miura is also very good as Misake. Just like Nishijima as Yusuke, she does a good job of playing a character with hurts she tries to keep hidden until it all comes out that moment together. Masaki Okada is also very good as the troubled Koji. You can tell despite the ego on the outside, he has some personal feelings underneath.

This film has already won an excellent amount of awards. The film won the Best Screenplay Award and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was a nominee for the Palme d’Or. The film was also a nominee for the Best Feature Award at the Chicago Film Festival and a nominee for the Audience Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. The film was recently selected as Japan’s entry in the category of Best International Feature Film for this year’s Oscar race.

Drive My Car is a film of two individuals who meet by fate, but help each other heal. It does a good job of mixing the story line with the art of theatre and the mixing of languages, but it’s too long of a film. A good story, but too elongated nevertheless.

J. Crew In The Middle Of ‘Toenailgate’

This picture in a J. Crew e-flyer is the subject of major discussion this week.

Ever notice how in the news there’s always a story that comes from nowhere and is not worth paying any mind, until some loudmouth makes a hullabaloo about it? It’s funny that while Japan is recovering from a tsunami, earthquake and nuclear meltdown, and Libya is fighting a war to depose a dictator, there’s a minor story that makes a lot of loud news. It happened this week when the picture on the right that was featured in an e-catalog from J.Crew got on a conservative pundit’s nerves to the point he spoke out about it. And it has since drawn a lot of reactions since Tuesday.

It all started when J.Crew sent out its e-catalog to subscribers on Tuesday April 5th. For those unfamiliar, J. Crew is a clothing store known for its colorful preppy looking clothes. Its most famous customer is First Lady Michelle Obama. Included is a Saturday With Jenna column written by J. Crew president and creative director Jenna Lyons. On that column’s front page that weekend was that picture of her having fun with her 5 year-old son Beckett. Why should that cause controversy? Because the fun she had with Beckett was painting his toenails with pink nail polish. She even included in the Quality Time caption: “Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.”

Some of the J. Crew customers who received that ad would look at it as something funny and some might raise their eyebrows over it. It was able to stay away from being a complete controversy, until Tuesday April 12th. That’s when FOX News Psychologist Dr. Keith Ablow made these comments:

 Yeah, well, it may be fun and games now, Jenna, but at least put some money aside for psychotherapy for the kid—and maybe a little for others who’ll be affected by your “innocent” pleasure.

This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity—homogenizing males and females when the outcome of such “psychological sterilization” is not known.

Dr. Ablow further goes on to talk about the benefits and goods of gender distinctions and continues:

Jenna Lyons and J. Crew seem to know exactly what they’re up to. That’s why the photograph of Jenna’s son so prominently displays his hot pink, neon toe nails. These folks are hostile to the gender distinctions that actually are part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race. They respect their own creative notions a whole lot more than any creative Force in the universe.

Dr. Ablow wasn’t the only right wing pundit speaking their mind on this. Four days earlier, Erin M. Brown, writer for the Culture and Media Institute website, wrote an article on the ad which she declared ‘blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children’. She then went on to say: “Not only is Beckett likely to change his favorite color as early as tomorrow, Jenna’s indulgence (or encouragement) could make life hard for the boy in the future. J.CREW, known for its tasteful and modest clothing, apparently does not mind exploiting Beckett behind the façade of liberal, transgendered identity politics.”

Since the ad controversy, there have been a lot of responses. Numerous news stories in websites, newspapers and television have featured the heated issue. All three major networks have done discussions about this. They’ve interviewed parents on the street: some were freaked out while some liked it. Psychiatrists interviewed have said it’s normal for children to play cross-dressing games. Some news stories showed celebrity parents including Gwen Stefani with pictures of their own boys wearing nail polish.  Alyona Minkovski from RT Network responded: “Look people. Mom’s actually spending time with her child having fun, which is a lot more than what I can say about a lot of parents out there who tend to neglect their children. And if painting your child’s toenails is a way for a child and parent to connect, then have at it.” Jon Stewart even talked about it on his Daily Show, declaring the fiasco ‘Toemageddon 2011’ and commenting: “You make it sound like it’s a story about incest or cannabalism…You’re all aware that nail polish comes off, right? You’re all acting like this lady gave her son an ‘I Love Cock’ tattoo.” For the record, J. Crew have not responded because they ‘don’t want to add fuel to a non-issue.’

Even amongst the internet, there have been responses. Youtubers have also spoken their mind with one man even paining his fingernails pink. On the opposite side, there’s been at least one video in support of the complaining pundits, from the channel Final Justice Movement. Bloggers have posted their opinions. Message boards have also been loaded with comments both for the ad ‘what century is this?’ and against this ‘This is disgusting!’ Change.org started a petition thanking J.Crew ‘for the heartwarming ad’ and received 7500 signatures. The 10 year-old son of a writer for Wired magazine painted his fingernails green in response. There’s even a Pink Piggies page on Facebook where the page honors ‘people of all gender identities.’

One thing I like to say is that it’s another example of how people like to raise a big fiasco of just about anything. I’ve seen it from both the left and right side of people raising a big fuss over something simple. It seems like the thing nowadays to be offended about anything. Years ago, people were declaring The Passion Of The Christ to be anti-Semitic when it’s the story of Christ’s crucifixion that has been played out many times in the past including on film. Recently after the movie Mars Needs Moms was released, a gay Youtube personality posted on his Twitter page that it’s very offensive to non-traditional families. And now we have right-wing pundits taking a crack at this ad. Do people enjoy getting offended?

Yes, it’s a different parent-child bonding scenario but it’s not worth declaring ‘propaganda’ to turn into an issue for headlines’ sake. I also agree with Alyona: in case you didn’t notice, there’s a load of joy between Jenna and Beckett in that picture. It’s very common for parents to neglect their children in their busy lives so a moment like that should be considered fun.Secondly I don’t think paining a son’s toenails pink makes him gay. His orientation has already formed itself even before he was born. In addition when I brought this story up at work, one of my co-workers mentioned that she painted her nephew’s fingernails and they had a fun time together. Weeks later when she brought up ‘nail polish’, he said “That’s girls stuff.” So what does that tell you? Also I admire J. Crew for not responding to this and dismissing it for the ‘non-issue’ that it is.