Feature Thousand Words

Struggling to Watch Drive My Car (On Hamaguchi, Ozu and the Importance of Being in the Moment)

I’ve always believed that films should be viewed in one sitting.

No pauses, stops or breaks (take that pee before the movie, dummy!). An immersive experience that demands, or, at the very least merits, your full attention for what is a relatively short period of time compared to, say reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace or building a tabletop replica of the Eiffel Tower using matchsticks.

How then to deal with my recent ordeal of watching Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s critically lauded Drive My Car; a three hour movie that I barely managed to complete in four separate sittings over the course of a week?

Sure I can offer up various excuses about being too busy or too tired (the ill-chosen times my partner and I decided to watch certainly didn’t help), but I can’t actually remember a film that has tested my patience or perseverance quite like this one. 

I was curious to understand why.

The film, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami tells of recently widowed theatre director Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) coming to terms with grief and his ailing eyesight brought on by glaucoma, who employs young chauffeur Misaki (Tôko Miura) to drive his car while on a directing assignment in Hiroshima. The play being directed is ‘Uncle Vanya’, Anton Chekov’s tale of unrequited love, betrayal and existential regrets, and so we have a play within a film that juxtaposes characters, plot and meaning both onstage and off.

©2021 Bitters End

I’ve watched my fair share of contemplative, slow cinema and appreciate that the best of serenely poetic Japanese film – pioneered in the 1950s by the likes of Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds) – require audiences to surrender themselves to a more languid pace of storytelling. 

These are the types of film that chime perfectly with a culture we so often associate to quiet, respectful contemplation. Japanese gardens are, after all, attempts to find a tranquil, peaceful balance and Shinto shrines are spaces that invite, rather than demand, prayer and reverence. This is of course just one aspect of Japanese culture, as a visit to any of the bustling, noisy and visually chaotic parts of Tokyo or a binge-watch of Takeshi Kitano’s movie back catalogue will attest.

But there is a particular embedded atmosphere and mood to Drive My Car’s brand of Japanese film that is very much at odds with the conventions of most western film-makers, who cut faster and fill their frames with the busy-ness of entertainment; as if painfully aware of our rapidly diminishing attention spans. 

Hamaguchi, like Ozu before him, is interested in the subtext of human emotion, the pain and pleasure of our everyday existence and the ripples of quiet desperation that often follow in the wake of tragedy.

For these reasons, shots in Drive My Car linger and scenes last that little bit longer, inviting us to absorb the significance of something felt rather than something simply seen; the moment… held. 

©2021 Bitters End

Ah, the moment.

Here I must confess to spending far too much time on my phone, and am all to conscious of the effect mindless scrolling is having on my ability to be in the here and now. With so many of other people’s moments filtering past my skitteringly restless eyeballs on an hourly basis, how is it possible to see or even acknowledge my own tranquil headspace anymore? 

I realised then that this ‘moment’, where we are fully present and not distracted by ruminations on the past or worries about the future, is what Drive My Car’s languid pace looked to remind me of and which I sadly struggled to stay awake for.

This brought to mind the Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami who once said that the same films which made him doze off in the theater were often the same films he would think about at night, into the morning and for many weeks after —suggesting that certain films need time to filter their way through other parts of our subconscious before revealing a deeper personal connection.

After finally completing Drive My Car, bleary (and teary) eyed at an hour way past my bedtime, I was able to reflect on the overall impact of the film critically, but – as with Kiarostami – it’s taken some time to gain a better understanding of the film’s impact on me, and I think I get it now.

As I type these words, out of the corner of my eye I can see the quietly flashing updates from my phone beckoning me to give them some attention. 

I think though, i’d prefer to be here. 

Writing this. 

It’s more important.

Drive My Car is available to stream on Mubi

By Gabriel Solomons

Gabriel's earliest cinematic memory was believing a man could fly in Richard Donner's original (and best) Superman. Following numerous failed attempts at pursuing a career as a caped crusader (mild vertigo didn't help), he subsequently settled down into the far safer – but infinitely less exciting – world of editorial design. A brief stint at the Independent newspaper in London sharpened his skills but cemented his desire to escape the big smoke forever, choosing to settle in the west country. He set up the arts and culture magazine 'Decode' in 2003 and currently edits and art directs the Big Picture magazine. When asked by mates what his favourite film is he replies The Big Lebowski while when in the presence of film afficianados he goes all poncy and says Fellini's 8 1/2.

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