Drive My Car

Drive My Car's surprise Oscar nominations – not just for Best International Feature Film but also for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture – suggest that, in the wake of Parasite's multiple wins, and Chloé Zhao's Best Director win for Nomadland, the Academy is trying to keep Asian filmmakers in the mix. Which is great, but it's not like Drive My Car is one of the best Japanese films ever made. Frankly, Japan has been exporting quiet, dignified, character-based domestic dramas to American shores for years; Hirokazu Kore-eda alone has directed at least ten of them. Drive My Car is good, but it's not quite up to par with Kore-eda's best. Of course, the Academy Awards only honor films released in a certain year. Even so, was Ryusuke Hamaguchi's direction so unique and stellar that he deserved a nomination over Denis Villeneuve's visionary handling of Dune? Absolutely not. Villeneuve deserved a nom simply for finally making Dune work, a feat not even Alejandro Jodorowsky or David Lynch could achieve.

Anyway, we're here to talk about Drive My Car.

Hidetoshi Nishijima plays a theater actor/director named Kafuku (pronounced "Kafka") who is having some issues with his wife. An entire drama between them unfolds in what turns out to be just the prologue of this three-hour film – the opening credits roll some 40 minutes into Drive My Car. The rest of the story takes place two years later in Hiroshima, where Kafuku has been hired to direct a multilingual production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Because Kafuku has mild glaucoma – a plot point that comes up once, then never seems to be relevant again – the show's producers have hired a local girl to drive his 15-year-old Saab for him, even though Kafuku has elected to stay in an apartment that's an hour's drive away from the theater, so he can memorize the lines in the car, recorded years earlier by his wife. It's a bit contrived, but you go with it. The driver, Misaki (Toko Miura), is a stoic young woman with some secrets of her own. Lest you think this movie's a Driving Miss Daisy-style two-hander, Misaki disappears for long stretches of the film, as Kafuku interacts with the various actors in his show, in particular a troubled young heartthrob (Masaki Okada) who may or may not have had an affair with Kafuku's wife.

With its hefty length and slow pace, Drive My Car will either hypnotize you or bore you. I tend to like these sorts of films, so I was mostly on board with it, though I found it a little pretentious. (Blame Haruki Murakami, on whose 2014 short story the film is based.) But if you're keen to see a truly great contemporary Japanese drama, check out Kore-eda's Shoplifters instead.