One of the reasons I admire this film so much is that, in adapting the Haruki Murakami story, Rysuke Hamaguchi makes one bold decision after another and I can’t think of any that fail to pay off. He introduces many complex concepts that make it highly re-watchable. He understands the essential truth in Murakami’s story and never loses sight of it, but knows the right supplemental influences to add depth along the way.

The next scene begins in a theater, a production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” that we discover isn’t just an acting gig for Kafuku, it’s his production. So we’re watching a staging inside of an adaptation. We immediately notice that there is superscript on the stage, displaying for the audience the text in both Japanese and English. I assume the spoken language in the scene is Japanese, but given how “Uncle Vanya” is staged later in the movie, perhaps I’m mistaken — and this would also explain the necessity of the superscript.

Why would Hamaguchi make this language-complexity part of his story? It is never mentioned in the Murakami story, but it’s a very interesting detail, turning Kafuku into someone with a unique vision about storytelling. (As someone who works for an international organization that, in our best moments, communicates in eight official languages, I felt a kinship in Kafuku’s approach.)

Although Beckett is Irish, the play was originally written and staged in French as “En attendant Godot,” making the subtitles, and the play’s inclusion in this adaptation, more interesting. And there’s really nothing more for me to say about Beckett’s classic that hasn’t been written by a million more qualified sources by now. The play is so deeply ingrained in the popular culture that Sesame Street once aired a “Waiting for Elmo” satire.

I do want to point out that the section of Godot chosen by Hamaguchi included an allusion to suicide, which is the first indication that Kafuku’s state of mind is not quite blissful, in spite of the “happy wife, happy life” vibe left by the first scene. Something is clearly wrong in Kafuku’s life. We can read it on actor Hidetoshi Nishijima’s face even as we don’t understand why.

That understanding comes quickly enough. We’re now backstage and Kafuku is taking off his makeup. Oto arrives and tells him it was great. This seems to relieve him. But he’s left no time to soak in the praise, because Oto immediately asks if he would like to meet someone new. Kafuku responds that he would, but would like to change out of his costume first. Oto is not listening to the last part, however, because she hears the yes and immediately introduces Takatsuki.

Here is one of Hamaguchi’s most interesting casting choices. Instead of making the Takatsuki character eight years young than him, as he was in Murakami’s story, he makes him roughly half his age. This is the same casting decision made by Kiyoshi Kurosawa with “Cure” — he had originally written the part of Mamiya to be roughly the same age as Takabe, but then decided to cast an actor half the age of his protagonist. “Drive My Car” and ”Cure” have similar themes as well, and I hope to explore more of these alignments as we go forward.

On the surface, nothing of importance happens in this scene — at least that’s how it seems in an initial viewing. Once you know what’s coming, you notice a little more happening in this three way encounter. The chemistry between Oto and Takatsuki is fascinating. Technically, I suppose, she is his boss, so some dominance would be expected, but she’s doing everything but dragging him along on a leash here.

She chides him for referring to her as Kafuku’s wife. Then she touches him on the arm when calling him the heroine’s love interest in a new tv show. (Personal note: I always think that a woman is flirting with me if she touches me during a conversation. But maybe that’s just me.) And towards the end of the conversation, Oto teases Takatsuki for saying he was moved by the performance, saying “you’re a strange young man.” The way she smiles at him afterwards makes clear that the insult was affectionate.

It’s also interesting to pay attention to Kafuku’s words and personal engagement in this scene. His vocal tone remains constant and he avoids the others’ gazes as much as possible. But he recognizes Takatsuki from some of his wife’s shows and at one point says “he always has a good role.” I took this as Kafuku saying this kid’s one of your favorites, it’s obvious, so don’t pretend he’s someone new.

The scene ends with Oto and Takatsuki leaving, then Kafuku tossing the vest he was wearing onto a stool to his left. It feels a little exasperated to me. But we then cut to more clothing, Kafuku is packing a small suitcase and judging by all of the airline stickers still on it, this is something he does fairly frequently.

He walks quietly down the stairs to the apartment, not wanting to wake Oto who is sleeping on the couch below with her laptop. In addition to his suitcase and jacket, he’s carrying a blanket, so he’s thoughtfully decided to tuck her in before heading out. The tucking in awakens her, however, and they kiss. Kafuku notes that he has a flight at Narita airport, which is a 60 kilometer drive from central Tokyo, so he has to leave in a hurry.

He gets to the door, but turns around and sees Oto following him — she hands him cassette tapes. She has recorded all of the parts from Uncle Vanya onto tapes, leaving space for him to rehearse his own lines in between. Now, I’m no great expert on the definition of love, but I can’t imagine a more loving act than creating these tapes for your partner. And Kafuku will treasure these tapes through the rest of the film. They share another kiss and now it is Oto’s turn to remind him that he’s going to miss his flight if he doesn’t break it off. He leaves the house and Oto walks back into the living room. The camera stays stationary, however, letting us see that the mirror in the foyer‘s hallway gives a very clear view to the couch.

We then see Kafuku put these tapes to immediate use, running his lines from Uncle Vanya. Throughout the movie, the text of Chekhov’s play will serve as a commentary about Kafuku’s unconscious. So even though he left his house in a state of bliss, the underlying tension is there in the Vanya lines. Perhaps he is thinking of his career in contrast to this new young star his partner is cultivating. Or perhaps he’s thinking of how his marriage is not all as it appears as he recites:

Nobody knows how I feel. I cannot sleep at night from frustration and anger. I’ve wasted my time. I could have attained so much from life, but it’s too late now at this age.

To add more sting to the lines, he’s hearing Oto’s voice in response to this lament and she tells him not to blame his past conviction for where he turned out in life:

But your convictions were not the ones at fault. You were the one at fault.

He then pulls into a parking lot at Narita and gets a message from the theater company in Kamchatka. Weather has delayed the event he is traveling for, they advise him to stay at a hotel near the airport and reimburse them later for the cost.

But Kafuku decides, fatefully, to drive home instead.

Story Choices, Casting Choices