Hamaguchi’s Ghost Story

Hamaguchi’s Ghost Story

(Note: For those who have been following my Stendhal series on this page, don’t worry, that series is continuing on my Medium page, which you can access here. On this site, I am moving on to a scene-by-scene examination of the 2021 award winning film “Drive My Car,” which is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.)

Haruki Murakami begins his short story “Drive My Car” with a lengthy narrator’s note about Kafuku’s negative attitudes towards female drivers. The narrator feels obliged to note that Kafuka did not hold other sexist opinions, this was something unusual he felt when a woman was behind the wheel. It’s fairly obvious that this narration isn’t really about driving, it’s about Kafuku’s distrust and aversion to intimacy, and it sets up his first meeting with Watari, who (in the film version) has been hired to chauffeur him.

Writer/director Ryusuke Hamaguchi knows that the film adaptation cannot begin here. To do so would be to give the audience an unfair first impression of his protagonist, which is fine in a short story, but very difficult to overcome in a film. He needs the audience to understand Kafuku’s loss before we can take them down the road toward his healing. And so, in the film’s first scene, he economically and powerfully sets the tone and introduces three critical narrative tracks.

In the opening frame, we see Kafuku’s wife Oto framed in silhouette. It‘s a gorgeous shot, and one that plays up her mystery and spectral nature. This will be a ghost story about her, a connection the audience can subliminally anticipate in the shot without understanding why.

We then see that the couple is in bed and she’s telling a story. This expresses another important narrative. Story telling will be an omnipresent force throughout this movie. Characters are always engaged in multiple stories in “Drive My Car,” those that they tell, those they suppress and those they live. There’s also a very neat homage here to Hamaguchi’s mentor, Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose horror classic “Cure” also opens with a spouse telling a story.

But this story being told by Oto, a fairly erotic one, is between the couple in bed and the characters are undressed, so we assume the conversation is post coital. This is the third important narrative track of “Drive My Car” — the ways that sex both enhances and hinders intimacy.

The story is a shared experience between them, and we will later learn that it’s a part of their erotic ritual. It’s not a monologue from Oto, but one that she leads and allows Kafuku to add detail and clarity.

Their story takes up the first four minutes of screen time. It’s not a single take, but Hamaguchi uses only a few different camera angles. He prefers to direct this way, with simple set ups and long takes. He believes it allows actors to do their best work.He also shoots his films in sequence, so this was the very first scene shot as well. It’s clear that the actors have rehearsed this scene extensively, their chemistry is evident.

We then get three very quick shots of downstairs in their apartment, featuring the couch, Kafuku’s desk, and their stereo system. This is a flash-forward in a sense — all three items will be prominent in an important upcoming scene. The movie then returns to the couple in bed in an overhead shot, where they seem to be heading into an afternoon slumber.

The movie’s tone is beautifully set. We know that this couple shares a deep intimacy that‘s both erotic and intellectual. We next see them in the red Saab —with the driver on the left side — that will take us through the rest of the film. They are still talking through the story. It is suggested later that Oto tells these post coital stories as if in a trance, that Kafuku must recall the details to her later as part of the writing process.

He asks her if she wants to write it now, but Oto responds that she doesn’t know the rest of the story yet, and never does from just one encounter. Kafuku says he thought it might be about her first love, but Oto laughs and rejects his theory saying ”of course it’s not.” You get the sense from their exchange that Kafuku was her first love.

Kafuku dropes Oto off at the television studio where she works. There’s a somewhat awkward goodbye between them — they talk about Kafuku’s play that night (a performance of “Waiting for Godot” in which he stars) and he gives her a pass to miss it if her work schedule won’t allow. She promises to be there. It felt a little formal to me, but given the warmth of the exchange right before it, maybe that’s something uniquely Japanese.

From this opening scenes, the viewer would have no sense that anything is off in their relationship. But that good feeling won’t last long.