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JANUARY 20, 2022

Driven to Absurdities

The naturalistic style of Ryosuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy doesn't offset the films's contrived plots.

By Mark Jenkins

THE REVIEWS ARE UNANIMOUS, at least in the prestige Anglophone press, for Drive My Car, Ryosuke Hamaguchi's three-hour drama. The Japanese director's touch is "delicate, precise, restrained, gentle," in the words of the New York Times's Manohla Dargis. Yet the film's plot includes backstories that are rather lurid. While a few of the positive reviews hint that Drive My Car is melodramatic, I've yet to read one that mentions that no less than four of its perhaps-not-so-gentle central characters are killers.

Admittedly, the film downplays its body count. All four of the homicides occur off-camera, one is committed by a fictional character, and in two cases people simply fail to help others whose lives they might have been able to save. Still, it's worth noting that none of these violent deaths occur in the three Haruki Murakami short stories from which Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe extrapolated their scenario.

Much else that's not in the original tales has been added to the script, which is primarily devoted to the relationship of Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Watari (Toko Miura). In Murakami's "Drive My Car," Kafuku is a middle-aged, widowed stage actor in Tokyo and Watari is the young woman hired to drive him to the theater after Kafuku causes an auto crash. In the film, Kafuku is an actor and director who specializes in multilingual productions of plays by such European authors as Chekhov and Beckett. (Why multilingual? Perhaps because Hamaguchi originally intended to set the bulk of the action in South Korea, a scheme later abandoned because of COVID.)

The film's Kafuku accepts a residency to stage a polyglot Uncle Vanya at a Hiroshima theater festival, whose organizers hire the improbably sullen Watari to drive him from his temporary residence to the theater. In Murakami's version, the drive is short. In Hamaguchi's, it's an hour long, because Kafuku wants to spend that much time every day listening to a tape of Uncle Vanya dialogue read by his adulterous late wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima).

It's Oto, by the way, who spins a tale in which an obsessed teenage girl repeatedly breaks into her crush's house, where she ultimately kills someone. This plot strand, developed in a 40-minute prologue set before Oto's death, is derived from a separate Murakami story, "Scheherazade." Much of this section of the film is faithful to its source, but the preposterous if imaginary slaying was added by Hamaguchi and Oe.

For the Hiroshima production, Kafuku casts as Vanya not himself but Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a young actor the director recognizes as one of Oto's lovers. (Takatsuki doesn't know that Kafuku knows.) One night, Kafuku has Watari drive him and Takatsuki back to the latter's hotel, a curiously protracted trip that times out to be just long enough for the two men to have a profound discussion about Oto. (In Murakami's telling, the men meet in a bar, not a car.)

Eventually, Kafuku faces a crisis and decides to contemplate it while Watari drives him on a day-long nonstop trek to her rustic hometown on the northern island of Hokkaido. (The hamlet is, of course, the former site of another traumatic unseen death.) Kafuku and Watari exit Chekhov-ville and head to Kerouac-land. Perhaps this explains why American critics relate to the film: It's a road movie, a familiar Western genre that barely exists in Japan.

The performances are underplayed and naturalistic, which somewhat offsets the plot's many implausibilities. Yet there's a nagging sense of ridiculousness that undermines the entire film, from the lengthy introduction to a cryptic epilogue in which a unaccompanied Watari drives Kafuku's car, inexplicably, to a shopping center in South Korea. (This scene may be another relic of the discarded plan to shoot mostly in that country.)

Of course, some of the scenario's oddness comes from Murakami, whose deadpan surrealist fiction owes a lot to Kafka -- a name that might be rendered "Kafuku" in Japanese. But Hamaguchi indulges unbelievable plots in such other films as 2018's Asako I & II (adapted from a novel by Tomoka Shibasaki) and his first 2021 effort, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (which he scripted from scratch). The latter movie's Japanese title means "Coincidence and Imagination," and Hamaguchi is certainly unafraid of coincidence.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a collection of three shorts, a bit like Eric Rohmer's Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle. (Hamaguchi has named Rohmer as one of his major inspirations.) All three episodes have female protagonists, which strongly distinguishes them from Murakami's typically male-centered fables.

In the first, fashion model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) and her best friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) share a Tokyo cab ride as intimate -- and conveniently lengthy -- as the ride across Hiroshima in which Kafuku talks with Takatsuki. Tsugumi reveals that she's smitten with a man she just met, which leads Meiko to conclude, correctly, that the guy is her former boyfriend. But wouldn't Tsugumi know her best pal's ex, or at least know enough about him to discern who he is?

In the second, Nao (Katsuki Mori), a woman who's attending college after marrying and having a child, is asked by her callow young lover to ensnare Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), the professor of French who failed him. Segawa is a novelist who just won one of Japan's top literary awards, and Nao attempts to seduce him by reading aloud an erotic passage from his own book. Nao and Segawa end up having a tender -- but not physical -- moment, and she decides against trying to sabotage his career. But then, after the episode is essentially over, a plot contrivance subverts Nao's choice.

In the last, Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) returns to her hometown, Sendai, for her 20th high school reunion. The classmate she wanted to see, her erstwhile girlfriend who later married a man, is not there, but the next day Natsuko seems to meet her by chance outside the central train station. Aya (Aoba Kawai) invites Natsuko to her home and the two women bond -- even though, it turns out, they've never met before and have both taken the other to be someone she isn't. The story ends with a charming minor epiphany, but that doesn't overcome the bewilderingly unlikely premise.

Like Drive My Car, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a film in which hushed psychological breakthroughs result from developments that are howlingly unbelievable. That seems to be Hamaguchi's speciality, which makes his movies a lot less delicate than some Western critics would have it. The filmmaker's characters may seem to have walked out of everyday life, but his plots drive them far from any recognizable reality.

Drive My Car reopens Jan. 21 at the Avalon Theater. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is streaming via the Avalon's Virtual Cinema.