SPOILER ALERT: Don’t even think about reading this if spoilers bother you.
This may plod. I am sorting out my thoughts as I write.
I’m prompted to write by the posts I see online that purport to explain the final scene in Drive My Car.
The final scene shows the driver, Misaki Watari, shopping in a Korean supermarket, in Korea, addressing the check-out assistant in Korean language. She gets into a red car, the red car we recognise she’s been driving throughout the film, and she greets a golden dog, the golden dog I believe we met earlier in the narrative in the home of the Korean couple Yoon-a and Yoon-soo.
What is this Japanese woman from Hokkaido doing speaking Korean in Korea in possession of her client Mr Kafuko’s car and her colleagues’ dog?
The internet explainers: Misaki has been freed from her miserable past by her cathartic experiences with Mr Kafuko and his theatre troupe. She has moved to Korea and commenced a new life. (Mr Kafuko, similarly freed from his miserable past, has given her his car, emblematic of said past. Yoon-a and Yoon-soo have given her the dog to be her companion and have, presumably, supported Misaki in transplanting to Korea.)
It’s not a total no-no explanation. The theatre troupe has been workshopping a production of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, which, at one level, is about dealing with life coming to dead-ends. Though Chekhov didn’t offer his characters’ the option of acts beyond the final curtain: say, The Three Sisters move to Moscow.
Myself – and I am odd – view Drive My Car differently.
On the face of it, this is a film about a man grieving his wife’s death who can’t reconcile his wife’s proclaimed deep love for him with her sexual infidelity. So: a film about distinguishing authenticity from acting.
On another layer, this is a film about the genius of Chekhov: how to present the authentic small lives of relatively ordinary people as worthy of our focus.
Theatre as most of us know it in the West derives from classical Greek drama. Its purpose is carthasis – the purging of deep emotions. Its protagonists are the great and powerful. They fall due to their fatal flaws. Witnessing their fall stirs deep emotions in audiences. The purpose of drama – the purging of deep emotions.
Every character in Drive My Car is, or has been, an actor, except Misaki, the driver. Yes, Mr Kafuko’s wife Oto was a scriptwriter. But before that she had been an actor. Yes, Yoon-a was a dancer. But now she is an actor. Yes, Yoon-soo is a dramaturg. But he studied Noh (or was it Kabuki?) at a Japanese theatre school. There’s the theatre festival’s director. But I say all theatre administrators started out as would-be actors.
The driver, Misaki, has her on-stage correlative in Uncle Vanya in the character Sonya: a plain girl easy to overlook, to disregard. Sonya is the emotional centre of Chekhov’s play. She owns the final scene. The character of Sonya is played in Mr Kafuko’s production by Yoon-a, who is deaf, and communicates in Korean deaf sign language.
Mr Kafuko’s production of Uncle Vanya is multilingual, featuring actors from across Asia acting their parts in their native languages. In the earlier stages of the readings, the Japanese actors admit they find the foreign language passages boring, like listening to a mantra. All the actors find Mr Kafuko’s insistence on a lengthy lead-up just reading the text, without vocal emotion, without embodiment, frustrating. He tells them to “listen to the text”.
A multilingual production of a Russian classic suggests the text is universal, and that ‘hearing’ the text transcends words. Eventually the text is felt, at the level of deep emotions. Eventually, almost everyone can understand that feeling of life coming to an end during one’s life-time, or of life running out of life within its allocated limits.
This is the experience of Uncle Vanya. “If I live to 60 and I’m 47 now, how will I fill in the years?”
Sonya’s answer: We will endure. Then we’ll die, quietly.
There are several characters in Drive My Car who have ‘run out of life’. A young man’s life can have ‘ended’ prematurely as much as his older counterpart’s. We are all Vanya, eventually.
So personally I don’t think Misaki moved to Korea and began a new life.
Personally, I think the film director is revealing “Misaki” to be yet another actor, an actor in a fictional narrative purporting to be true life, that is true to life, but not real. “Sonya” in Uncle Vanya is presented as a simple, ordinary girl, yet is a theatrical construct brought to life by an actor and, as such, as much the performer as the histrionic beauty Yelena (a mask for another actor).
“Sonya” / “Misaki” is the antithesis of the great and the powerful, yet is an agent of catharsis. Because Chekhov taught us drama is not wholly the domain of the great and the powerful, the noisy and famous, but also the stories, in any language, of those who endure quietly. And drama translates to cinema.
Intelligent cinema, anyway.
Afternote: Drive My Car is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami from his collection Men Without Women (2014). Murakami explores the relations of fiction and actuality and acts of creating. The Korean film Burning (2018) is also based on a Murakami short story. One of the more interesting commentaries I read on Burning suggested the characters Ben and Hae-mi never exist in life but are imagined creations of the would-be writer Jong-soo. I recommend viewing Burning in tandem with Drive My Car. (The final sequences of Burning, where Jong-soo attempts to assert agency, are not part of Murakami’s narrative.)