If you have read anything about Drive My Car, the latest film from director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour), you likely know this: the opening credits do not appear on screen until roughly 40 minutes into its 179-minute runtime. Film critics and Twitter users alike have commented on the choice, celebrating it as the act of a defiant director in the face of those who seek to undermine the slowness sometimes demanded of cinema. In short, it rocks.
Hamaguchi’s decision and the subsequent attention it has received might have an interesting effect on moviegoers. I saw the film well after its initial release and was already aware of the placement of the credits. As I sat in the theater and watched, I experienced a first: eagerly waiting for the opening titles to appear, wondering how close to the 40-minute mark we might be at any given moment. The film never drags, thus disorienting the viewer and making it unclear just how much time has passed.
And when the credits finally appeared, despite the darkness of the film’s preceding events, I began to smile and thought to myself: Ha! Yes! Woo! There they are!
Credits and Form
Consider the formal implications of placing the opening credits at this moment. They offer a clear boundary between Drive My Car‘s prelude and the remaining action, allowing the film to seamlessly pass through two years of time. So much of the story hinges on our understanding and experience of what transpires in those first 40 minutes. The opening credits leave room for needed pause and reflection.
And perhaps most beautifully, the choice to roll the credits at the 40-minute mark draws attention to the length of the film itself. When the credits drop, it is as if Hamaguchi is saying, “Here is my film the way I want it, haters be damned.” In a time when so many movies feel as though they are made to be as conventional and familiar as possible, such a deceptively simple gesture feels so fresh. The reactions of FilmTwitter are evidence enough.
Crafting a three-hour film these days is not for the faint of heart. That the Academy Awards recognized such a feature, truly one of the year’s best, with four Oscar nominations, is a welcome surprise. Tweets and memes aside, the placement of the opening credits at that moment allows us to feel the intentional craft of Hamaguchi as a filmmaker.
Before I return to Hamaguchi’s deliberateness, first some exposition of plot: Drive My Car takes place in Hamaguchi’s native Japan. Inspired by a short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami, the film, co-written by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, centers on actor and director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima).
His partner, Oto (Reika Kirishima), works as a television writer. She conceives her teleplays while the two have sex, and then Yusuke repeats them back to her the next day. Yusuke, once a television actor, now works primarily on the stage. At the film’s outset, he stars in a production of Waiting for Godot.
One day, Yusuke walks in on Oto having sex with a younger man. He says nothing. Later, he takes a role in Uncle Vanya. While leaving for work, Oto asks him if they can have a conversation when he returns. Yusuke agrees. But the conversation never happens. He returns home to find her dead from a brain hemorrhage.
Two years later, Yusuke is invited to direct a production of Uncle Vanya. He sets out on the 500-mile journey from Tokyo to Hiroshima in his car. The opening credits play, and the action begins.
Deliberate Points of View
Much of Drive My Car‘s aesthetic mirrors the contemplativeness of the delayed opening credits. Hamaguchi often opts for a long take with deep focus, sometimes spreading the action and characters across the screen. He leaves room for silence, focusing less on what the characters say and more on conveying thoughts and feelings through facial and bodily expressions.
Hamaguchi’s approach recalls another recent online discourse, also centered on one of 2021’s best films: Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story. A viral tweet featuring clip from the film, specifically a long-take crane shot capturing rival gangs the Sharks and Jets at a local dance, launched a series of social media posts about contemporary cinematography. Guillermo del Toro praised the shot for the ways the camera seems to “dance” alongside the performers.
Indeed, the endlessly cinematic shot showcases a distinct feature of the form and highlights the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process. In commenting on the significance of the shot, the critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “The point is, film storytelling needs to be about more than cutting between close-ups of people saying lines.” He’s right.
Sloppy films often use that form of storytelling as a crutch for when they cannot think of something interesting to do with the camera. In doing so, they make their work less cinematic. But it is also important to keep in mind context and balance: there are many ways dialogue-heavy works are cinematic. What is important is that such choices feel deliberate and serve formal ends. And Drive My Car provides a perfect example.
Figures From The Past
Before her untimely death, Oto introduces Yusuke to one of her colleagues, a young actor named Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Koji expresses admiration for Yusuke’s work, but the latter seems uninterested. Later, post-opening credits, Koji surprises Yusuke by auditioning for his production of Uncle Vanya. He lands the titular role.
Yusuke seems to instantly distrust and even dislike Koji, who is the only other character we see before and after Drive My Car‘s opening credits. He’s the only other person from the film’s prelude. The only other person to make the trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima. The only other person who knew Oto. Whether Yusuke likes it or not, he and Koji have a bond.
As Yusuke settles into life in Hiroshima, Koji from time to time invites him to drinks. After the first invitation, Yusuke seems leery: Was Koji the one he saw having sex with Oto? When they arrive at the bar, the conversation naturally shifts to Oto. Koji openly confesses his love and longing for Oto but says the lust stopped there. We soon learn of Koji’s history and violent tendencies.
An Unrelenting Gaze
As the days go on, Yusuke begins to bond with his driver, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura). She shares stories from her own past, opening up about the tragedy and abuse she endured.
One night, Watari drives both Yusuke and Koji home from a bar. In the backseat, the two men begin to talk again about Oto. Yusuke tells Koji that he knew of her infidelity. He tells Koji about the death of their four-year-old daughter, and about the bonds that love and tragedy created between them. Hamaguchi and cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya alternate back and forth between the two men through a series of point-of-view shots.
Yusuke mentions the story of an unfinished teleplay Oto had started to tell him before she died. Koji, to his surprise, knows how the story ends. He begins to share the tale with Yusuke. As he speaks, the point-of-view shots grow more intense. He stares directly into the camera. The dialogue is firm and fast. His gaze never relents. Yusuke appears captivated and uncomfortable, a feeling shared by the film’s audience.
Koji’s gaze is all-consuming. Just when you think it is about to end, that a cut must surely be coming, Koji’s look endures. In the dimly lit backseat of Yusuke’s car, Koji’s story elicits a range of emotions. He appears menacing. Should we be scared? He appears sincere. Are we just paranoid? He too has suffered a severe loss. Should we have sympathy? He has a history of violence. Will he attack us?
As the audience experiences this sequence alongside Yusuke, of whom we have grown protective, we might beg for Hamaguchi to cut sooner, to let us rest our eyes and lay them on Yusuke. He does so a few times, but for most of this moment, the camera remains on Koji.
The scene ends, creating more ambiguity. But at the same time, the sequence reveals much about the two men and their respective bonds with Oto and now each other. The moment focuses less on conveying information and more on emotion and mood, on what it might be like to exist in this moment with these people.
This deliberate treatment of the audience, which Alfred Hitchcock would call manipulation, makes Drive My Car such an achievement. Hamaguchi is Misaki, and we are Yusuke. He takes command of the film and brings us down whatever roads he pleases, and at whatever speed he wants. It is a joy to watch and experience.
Drive My Car is currently playing in theaters around the country and is available to stream on HBO Max beginning on March 2, 2022.