Haruki Murakami’s short story “Drive My Car” is a sleek, streamlined slip of a thing that nonetheless, in the author’s signature style, packs an awful lot into its lean sentences. It’s a grief-stricken marriage story enfolded in a corrupted friendship study, related in turn via a separate tale of odd-couple companionship, all told in fewer than 40 pages. On the face of it, one might question the wisdom of turning such a precisely worked miniature into a three-hour movie, but Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s deft, wise, whisper-soft adaptation of “Drive My Car” never feels like an overextension of its delicate material. Instead, it pursues a kind of cinematic stillness to match Murakami’s plain, serene prose, and takes things suitably slow — this is the kind of film where the opening credits arrive 40 minutes in — as it ponders just how much time can heal all wounds.
The subtly entrancing result might be Hamaguchi’s most nourishing film to date, joining Lee Chang-dong’s recent “Burning” atop the pantheon of big-screen Murakami interpretations. Where Lee’s adaptation slashed through the text with sensuous purpose, however, Hamaguchi takes a more expansive, discursive tack, gently indulging his affinity for melodrama: The story already plays into his predilection for ornate character networks and openly addressed matters of the heart. The supersized runtime is no obstacle, meanwhile, to “Drive My Car’s” direct, misty-eyed emotional impact.
Where the short story buried its protagonist’s formative secrets in its center, Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe reorganize events in more linear fashion, shedding some intrigue for a cumulative build of heartbreak. Its first act — the terminology feels especially appropriate in a film that pivots on theatrical staging — documents the marriage between Tokyo-based actor and theater director Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima), an intimate partnership that nonetheless accommodates unspoken infidelities on her part, especially since the death of their young daughter years before. When Oto, too, dies in untimely fashion, Yusuke retreats from life.
At least his beloved car is a comfort and a constant: a red Saab 900 that cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya shoots like an exotic insect against the gray, treeless geometry of the city. “Drive My Car” understands the charged, cocooned space of a private vehicle, where you can be at once moving through the world and warmly isolated from it: For Yusuke, it’s where he likes to run his lines, with only a cassette recording of the play as his prompting partner.
So when, two years later, he accepts an invitation to direct a multilingual production of “Uncle Vanya” at a Hiroshima theater festival, it’s no mere inconvenience when the organizers inform him that, for insurance reasons, he’ll have to accept a chauffeur rather than drive himself. Rather, it’s a rude invasion of his most private and creative space. The young hired driver, Misaki (Toko Miura), is herself introverted and soft-spoken, and guards her personal history with a similar sorrowful wariness to his, but that is not a commonality on which obvious friendships are built: Neither party feels quite free to enjoy the silence, while the disembodied recordings of Chekhov’s play that fill the space between them sound almost ghostly in this context.
Outside the car and in the theater, fate has further ways of yanking Yusuke from his shell. One of the actors auditioning for his production is the handsome, callow and only moderately talented Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), whom Yusuke recognizes as his late wife’s former lover. When Yusuke confounds expectations by casting Takatsuki as Vanya rather than taking the role himself, it’s unclear if he’s exacting tacit revenge on the oblivious younger man, or somehow overlapping their identities: As Hamaguchi irons out certain details of Murakami’s story, he folds in new ambiguities aplenty.
It’s the car that remains the story’s most intense, truth-telling space, as Yusuke and Misaki gradually — and Hamaguchi’s understanding of “gradually” is more gradual than most — thaw to each other, each using the other as a sounding board for pent-up trauma and tragedy. “Drive My Car” is an unusual sort of road movie, in which the open road is a loop, with the same route traced on a daily basis, but the going somehow liberates the passengers anyway.
In a performance of unassuming magnificence, Nishijima unlocks Yusuke via minute variations in expression and delivery, his virtually physicalized sadness shifting in temperature once shared. The film charts this intricate evolution against the bigger, bolder tonal progressions of the play rehearsals, where the actors eventually rail against his preference for endlessly repeated, uninflected table reads. No less superb is Miura, whose tense, gaze-dodging demeanor unfurls and relaxes once behind the wheel, even as Misaki tends to use words as a brusque last resort. As their characters bend and bond, her melancholy comes to shape and steer the film as much as his.
Hamaguchi’s filmmaking, always accomplished, reaches new heights of refinement and sensory richness here, principally via Shinomiya’s immaculate, opaline lensing. The camera marks fine changes in light and air as the story progresses from Tokyo’s unyielding urban surfaces to the muffling foliage and pastel mists of the Setouchi coastline, and eventually to the sharp monochrome contrasts of Japan’s snow country — all bound by the black ribbon of road that remains Yusuke and Misaki’s happy-unhappy place. (The warm, dull hum of a moving car, meanwhile, is the baseline of Izuta Kadoaki’s sparsely effective sound design.) Of many beautiful frames, one lingers: Yusuke and Misaki’s hands, each holding lit cigarettes, jutting from the Saab’s open sunroof (or moonroof) as it speeds through smudged streaks of nighttime light, politely apart but united in fleeting calm.