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Drive My Car: The Question in the Novel and the Answer in the Film

Takeshi Usami
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Modern Japanese literature, modern culture studies

1. What does it mean to adapt a novel to film?

Students enrolled in my seminars (a series of specialized seminars for juniors and seniors) at the Faculty of Letters often choose research on movies based on novels or anime based on manga as the topics of their theses. In their work, they often discuss how a line in the novel was changed in the movie version or how a scene in the manga was changed in the anime version. While these points are worth noting, it is only natural that works made in different genres feature different content in some parts, despite sharing the same title. Conducting research on such a topic is not simply a matter of comparing the two versions. So, what kind of interplay arises as a result of director Ryusuke Hamaguchi's adaptation of Haruki Murakami's short story "Drive My Car" to film? To lead with a conclusion, the short story and the film adaptation have a question and answer relationship. While Haruki Murakami poses the question of death and rebirth in the form of a short story, the film adaptation by director Ryusuke Hamaguchi answers the question by illustrating rebirth in a tangible and specific way.

2. What kind of movie is Drive My Car?

Yusuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima), a director and actor, witnesses his wife (played by Reika Kirishima) having an affair, but she dies of a sudden illness before he has the chance to confront her about it. Two years pass since her death. Kafuku is asked to direct a stage production in Hiroshima and is assigned a personal driver, Misato Watari (played by Toko Miura), for the duration of the production. Watari is an unsociable woman with a scar on her cheek, but she is a good driver. At first, Kafuku does not want anyone else to drive his car, but gradually, he and Watari begin to develop a bond.

For readers who have not seen the film, I will avoid going into the details of the film, but as many have already pointed out, the film is a story of rebirth. Kafuku witnesses his wife's adultery, and on the day that his wife tells him that she has something to talk to him about when she gets home, he loses her to a sudden medical condition. Kafuku has a habit of listening to script readings in his car, and even long after his wife's death, he drives his car while listening to recordings his wife made while she was still alive. He also continues to speak to his wife, who is no longer there. Watari also bears emotional scars in addition to the scar on her cheek. After they tell each other about their emotional trauma, they talk about how they should have allowed themselves to feel hurt and that they should have stopped and confronted their problems, and in this way they realize that they should have faced the past and taken it head-on. In other words, this work is a story about two people who are unable to come to terms with the deaths of those close to them and live with the trauma of it in their hearts, and their attempts to face their scars and begin life anew.

However, the original short story by Haruki Murakami does not tell the story the same way.

3. The resignation portrayed in Haruki Murakami's "Drive My Car"

In the film adaptation, the main plot of the story was taken directly from the original short story--an actor loses his wife and is given a new driver. However, the short story does not go into detail about Watari's past, and the conversations between Kafuku and Watari are very limited. As director Hamaguchi states in an interview (found in the movie pamphlet), since the original "Drive My Car" is a short story, he added to the film elements of other short stories such as "Scheherazade" and "Kino," as well as his original additions. However, if one were to compare the original short story with the film adaptation, they would find that the worldview of the two works is quite different, due to these additional elements. Near the end of the original short story, Kafuku and Watari have the following conversation.

"To me, it's a kind of sickness. Thinking about it doesn't do much good. ... There's no logic involved. All I can do is accept what they did and try to get on with my life."
"So then we're all actors," Kafuku said,
"Yes, I think that's true. To a point, anyway."
(translated by Ted Goossen, Vintage International, 2018)

The lines "accept what they did and try to get on with my life," and "we're all actors," suggest a state of resignation to the fact that not everything can be brought to light and that we must accept this to be the case. By showing this, Haruki Murakami's story presents to readers a question about the difficulty of death and rebirth. This ending is quite a contrast to the film version, which portrays an attempt to be born again by reexamining the past.

4. Haruki Murakami's style is to leave things a mystery or incomplete

So, are Haruki Murakami's original short story and Ryusuke Hamaguchi's film adaptation at odds with each other? No, they are not. Haruki Murakami's style is characterized by the fact that the themes raised in one work are continuously explored in other works, rather than ending each work with a clear, complete message. For example, the three short stories on which the film Drive My Car is based are all from a collection of short stories called Men Without Women, which explore the inner lives of men who have been left by women. Moreover, this theme is not confined to this one collection of stories. In Haruki Murakami's early works, he has portrayed many women who leave the protagonist by committing suicide, and later, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he told the story of a man whose wife goes missing. Beyond the limits of any individual story, he has continued to explore other themes, such as what it means to write, cults, and the power to draw humans into evil, in multiple works. In fact, this practice itself is the style of the writer Haruki Murakami.

Incidentally, I have surveyed the students taking my course before. When I asked them about this characteristic of Haruki Murakami's work, where the message is not completed in each individual work, the responses revealed that there were two types of students: those who found the style interesting and were fascinated by the mysteriousness of his work, and those who were left unsatisfied when the story is incomplete and found it hard to enjoy it. Another characteristic of the writer Haruki Murakami is that his work gives rise to these contrasting types of readers.

5. Adapting Haruki Murakami's works to film

The film Drive My Car has a clear message for many viewers in that it shows what rebirth from the wounds we carry in our hearts can look like. It is so obvious and easy to understand that it could be thought of as cliched or on-the-nose. The majority of the members of the American Academy Awards selection committee, which nominated the film Drive My Car in four categories, including Best Picture, are from the film industry, and the selection process is highly commercial in nature. There is no doubt that the clear message of the film Drive My Car is perfectly suited to the nature of this selection process. The nomination is the result of the somewhat enigmatic questions of Haruki Murakami's stories being recreated in the clear form of a film, which resonated with many viewers.

I am reminded of other examples of this phenomenon, such as The Phantom of the Opera, and Beauty and the Beast. These works have been distributed to people all over the world as musicals and movies, but very few of these viewers have read the original works. In terms of content, the original works differ greatly from the musical and film versions. The purpose of these major alterations was not so much to undermine the original work as it was to reframe the work in a way that would reach the hearts of many people. And in this case, something similar happened when the story "Drive My Car" was adapted to film.

Haruki Murakami's work is presented as a question for the reader, where many mysteries are left unanswered. It is the film version directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi that gives this question a concrete form and presents a single answer. Of course, it is not the only correct answer, but it is an important answer that has been approved by a large audience.

Takeshi Usami
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Modern Japanese literature, modern culture studies

Takeshi Usami was born in 1958 in Tokyo. He graduated from the Faculty of Education, Tokyo Gakugei University in 1980. He completed his doctoral course at the Graduate School of Humanities, The University of Tokyo in 1990. He is a Doctor of Literature (Chuo University). He took his current post in 1998 after teaching as a full-time lecturer and as an assistant professor at the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University.

He analyzes modern literature through literary figures such as Haruki Murakami from a historical perspective, and studies the history of novels written after the Meiji period. In recent years, he has been leading efforts to establish the comprehensive study of fiction that includes film, theater, and television dramas in addition to literature, with a special focus on television drama studies. Major publications include Shosetsu Hyogen toshite no Kindai (Modern Times Through Novelistic Expressions) (Ofu), Murakami Haruki to Sen-Kyuhyaku-Hachiju Nendai (Haruki Murakami and the 1980s), Murakami Haruki to Sen-Kyuhyaku-Kyuju Nendai (Haruki Murakami and the 1990s), Murakami Haruki to Niju Isseiki (Haruki Murakami and the 21st Century) (joint editorship, Ofu), and TV Drama wo Gakumon suru (Studying TV Dramas) (Chuo University Press), among others.

Website: Takeshi Usami's Faculty Office, Chuo University

TV Drama wo Gakumon suru (Studying TV Dramas)