“Oscar Bait” is a term used to describe films made almost for the sole purpose of receiving an Oscar nomination. The term is not exclusive to the intention of the filmmakers. It can also be used for films with traits that most of these “Oscar Bait” films have despite the intention. Most “Oscar Bait” films are very slow, melodramatic films with high stakes, a serious plot, and real-world commentary. Drive My Car checks multiple boxes here by including a glaucoma diagnosis, a deceased child, an unfaithful wife, and a surprise, lethal brain hemorrhage, all within the first forty minutes. This isn’t to say that the film is too full of itself. Drive My Car is a thoroughly enjoyable film but is it Oscar-worthy? Yes, it fulfills all of the parameters for an Oscar-nominated film, but that doesn’t mean it is inherently a masterpiece.
Drive My Car is a Japanese film centered around a stage-actor-turned-stage-director, Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who travels to Hiroshima to direct a play he has acted in for years prior. The film is based on a short story by the same name within a collection of short stories called Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami.
For anyone who lives outside of Japan, the world shown is unique and interesting. Not many big blockbuster films or Oscar-nominated films are set outside the United States. Drive My Car is the first Japanese film ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Although the setting itself is only creative and unique to those who live outside of Japan, the director, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, does an excellent job of showing this world using multiple wide shots of natural landscapes and urban jungles. The setting may not be inherently unique, but the presentation is what is impressive.
The film’s first forty minutes show Yûsuke’s life with his wife and screenwriter, Oto Kafuku (Reika Kirishima), before *spoilers* her untimely death. Yûsuke practices for his play while Oto works on her television show. The issue with these first forty minutes is that it feels isolated and separated from the rest of the film. The opening credits start forty minutes in, almost admitting that the story begins at that point.
It’s an interesting forty minutes that could have been a short film on its own, but tacking it onto a film that is subsequently three hours long seems excessive. All of the necessary knowledge that it brings to the story is told to other characters and the audience, by Yûsuke later in the film anyway. The only further justification would be to attach the audience to the late Oto emotionally. It does that, but that feat could have easily been done in ten to twenty minutes instead of forty.
The remaining two hours and twenty minutes are where the real story begins. It’s a somber yet encouraging story of Yûsuke directing the same play that he has acted in for years. The only issue is that there’s not much keeping Yûsuke from just leaving the play. He has nothing to lose. He can leave at any time, and nothing happens if he fails, at least nothing conveyed to the audience. The directing of the play is more of a playground for the film to explore Yûsuke’s confrontation with grief and loss. This is what engages the audience, but it can sometimes lead to the question of why the audience is watching a man put on a play with seemingly no relation to his deeper issues.
Most film students and highly-paid film critics argue that an identifiable, physical story is not the point. The point is a deep and philosophical exploration of grief and loss. Those themes are worth exploring, but audiences like to see those ideas discussed within the confines of a concrete story.
That being said, the scenes in which Yûsuke does deal with his grief do pay off. During his stay in Hiroshima, he must be chauffeured by a driver, Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura), for the duration of his visit. It is with Misaki, someone who reminds him of his late daughter, that he opens up about his past trauma. They share sad stories about their respective families and grieve together. This is the core of the film and a solid one at that. The only issue is that this core is left exposed with an engaging but unsubstantial exterior with which to entice the viewer to reach the core.
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Drive My Car has made an incredible feat by being the first Japanese film ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but that alone doesn’t cement its cinematic prowess. Condensing the first forty minutes into about ten minutes would have greatly improved the pacing of the film, and it could have benefitted from a stronger surface-level story that housed the themes of grief and loss. It’s a good watch and worth your time if you have three hours to watch a new Oscar-nominated film. If you can stream the film, try starting it at 39:30 and then go back and watch the first forty minutes. Decide for yourself if this makes a stronger two-hour-and-twenty-minute film or if the original three-hour version is really necessary.