Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe became the first Japanese Palme d’Or nominees to win the best screenplay – as well as the FIPRESCI Prize and Ecumenical Jury Prize – at Cannes earlier this year. Their lovely, nuanced adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami from his 2014 anthology, Men Without Women, finds complexities beneath the original conceit. Where Murakami’s protagonist hires his late wife’s younger lover with malevolent intent, the film’s sorrowful hero is trickier to read.
A 41-minute prologue introduces Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). He is a successful theatre actor and director who is currently starring in Waiting for Godot. Oto is a Japanese television writer and producer. Her erotically charged creative process sees her forming stories – including one about a girl who sneaks into the bedroom of the boy she has a crush on – during sex. His creative process involves learning the lines for his upcoming productions – Uncle Vanya is up next – by listening to her recordings of the other characters while he drives his vintage Saab. Slowly, we learn that the marriage isn’t as perfect as it seems. The couple’s only child died years earlier and, when Yusuke’s trip is cancelled at the last minute, he returns home to find his wife astride the young TV heart-throb, Kôji (Masaki Okada), the star of her current series.
Instead of confronting her, Yusuke slinks off to a nearby hotel. Two years later at an arts festival in Hiroshima, Yusuke is restaging Uncle Vanya with Kôji improbably cast in the lead role. When his hosts insist that he is assigned a driver for his precious Saab, he is initially displeased. But Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), the orphaned young woman who takes the wheel, proves not only an excellent driver but a valuable confessor.
Their evolving friendship and unhurried catharsis form the spine of this compelling drama. Chekhov, meanwhile, provides a commentary. Uncle Vanya’s Sonya, played in Yusuke’s fascinating multicultural production by a former dancer using Korean sign language, resigns herself as the others must: “What must we do? We must live our lives.”
The extensive running time unexpectedly flies by at its own stately pace. The purring engine provides a warm, familiar hum. Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s cinematography makes a trip to the dump look poetic. The entire ensemble is remarkable. The drama is so engrossing, it knocks the jaunty Beatles song right out of the viewer’s head.