Men without Women Review (1) Drive My Car

October 28, 2021 By mk

*This article includes possible spoiler

The loop road story

Drive My Car is the first story in Haruki Murakami’s short story collection, Men Without Women, first published in the magazine in November 2013 and as part of a book on 18 April 2014 in Japan.

The novel is a road novel about a middle-aged actor, Kafuku, and his driver, Misaki. It differs from most “road novels” in that the driving range is extremely narrow.

The area around Misaki’s driving route frequently appears in Haruki Murakami’s novels: where K sees Miu in a dark blue Jaguar (Sputnik Sweetheart), where “I” walk through the city (Dance Dance Dance), where Aomame visits Willow House (1Q84), where Nutmeg commuted (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).

It would be interesting for readers if the setting of Kahuku’s daily routine, which is limited to the same place, implies the car Misaki drives can be a backdrop of Murakami’s other stories.

Three Scenes

From Kafuku’s viewpoint, there are three scenes in the novel;

  1. Met Misaki
    Kafuku was suggested to hire a driver and met Misaki.
  2. Hired Misaki
    Kafuku tested Misaki’s driving skills and hired her.
  3. Talking to Misaki in the car
    Misaki drove Kafuku’s SAAB 900 around Tokyo and Kafuku talks about his late wife and daughter, and “a friend (Takatsuki).” Then, Misaki gave her impressions to Kafuku.

The contrasts

This story has two contrasts: the geographical contrast of Tokyo and Hokkaido and the chronological contrast of the past complicated memories and the present simple talk in the car cabin.

During the drive, Misaki tells a story about her past in distant Hokkaido. Being familiar to those who have read A Wild Sheep Chase, Hokkaido is where the Rat’s father had the vacation villa. Misaki is from a remote place and drives in a busy Tokyo street.

In this story, all the ‘dynamic’ elements, such as the infidelity, death and (possible) lover of Kafuku’s late wife, belong to Kafuku’s ‘past’; while Kafuku’s ‘present’, despite his internal pain, is ‘static.’ Kafuku talks to Misaki as she drives around the usual places.

Kafuku’s pain in the car cabin

The story takes place in a car cabin. Kafuku’s recollections are presented in a monologue as if the story has been written for a performance in a small theatre.

After my wife’s death, I expected the demon would disappear if I just waited long enough. But it didn’t. Instead its presence grew even stronger. I had to get rid of it. To do that I had to let go of my rage.”

Murakami faithfully portrays Kafuku’s suffering but, on the other hand, does not forget to leave the possibility open that his suffering is only from a false belief created by something inside Kafuku. As he has no friends and always commutes alone until Misaki is hired, his pain is deepened in the isolated situation.

But that was pure conjecture on his part. Nothing more than another “perhaps.”

One day he discovered that the rage that drove him to revenge had disappeared. But even after that he was still trapped in his pain without exit.

“I can’t explain it very well, but at a certain point a lot of things didn’t seem like that big a deal anymore. Like the demon had left me all of a sudden,” Kafuku said.

There are two ways to portray a person: one is to state what they do, and the other is to note what they do NOT do. In Murakami’s novels, the story moves when the protagonist does NOT do something. Like in “The Barn Burning (1983)”, the critical element of the story is that protagonist did NOT commit arson; in “Drive My Car”, it is important that Kafuku did NOT revenge on Takatsuki.

This goes along with the so-called ‘aesthetics of subtraction’; the concept that, as is so often the case in life, it is as often the case that circumstances change because we have ‘done something’ (added something) as because we have ‘not done something’ (subtract something). In the application to literature, the author can stimulate the reader’s imagination by “not saying something” sometimes rather than “saying something”.

“Whatever it was, I’m glad for your sake that it left. That you never seriously hurt anyone.”

Misaki plays the role of a later reminder that Kafuku did NOT hurt anyone, and it gave him the light, if not the perfection, to reach the “exit” from his state of suffering.

Ginza, where Kafuku’s theatre locates

Misaki’s presence as a catalyst

The presence of the young Misaki is like a pinhole camera projecting the vast Hokkaido landscape into the car cabin driving through the congested streets of the big city.

The opening of the SAAB 900 convertible roof seems to be a metaphor for bringing fresh air into the confined space, but Murakami does not simply set up Kafuku to be saved by it. Misaki neither encourages nor consolates Kafuku and says;

“Isn’t it possible that your wife didn’t fall for him at all?” Misaki said simply. “And that’s why she slept with him?”

Misaki expressed her frank opinion, which is coincidentally (or perhaps deliberately) meets Takatsuki’s words;

“I don’t think we can ever understand all that a woman is thinking,” he said.

By meeting Misaki, Kafuku finds within himself the key to improving his situation. Unlike in Murakami’s previous novels, Kafuku does NOT make any moves on Misaki. Misaki exists solely as a catalyst, although she mentioned a part of her own situation, she faithfully play her role as a catalyst to help Kafuku to find a way out of his problems on his own. Misaki summed up the situation in a few short words.

“Women can be like that,” Misaki added.

Kafuku accepts her words, and the story moves on to the final part. The conversation breaks down, Misaki returns the silence, and Kafuku is grateful for it. Then the aftermath lingers, suggesting that their lives will continue.

Hokkaido in winter

An Acting Couple Story

That cuckold lives in bliss. Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; But, O, what damned minutes tells he o’er. Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves! (Othello, 3.3.)

The story of a cuckold is a classic motif for writers in both the East and the West. In creating a story on this theme, Murakami added depth by adding the setting that both Kafuku and his late wife were professional actors, in addition to the two contrasts forementioned.

It’s gotten so I have a hard time drawing a clear line between the two. In the end, that’s what serious acting is all about.

For example, an ordinary man does not have the “acting skills” to pretend as if he does not know about his wife’s infidelity. On the contrary, could it be that Kafuku’s wife was acting in the same way?

the sudden death of their child wounded Kafuku and his wife, suspending them in a dark, heavy void…Their focus on work became even more intense. When they took on new roles, they immersed themselves totally, voraciously…Thinking back, he realized that it was at that time that her love affairs began.

After the grief, she, like Kafuku, immerses herself in her work and may experience the same blurring between acting and life as her husband does. If so, just as Kafuku could pretend he didn’t know about his wife’s infidelity, she could pretend she was having an affair if she would like to do so.

The most excruciating thing, though, had been maintaining a normal life knowing his partner’s secret—the effort it required to keep her in the dark.

However, his wife’s infidelity is only described due to Kafuku’s sixth sense. Murakami’s skilful writing leads the reader to believe that she had an affair, but perhaps this is the world in which the reader has entered the fictional trap set by the author.

Of course, the author never said anything about that. However, this story, full of blank spaces, is filled with elements that allow the reader to exercise their imagination, just as Kafka uses his work as a metaphor to describe his life.

“Whether you want to or not. But the place you return to is always slightly different from the place you left. That’s the rule. It can never be exactly the same.”

Tengenji intersection between Hiroo, Ebisu and Azabu; Misaki’s trial driving course
(In 1Q84, Aomame gazed at the moon from this footbridge)

Like Zen Garden

Japanese Zen gardens are known for creating miniature landscapes with stones to express nature. The essential idea of its implication is to stimulate the viewer’s imagination.

This story imposes similar limitations and leaves a lingering impression to the readers.

The Film

*The following includes possible spoilers of the 2021 film adaptation

Drive My Car is a 2021 Japanese film directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi (179 minutes)

“Drive My Car” was made into a film in 2021 and was awarded the Best Screenplay, the FIPRESCI Prize, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and AFCAE Award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

The film takes characters from “Drive My Car” and uses “Scheherazade” and “Kino” as inserted episodes and character settings. The director carefully fills in the unexplained elements left in the original story and adds new episodes such as multiple languages play. i.e. Kafuku’s wife is a scriptwriter, not an actress, and Kafuku eventually witnesses her affair with Takatsuki.

The film is set in Hiroshima, 800km west of Tokyo, and the terroir of Tokyo in the original text has been erased. In the last scene, Misaki is in a supermarket in Korea (the landscapes of Japan and Korea are similar but different to me). It would be nice to have some explanation as to why.

The film itself is good, but it should have been given a slightly different name to present it as more than an adaptation of the original story, just as the film based on ‘Barn Burning’ was named ‘Burning’.

“To be on the safe side, I’m going to take a look at your wheel alignment, but assuming that’s okay, you can pick up your car the day after tomorrow at two p.m.

By the way, from a retro car lover’s point of view, the wheel alignment of the red SAAB in the film looks along with the original text.