A Tranquil, Reflective Journey Awaits in Drive My Car

Rating: 4 out of 5.

For many people, the car isn’t just a mode of transport – it’s a means of escape, a source of passion, or even a way of life. It’s a fact that is recognised by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who has chosen to make an automobile the star of his feature-length drama Drive My Car (2021), even though it’s the human protagonists and their struggles that are given the centre stage.

A widowed playwright, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has been invited to Hiroshima, where he is to work for the next two months as a director-in-residence. Kafuku is a keen motorist, and anticipated he would be making the hour-long journey between his accommodation and the city in his cherished Saab 900 Turbo; instead, much to his dismay, Kafuku’s employers have assigned to him a chauffeur, and stipulated that he is not allowed to drive anywhere by himself.

Designated to fulfil the role of chauffeur is a young woman named Misaki (Toko Miura), who quickly earns the approval of Kafuku with her sedate driving style and shared love of motoring. In the days and weeks that follow, the car-bound companions engage in deep conversation and reveal intimate details about their past, all while Kafuku mulls over the development of his upcoming stage-play – a multilingual adaptation of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.

Oddly, Kafuku’s production of Uncle Vanya is the most engrossing aspect of this picture, offering a welcome deviation from the relative mundanity of his automotive journeys. Every step of the playwright’s creative process is shown, beginning with him meeting his financiers, through to casting and rehearsals, before a momentary glimpse of the final product – one that’s made even more absorbing by the transnational cast speaking in their native languages, a delightfully unconventional choice that more directors, be they real or fictitious, should emulate.  

As a fellow practitioner in the arts, this author was always going find the character of Kafuku relatable, yet found himself connecting even further with the main protagonist than anticipated, thanks to a mutual appreciation for driving. There is no activity more cathartic for a keen motorist than a long, solo drive; so naturally, when that outlet is taken away, a driver cannot help but feel a sense of melancholy or loss, which is palpable in Kafuku’s body language and expressions. That inability to drive is made even more painful by the winding roads and scenic views on the outskirts of Hiroshima, routes that any petrolhead would love to traverse if given the chance.

Young thespian Koshi Takastuki (Masaki Okada) chats with playwright Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) in Drive My Car

But this is not a film that exclusively romanticises about the automobile; instead, it’s an examination of the human psyche and soul, pondering what constitutes a meaningful, satisfying existence. These discussions are manifested in the thespians who appear in Kafuku’s stage-play – like Koshi (Masaki Okada) who joins the production as a means of reconnecting with his lost love, or Yoon-a (Park Yu-rim) who seeks to rekindle her love of performing – and in Kafuku himself, who longs for intimacy and connection yet also values his solitude.

Interesting though these philosophical musings are, they can become tiresome and will no doubt draw the ire of certain viewers, as will the ambiguous conclusion, run-time of three hours (or very close to) and the slow pacing. The latter grievance is evident from the earliest stages of the picture, with its prologue lasting a good 40 minutes before the titles appear. Moreover, since its events are recounted several times throughout the narrative, this entire first act could probably be removed altogether – as is the case with Haruki Murakami’s short story, on which this picture is based.

Pleasantly, there isn’t much else to fault with Drive My Car, which is brimming with artistic excellence throughout. The soundtrack, composed by Eiko Ishibashi, is light and ethereal, pairing impeccably with the film’s serene tone; its beauty is matched by the cinematography of Hidetoshi Shinomiya, whose framing and lighting of each shot is flawless, whether it be on-location or in the confines of Kafuku’s Saab. And then there’s the extraordinary cast, every member of which gives a dedicated, naturalistic performance regardless of experience.

Drive My Car is a pensive, genteel and tender drama made transfixing by its behind-the-scenes observations of an unusual stage production, reflections on what it means to be human, and beautiful driving sequences across the landscapes of Japan. Even with its drawbacks of length and slowness, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film is one of 2021’s best, and should be a strong contender for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Drive My Car will be screening in select theatres from February 10th.

Thrice Upon a Time is a Deserving Farewell for Evangelion

To conclude a ground-breaking saga is an unenviable task, not least because the resulting product needs to honour its forebears whilst leaving a legacy of its own. It’s a position in which this animated feature finds itself, and deftly succeeds in doing so, being as close to flawless as a send-off can possibly be.

Hidden beneath the city of Paris, the paramilitary organisation known as NERV has stored weaponry created as part of the Evangelion project, heavily guarded by an autonomous defence system. An assault on the city is launched by rival outfit WILLE, which seeks to liberate Paris from its captive state, and retrieve said weaponry for its own means – namely, defeating NERV and preventing it from curating another cataclysmic event.

Meanwhile, in the ruins of Japan, Shinji Ikari is listless after failing to thwart the actions of NERV and, by extension, his own father. He and Rei Ayanami – or an entity that purports to be her – follow his fellow EVA pilot Asuka Langley Shikinami to a rural village, there meeting with survivors of the Third Impact. As their days in the village pass, Shinji’s depression only worsens, with his friends fearing he’ll never engage with the outside world again.

Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time marks the definitive conclusion to the multifaceted Evangelion saga that began a quarter of a century ago with Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 26-episode television series that challenged the medium’s conventions and revived Japan’s dormant animation industry. The series’ creator, Hideaki Anno, seemingly concluded the narrative with a feature-length, theatrically-released picture called The End of Evangelion, only to begin afresh with a new set of films that shared the show’s title, plot and themes.

Shinji’s EVA Unit-01 brandishes a new Spear in Thrice Upon a Time

Belonging to this same set of films – collectively known as the Rebuild of Evangelion – is Thrice Upon a Time, accordingly sharing many a quality with the instalments that came before. One such trait is the impressive animation, which again combines traditional cel animation with computer-generated imagery, and is striking throughout. The environments are richly detailed, the designs slick, and the fight scenes bathed in a kaleidoscope of colours, all ensuring this is the best-looking entry in the entire Evangelion franchise.

Another strength carried over from Evangelion films past is the music, crafted once again by franchise stalwart and Anno’s favoured collaborator, Shiro Sagisu. Most of Sagisu’s compositions are drawn from his previous work on the television series, here being slowed down and re-arranged to better match with the imagery, providing a suspenseful, chilling or heroic atmosphere as the need arises. Bookending the excellent soundtrack is Hiraku Utada’s “One Last Kiss”, a hauntingly tender pop song that’s worthy of an Oscar nomination (or Grammy).

Being part of the Rebuild saga, Thrice Upon a Time consequently and unfortunately shares the drawbacks of its precursors, too. One is the infrequency of the action sequences, with most of the film’s time spent observing Shinji’s pensive state; another is the hyper-sexualisation of the young female protagonists, who are oftentimes dressed in fetish-gear or shown from a suggestive angle – both elements serve only to alienate the franchise’s newcomers, who will doubtless already be confused by proceedings.

Asuka looks into the distance in Thrice Upon a Time

Truthfully though, this isn’t a picture made to appease the uninitiated; rather, Thrice Upon a Time is for those already converted to the Church of Evangelion, whose devotion is constantly rewarded. The film contains plenty of throwbacks to the series and previous films, including surprise appearances from much-loved supporting characters, as well as fitting, poetic farewells for a select few. Furthermore, there’s an uplifting, life-affirming epilogue that perfectly concludes the years-long Evangelion narrative.

Finally, Thrice Upon a Time also deserves commendation for rectifying a sore point of the Rebuild films, that being Mari Illustrious Makinami. Upon her introduction in 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (2009), Mari was a character who appeared superfluous to the conflict, with no backstory nor function, a feeling that remained in 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (2012); but with the final chapter, Mari’s inclusion is finally justified, thanks to revelations about her past and her connection to Shinji – which deserve not to be spoilt.

Containing the franchise’s trademarks of spellbinding animation, splendid music and thoughtful storytelling, Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time is a compelling finale and a highpoint for the most prestigious of anime sagas. Ultimately, it’s best viewed as the celebration of a venerable series, embodying all the tropes for which it will forever be renowned.

Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time is now streaming worldwide on Prime Video.

MIFF ’21: Japan’s Volleyballers Get Their Due in The Witches of the Orient

History is littered with sporting dynasties – in basketball, Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls are often touted as one of the all-time greats; in rugby, it’s New Zealand’s fearsome All Blacks who reign supreme. Of equal significance to both is a group of female volleyballers from the East, whose exploits have sadly been underreported in recent years.

In the early 1960s, the world of women’s volleyball was dominated by the Nichibo Kaizuka team, consisting largely of textile workers from the outskirts of Osaka. Under the rigorous training regime of coach Hirofumi “The Demon” Diamatsu, this band of young women annihilated their domestic opponents, eventually being selected to represent Japan internationally against other, higher-ranked teams.

Diamatsu’s team would go on to be dubbed the “Oriental Witches” by the foreign press, owing to their athletic prowess and unparalleled succession of victories – 258, to be exact. This extraordinary feat saw the Japanese players become celebrities at home and abroad, inspiring cartoons, comics, and documentaries such as this one, albeit without the same levels of artistry and reflection.

The Witches of the Orient comes from French documentarian Julien Faraut, who three years ago examined the psyche of tennis player John McEnroe in another MIFF entry, In the Realm of Perfection. Much of Faraut’s narrative is composited of existing footage – including the aforementioned cartoons, plus material of the team competing in Eastern Europe – which is then paired with electronic music, an eclectic combination that leaves the viewer in a trance.

Perhaps the most mesmerising sequence of Witches is the archival film of the women training in Kaizuka. In this footage, coach Diamatsu can be seen relentlessly spiking balls at his players to ostensibly improve their return serve, forcing them to sprint and roll across the court until they are all but exhausted of energy. While Diamatsu’s arduous techniques are somewhat mortifying to witness, they do provide an indication as to why the Witches were so competitive.

Archival footage, such as the Gold Medal match at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, makes up a significant portion of The Witches of the Orient

Faraut’s story also draws upon interviews with Nichibo Kaizuka’s surviving members, who provide rare, exclusive access to their lives. The women never speak directly to the camera, instead providing voice-overs that are matched to their daily routines – the earliest example being Katsumi Chiba and her morning workout at a local gym – as well as a discussion between them over dinner.

There are some real gems offered in the ladies’ narration and B-roll of their activities. Yoshido Kanda speaks most candidly of all the former players, reflecting upon her status as a substitute player and why the women were so drawn to Diamatsu despite his gruelling nature; meanwhile, Yoko Tamura’s footage has a lifestyle to be envied, shown playing a game of memory with her grandchildren and watching volleyball anime with her family.

Although the narrative is transfixing, Witches would benefit from some tighter editing – the montages are too long at times, and there’s a sequence about the players’ nicknames that adds nothing to the story. There are some questionable stylistic choices too, with Faraut keeping a tight 4:3 frame throughout – even in contemporary settings – only to inexplicably transfer to a widescreen ratio in the third act.

Watching The Witches of the Orient, it’s difficult to fathom why their achievements have been so muted in contemporary media. The Nichibo Kaizuka story may not possess the drama or excitement of other sporting dynasties, but their winning streak is yet to be matched by any other volleyball team, as is the level of fame and fervour they generated overseas. Surely those facts alone are worth a place in sporting folklore.

Crafted with an element of idiosyncrasy, Julien Faraut’s The Witches of the Orient is a beguiling story about a group of women whose triumphs ought to be celebrated more. The openness and humility of the subjects is what charms most, though the mesmeric visuals play their part too.

The Witches of the Orient is currently streaming as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival on MIFF Play until August 22nd.

Revisiting Your Name, Makoto Shinkai’s Blessing for a Disaffected World

Every so often, there comes a film that transcends boundaries to find mainstream success. Such an example is this feature-length animation from 2016, a narrative that spans multiple genres and subverts expectations to be one of the artform’s most beautiful, original and compelling offerings, leagues above anything else from that same period.

Teenagers Mitsuha and Taki lead very different lives – the former is an introverted girl who resides in the Japanese countryside with her grandmother and younger sister; the latter has no siblings and shares an apartment with his father in Tokyo. Over the course of several months, these two strangers will awake in each other’s bodies, altering and manipulating their usual routines to the point where they become different people entirely.

As its manga-style designs make obvious, Your Name (or Kimi no Na Wa) is a feature-length anime, being one of several released in its home country of Japan every year; yet despite their ubiquity, very few of these pictures make their way into the Western hemisphere, and fewer still attain any semblance of popularity – arguably, only the releases of Studio Ghibli have managed to do so. This fact alone is enough to make the prominence of Your Name noteworthy, but what makes it all the more extraordinary is knowing who directed the feature-length production.

Responsible for helming Your Name is Makoto Shinkai, who had developed a modest following with his oeuvre in the years prior. Many of the themes in Shinkai’s previous films are rekindled in his 2016 effort, including adolescence, time and companionship, as are the fantasy elements that he so often incorporates. Think of it less as somebody lazily applying the same old tropes, and more an auteur utilising his motifs, like Hayao Miyazaki and his recurring morals of environmentalism and pacifism.

One of the greatest strengths of Your Name is how fluidly it morphs between genres, dabbling in fantasy, science-fiction, romance and drama without tying itself to any one in particular. Just when the picture looks to have settled on a tone – just when the viewer thinks they’ve worked out where the screenplay is heading – along comes an unexpected turn that sees it transform, almost into an entirely different narrative. Impressively, these transitions are never jarring or bewildering, but rather a smooth, natural progression of the story.

Mitsuha scribbles on her face in Your Name

Just as investing is the development of the protagonists, who become more likeable as the movie progresses. From the outset, audiences will find themselves relating to the struggles of Mitsuha and Taki, but their naivety and timidness are evident; as the plot continues, both characters mature and gain confidence through their body-swapping experiences, changing from archetypal youths to well-rounded adults. As a result, the viewer grows so attached to Mitsuha and Taki that the film’s emotional moments are made absolutely heart-wrenching.

Another reason to love Your Name is the animation, which is of a quality seldom witnessed in a Japanese production. All of the illustrations, be they the character designs, landscapes, vehicles or otherwise, are superbly detailed and splashed with colour, with the highlight being an ethereal, dreamlike sequence that sees Taki transported through time. This is Ghibli-levels of artistry on display here, with images so gorgeous that they deserve to be placed on the walls of a museum.

Although there’s plenty to distinguish this picture from its anime brethren, Your Name still ties itself firmly to the medium. Frequent references are made to Japanese culture and tradition, tropes of the artform appear every so often, and there’s an upbeat J-pop soundtrack provided by Radwimps that’s surprisingly pleasant to the ear. That’s the beauty of Your Name – clichés that would detract from the experience in another feature prove nothing but endearing here.

Unfortunately, there is one drawback to Your Name, and that’s the epilogue. While touching and by no means bad, these last few minutes feel like an eternity, needlessly delaying the inevitable outcome to the point where the film overstays its welcome. In fairness though, this is only a minor criticism that in no way frustrates, nor does it sour the rest of Your Name, which is as close to faultless as any feature-length anime has come in the past decade.

Taki (centre) with friends Miki and Tsukasa in Your Name

That consensus is one that’s widely shared by critics and cinemagoers – Your Name earned rave reviews in Japan upon its theatrical release and shattered records at the domestic box-office, being the highest-earning film of 2016 by a considerable margin and becoming the second highest-grossing anime film of all-time, behind Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. (It’s now in third position, with Demon Slayer: Mugen Train having usurped the top spot.) Those accomplishments were later mirrored in the West, where the movie generated far more interest than usual for a Japanese release.

Your Name’s unexpected success in the Anglosphere can be attributed to two factors. One is the releases it performed against: a myriad of ordinary blockbusters that did squat to innovate the medium, and just as little to appease cinephiles. The second factor is the downbeat period in which the picture was released – remember, 2016 was a particularly miserable time for many people, owing to Trump, Brexit, and a swathe of beloved celebrities passing away, among other things. What this movie provided wasn’t just an alternative to its lacklustre contemporaries, but an escape from the glum realities of life.

Three years after Your Name, Shinkai would attempt to capitalise on his global triumph with the release of Weathering With You, a film that shares many of the same attributes. In addition to utilising the plot mechanics from his prior works, Shinkai’s follow-up boasts beautiful illustrations, charming protagonists and an accompanying Radwimps-penned soundtrack; yet it also suffers from the identical problem of a prolonged third act. One thing Weathering fails to capture though is the magic of its predecessor, lacking that sense of wonder – but then again, there a few other films that do possess such wonder.

Placing in the top tier of animation and eclipsing most live-action productions, Your Name is a disarming, spellbinding feature with beautiful illustrations, loveable characters and a fresh screenplay that is unpredictable in the best possible way. It’s essential viewing for anybody who calls themselves an anime fan, and an ideal entry-point for those wanting to immerse themselves in the artform.

Your Name is currently streaming on Netflix.

A Beginner’s Guide to Evangelion, The Monolithic Anime Franchise

This week heralds a momentous event: the worldwide debut of Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time, the definitive conclusion to Hideaki Anno’s anime franchise, on Prime Video. Why is it momentous? Well, because the Evangelion series is widely celebrated for reinvigorating and redefining the Japanese animation industry, with its production values, narratives, religious allegories, and musings on humanity all being of exceptional quality. These attributes have resulted in Evangelion amassing a legion of fans across the globe, and hence, a great deal of anticipation for the feature-length finale.

For those who are unfamiliar with Evangelion, and wanting to see the new film without being mystified, Rating Frames has provided this handy recap of the entire series, from its televisual origins right up until the third instalment of the cinematic reboot. This article will contain spoilers, so those wanting their viewing experience of the other Evangelion media to be unsullied are best advised to look away now.

The TV Series

In the beginning, there was Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 26-episode series that debuted on October 4th, 1995 in its native Japan. Its story takes place in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world that is under attack from large, omnipotent monsters referred to as “Angels” throughout the series. Defending against these threats is a well-financed, transnational militant outfit known as NERV, which has developed giant mechanical weapons capable of defeating the Angels. There’s a catch though – the machines can only be operated by a teenage pilot who is linked to the interface.

The programme largely centres around Shinji Ikari, the pilot of EVA Unit-01, whose father Gendo is the director of NERV’s operations. Shinji fights the Angels alongside the “First Pilot”, Rei Ayanami, and the two are later joined by the feisty Asuka Langley Soryu, who pilots EVA Unit-02. When not defending the world against an Angel attack, Shinji lives in Tokyo-3 under the guardianship of Misato Katsuragi – who is also his superior at NERV – and attends school, there struggling to connect with his fellow students.

Neon Genesis Evangelion was created and overseen by Hideaki Anno, who drew inspiration from the mecha anime of his youth, as well as his own experiences with depression. The latter is what better informs the narrative, being an examination of loneliness, mortality, purpose, and the burden of expectation. Though fleeting in comparison to these philosophical discussions, the giant robot fights are quite exhilarating too, being among the best that the industry has ever produced.

There are some inherent weaknesses with the series, including the concealed motivations of the characters, slow pacing, and the sexualisation of the female characters; yet the harshest judgements are often reserved for the final two episodes, which some viewers deemed too vague and allegorical for their tastes. Nevertheless, the programme remains a standard-bearer for the medium and, alongside Pokémon and Cowboy Bebop, is broadly regarded for popularising anime in the West.

Death, Rebirth & The End

After the mixed reception to the final episodes of Neon Genesis, Anno set to work on a feature-length production that would serve as a comparatively straightforward conclusion. The narrative would eventually be released in two parts, the first of which, Evangelion: Death & Rebirth premiered in March 1997. Much of the film was little more than a clip-show summarising the key moments of the TV series, with the exciting, all-new material saved for the last half-hour – which itself was essentially an extended teaser for the second movie.

Said movie was ultimately released three months later as The End of Evangelion, a retelling of Episodes 25 and 26 of the show. This picture serves as a grand culmination of everything hinted at in the TV series, directly and explicitly revealing what happens to the characters through the most haunting, harrowing and enduring imagery ever witnessed. What’s more, in a continuation of the series’ tone, the film also offers complex, existential discussions about what it means to live meaningfully.

Quite ironically, Evangelion fans who loathed the series finale found themselves even more displeased by End of Evangelion, taking aim at the depressing plot and ambiguous epilogue. Some circles have gone further in their criticisms to suggest that the movie is Anno’s way of trolling his audience, pointing to not only the screenplay, but also the credits rolling mid-film, and an extended live-action sequence that includes a crane shot of a bored crowd in a cinema.

Yet for every detractor, there is just as much fervent support for End of Evangelion – it’s often cited as one of the best anime films of all-time and one of the greatest animated films generally, thus cementing the franchise’s legacy. Its creator was lauded too as a visionary and innovator of the artform; but Anno, ever the perfectionist, was unsatisfied with his work and soon began development on another feature-length instalment.

You Can (Not) Rebuild

A decade after The End of Evangelion came the first in a series of films known as the Rebuild of Evangelion, ostensibly starting the franchise afresh and introducing it to a new generation. Titled Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, the picture is a virtual rehash of the TV series’ first six episodes, with only the slightest of changes to the music and plot. The visuals are the most noticeable difference, with large objects such as the EVA Units and Angels being computer-generated animations, while the hand-drawn characters, surroundings and backgrounds are all richer in colour.

Next came 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance, going in the opposite direction and deviating wildly from the source material by gifting fan-favourite Asuka with a new introduction, different surname and fresh character arc. The ending of the film is a wilder change still, retconning the series’ timeline by seeing Shinji inadvertently trigger a second apocalypse in a desperate attempt to save Rei’s life – a conclusion that is heart-wrenching on multiple levels. Less appealing is the character of Mari, a newly-introduced, hyper-sexualised EVA pilot whose sole function is Fan Service.

Following the highs of the second Rebuild film was the relatively sedate 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo, taking place 14 years after the prior movie’s events. Shinji awakes – having been placed in a coma since the “Third Impact” – to find himself in the custody of WILLE, a ragtag command of defectors from NERV and other freedom-fighters. It’s a slow and rather obscure narrative, one that will surely test the patience of even the most ardent Evangelion devotee; in all other respects though, the picture is satisfying, containing the same exquisite illustrations and music as its predecessors.

And now comes the fourth and final instalment of the Rebuild saga after quite a lengthy delay, arriving five months after its Japanese premiere and eight years after the previous movie’s theatrical run. The response in Evangelion’s homeland has been largely positive, with Thrice Upon a Time breaking box-office records – despite the pandemic’s ongoing presence in the country – and critics lavishing praise upon the film, but whether that success will be repeated internationally remains to be seen.

In any case, all of this will hopefully provide some context as to why a film about giant fighting robots is one of the most hotly-anticipated releases of 2021.

Availability

A freshly-dubbed version of the original television series is available for streaming globally via Netflix, which also has the rights to The End of Evangelion and an abbreviated version of Death & Rebirth, titled Death(True)2.

All of the Rebuild films, including Thrice Upon a Time, will be available worldwide on Prime Video from this Friday, August 13th.