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The Portrayal of Mourning and Melancholia in “Drive My Car"

The film explores the role of guilt in unsuccessful mourning.

Key points

  • While mourning is a finite and transformative process, melancholia is a persistent state beyond a person’s conscious understanding.
  • The film "Drive My Car" examines the role guilt plays in determining whether a survivor is able to move on after a loved one’s death.
  • Both of the major characters in "Drive My Car" achieve greater emotional freedom after sharing their guilt feelings.
Eric Gilkes/Unsplash
Eric Gilkes/Unsplash

Spoiler alert: This post reveals the end of the movie.

In the wake of World War I, Sigmund Freud wrote an essay about loss, "Mourning and Melancholia," in which he said mourning and melancholia are two types of responses to loss. While mourning is a finite and transformative process, melancholia is a persistent state that is beyond a person’s conscious understanding.

In mourning, the world around feels bleak, but eventually, the pain turns into motivation to replace or move away from what is understood to be gone. Mourning ends with a kind of acceptance, in that the mourner can eventually feel motivated to participate in the external world, even though the loss has changed it.

Melancholia, on the other hand, is more complicated. In this response to loss, a person feels pain within the unconscious—meaning that the significance of the loss is not apparent to the griever.

Guilt leads to melancholia in Drive My Car

In Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s film, Drive My Car, Yusuke, an actor and stage director, and Misaki, his chauffeur, are both suffering from melancholia. During the film, both characters tease out the implications of how they have coped with tragedy.

Drive My Car examines the pivotal role that guilt plays in determining whether a survivor is able to move on after mourning a loved one’s death. Late in the film, Yusuke reveals that on the night of his wife’s death from a cerebral hemorrhage, he intentionally drove around and avoided coming home. He was afraid that Oto, his wife, would confess her infidelity—or request a separation. His guilt is based on the unlikely possibility that if he had returned home earlier, he might have been able to save his wife.

Misaki, the driver, is also suffering from melancholia because she is unable to mourn her mother and move on with her life. Her mother was cruel and abusive. Misaki understands that her mother was a victim of mental illness, but she remains angry at her mother’s abuse. The combination of anger, loss and unconscious guilt prevents Misaki from moving on and fully participating in the external world.

Misaki and Yusuke travel to her mountain village, where a landslide destroyed her family home and killed her mother. Since Misaki escaped the mudslide unharmed, she had the opportunity to help rescue her mother from the wreckage. Yet, partially out of fear and partly out of her rage at her mother, she did not try to save her. She did not cause the mudslide itself—she did not kill her mother—but by not helping, she is plagued with feelings of remorse.

Expressing guilt allows for mourning

Like Yusuke, Misaki’s relationship with the departed is complicated by unconscious guilt. Like Yusuke, Misaki suffers from melancholia because, like him, she had unsuccessfully tried to suppress her emotional trauma without facing her guilt. But in the course of their conversations, Yusuke and Misaki are both able to express their guilt and that process frees them to move on. They are finally able to mourn and live their lives. Yusuke gives Misaki his beloved red Saab, a symbol of his connection to his dead wife; she moves to Korea and buys a dog as a companion.

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