Miwa Nishikawa loves writing about people’s worst traits. Her previous features – Wild Berries (2003), Sway (2006), Dear Doctor (2009), and Dreams for Sale (2012) – focus on protagonists who are unctious liars, unappreciative egotists, unrepentant cheats, and utter scoundrels. In this film, based on a novel she wrote, Nishikawa asks the audience to follow a character whose emotional life is a coldhearted absence borne by self-absorption, a man who has disappeared into himself and lost sight of what really matters in life, other people.
Masahiro Motoki, the lead actor in the Oscar winning drama Departures (2008), takes the role of Sachio, a forty-something successful and arrogant writer who plays at being a celebrity on television while churning out passionless novels. He shares his life with his loyal wife Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu) who works as a high-end hairdresser but their relationship is fractious when we see them. As she snips his hair he snaps at her about perceived wrongs and the two part for the night on negative terms. She meets a close friend named Yuki Omiya (Keiko Horiuchi) and the two catch a night bus from Shinjuku to Misawamura Hot Spring somewhere deep in the snowy mountains. While she is being driven through the cold winter night, he is meeting his mistress and the two are getting hot under the covers of his marital bed.
The next morning, Sachio and his lover are cavorting when he receives grim news – the coach his wife was on went through a guardrail and into an icy lake. Sachio must confirm his wife’s identity and collect her body and possessions. It is here that Nishikawa’s script begins to show how merciless she can be when illustrating her views on human nature. Sachio picks through his wife’s belongings and quickly cremates her, all done with an emotionless face but as the morbid mass media interest begins he comfortably morphs.
A tragedy sells newspapers but Sachio is a celebrity and that means that public fascination in this particular tragedy goes into overdrive. The press stalk him at funerals and public inquiries into the accident. Ever the self-publicist and intellectual, Sachio rises to the occasion and comes off as a heartbroken widower in public by crafting calculated speeches designed to further his reputation as a writer and impress audiences. He has to fake emotions when talking about his wife during documentaries and on the news but once his public duties are done, in private, he leads a messy life unable to clothe and feed himself, and spends more time checking his reputation online, navigating deals to sell his story, and tries to move on by continuing to bed his mistress.
During the public inquiries into the crash, he encounters Yuki’s husband Yoichi (Pistol Takehara). In terms of mourning, Yoichi is on the other end of the spectrum – genuinely devastated – but he is also locked in a somewhat selfish cycle of anger and despair that the death of Yuki despite having to take care of two children. He neglects attending to the changes that are happening to his son Shinpei (Kenshin Fujita) who is about to enter junior high school and his nursery-age daughter Akari (Tamaki Shiratori). Yoichi’s job as a truck driver has left him in a tight spot, unable to stay at home with his children and so, after a meeting with the family, Sachio cautiously agrees to look after the kids while their father is out of town.
At first, they are material for his works but Sachio finds himself changing with every encounter with the kids, sensitive Shinpei and his worries for the future and the delightfully exuberant and willful Akari. These scenes of joyful domestic harmony and the occasional discord that one gets when raising young ones are captured with a lightness of touch with snappy editing which keeps the pace going, the lively performances of the cast who do comedy and drama with ease, and the bright cinematography. This feeling is further influenced by the delicate music by Michiaki Katoh and Toshihiro Nakanishi. Whether it is watching anime or cooking with Akari, doing the school run with Shinpei and the laundry by himself, Sachio learns the basics in life. In most other films, this may be a cloying set of sequences setting the audience up for a sentimental ending where the hero is reformed but Nishikawa keeps everything grounded and eschews allowing Sachio an easy path to redemption.
For large parts of the film he still exhibits an inability to grieve and looks down on working-class Yoichi who the audience will probably feel more sympathy with in terms of his more honest and raw way of behaviour (Pistol Takehara provides a mellower performance which gives a parallel form of mourning). Sachio also retains an amazing capacity to be selfish and one gets the sense that his selflessness is just as much for his self-satisfaction. As Sachio’s cynical publicist (played by Sosuke Ikematsu) suggests, maybe the kids are an escape for himself and even material for a book. Nishikawa’s ability to keep the audience guessing about Sachio’s motivation comes from the brilliantly drawn characters who stay true to their colours but exhibit slow changes. The film also benefits from the sensitive performances of the entire cast especially Masahiro Motoki who provides a real journey in acting from the big and arrogant gestures and pretentiousness – checking himself in the mirror every second, looking bored when Yoichi cries over Yuki, yukking it up at parties – to the self-doubt and anger of being left behind by Natsuko and the ending when he is forced to confront himself and his worst character traits.
The seams of prentiousness, bitterness, and anger make Sachio an unpleasant person to be around but it also leads to some funny encounters we watch him struggle to deal with situations and be brought down to size by the kids. Ultimately, as he slowly fill himself in with the love and dependency of others it is an emotionally fulfilling journey to watch.
The changes he goes through are naturally set up and feel unforced and as the seasons change from winter to spring to summer and back to winter, Sachio undegoes some form of redemption thanks to the his new human connections with the two children and becoming a sort of surrogate mother to them, adopting the habits and behaviour at some points. There is a lot of symbolism in the film, from the growth of his hair and when it gets cut and by whom, his speech patterns which become more feminine, to the way he changes his own domestic life but by the end Sachio manages some form of redemption and the audience will feel that it has been believable and hard won and perfectly portrayed.
Nishikawa may have a thing for showing people at their worst but when they do learn something it feels genuine. The fact that a film with such a questionable protagonist is so easy to watch and even enjoy is testament to Nishikawa’s gift as a writer and director.
The Long Excuse is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Tuesday July 4 at the Walter Reade Theater at 5:15pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.