After his wife is killed in a bus crash, popular writer Sachio Kinugasa (Masahiro Motoki) finds himself strangely free of grief. When he meets another man, Yoichi (Pistol Takehara) whose wife was also killed in the same accident, he volunteers to help care for his now motherless children, in the process gradually coming to terms with his feelings of loss and guilt.
The Long Excuse is adapted from the Japanese novel of the same name and, in a rare turn of events, was ushered to the screen by its own author, Miwa Nishikawa, already an acclaimed filmmaker. Although she always intended the story to be a film, working in prose at first allowed her the luxury of ignoring time and budget constraints. “You have limiting factors like it has to be within two hours, or one scene has to be done within a certain amount of dollars, and things like that, so I wanted to start without those limitations and focus on what I really wanted to say.”
Inspiration initially came from the Tohoko earthquake and tsunami that occurred in 2011. “I think the whole of Japan came to the realisation that you can be living an ordinary life and then suddenly everything crumbles in one second,” Nishikawa muses. “There was a lot of broadcast on the disaster when it happened, lots of documentaries and people lost a lot of family members, their friends, lots of people like that, and I thought that there could be lots of things happening behind the background – such as people who actually didn’t have a good relationship or maybe they had a fight that morning or something like that, and then the disaster happened and they never saw them again.”
From this seed grew The Long Excuse’s central conceit of a man struggling to grieve for a wife he was taking for granted, and the guilt he feels over his lack of affect.
Refreshingly, Nishikawa was ruthless in adapting her own work for the screen, recognising the different strengths and requirements of the medium and excising reams of backstory and subplot. “Another example, depending on the chapter it was actually written from a different point of view – so for example, the first chapter was from the main character’s point of view, written from what he thought, so he was the actual narrator. The second chapter was from the wife’s point of view – and of course that can’t really be reflected in the film itself.”
Key to the film’s success is the controlled central performance of Masahiro Motoki, who manages to make a somewhat shallow and self-absorbed character if not always likable, at least understandable. Nishikawa candidly and rather suprisingly admits that she modeled the character on herself. “He is a writer, he lives a very glamorous life, gets attention all the time – and he’s an adult but quite an immature adult – and he thrives in an environment where all the editors basically praise him and make him feel good, and protect him from reality. He lives in the middle of the city in a very trendy environment but actually he’s absolutely no good with human relationships because he doesn’t know how to handle it, and he’s actually kind of a vacuous kind of character – and I think that half his character is based on my own experience and my own life.”
Ultimately, Nishikawa hopes the film helps her audience to not take their loved ones for granted, and to recognise the complexity and value of the relationships they are enmeshed in. “I think I could say that it all starts from my original idea, where in daily life you meet people who you take for granted, and then you recognise or look at their existence once again – that’s probably what I’d like my audience to feel. I’m not just talking about blood relatives or relatives in general, but also there’s friends or people who are totally third party, who are actually watching over you, who you actually have lots of interactions with, and I’d like my audience to actually notice or identify those seemingly unnoticeable people that have a big impact on life.”
The Long Excuse is the closing night film of the Japanese Film Festival – Melbourne, screening at ACMI on Sunday, December 4. Head to the official site for tickets.