In “The Long Excuse,” Masahiro Motoki — star of the Oscar-winning “Departures” — makes a startling comeback as a novelist who discovers his coldheartedness upon his wife’s sudden death. Writer-director Miwa Nishikawa’s somber reflection on the strains of marriage and parenthood is punctuated with beautiful existential undertones. Given the proliferation of of quality Japanese family dramas at home and on the festival circuit, this little gem with a spiky edge will need extra marketing savvy to find limited arthouse theatrical and on-demand deals.
A director noted for her flair for suspense and enthralling portrayal of characters of dubious morality, Nishikawa first composed the story as a novel, then wrote and directed it for the screen. As in her last three films — “Sway,” “Dear Doctor,” and “Dreams for Sale,” all centered on liars and swindlers — self-deception is the theme of her fifth work.
Showing a bit of wear and tear after his seven-year hiatus from the big screen as leading man, Motoki is perfectly poised to play Sachio Kinugasa, a has-been author who clings to his waning fame as a fixture on TV chat shows. He’s first seen being snappish to his hairstylist wife Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu), as she patiently cuts his hair. Sachio can hardly wait for her to take off on ski holiday with high school bestie Yuko before he is making whoopee with his editor (Haru Kuroki).
When news reaches him that a coach has crashed into a lake, killing both Natsuko and Yuko, he hastily arranges her cremation near the accident site. At the funeral, he waxes sorrowful in a scripted speech, but is unable to shed tears on cue for the paparazzi. His obsessive net-surfing for media reports on his bereavement shows he only cares about his celebrity image. In stark contrast to Sachio’s strained affectation of grief, Yuko’s husband Yoichi Omiya (Pistol Takehara) is utterly devastated.
Unable to shake off Yoichi’s one-sided friendliness and embarrassing outpourings of misery, he awkwardly condescends to socialize with the Omiyas. Sachio offers to babysit his two young tykes, grade-schooler Shinpei (Kenshin Fujita) and preschool-aged Akari (Tamaki Shiratori) a few times a week while Yoichi is on his truck-driving shifts. Whether he volunteers out of boredom or plans to use them as creative fodder, Nishikawa keeps Sachio’s motives obscure. And yet, Sachio clearly takes to the caregiving role, and the tykes brighten up in his presence. Scenes of simple activities like watching a childish cartoon with Akari, or picking up Shinpei after he finishes cram school brim with a charmingly offhand joy.
Yet, just when the film seems to settle into heartwarming mode, it turns round for a harsh reality check. Sachio is jerked out of the escapist comfort his surrogate family provides when his manager Kinoshita (Sosuke Ikematsu, reeking cynicism) tells him, “Children are a great way for men to indulge themselves. … They make me forget what an asshole I am.” Likewise, Yuki’s death opens up cracks that already exist in the Omiya family. For all of Yoichi’s salt-of-the-earth virtues, he’s also childishly inept while the precocious, sensitive Shinpei is capable of coldly cutting adults down to size. As it turns out, it doesn’t take much for dynamics to shift in the protagonists’ ad hoc ties.
According to Nishikawa, she wrote “The Long Excuse” in contemplation of the emotional aftermath of the 3.11 earthquake catastrophe — unresolved issues between victims and their closest kin have been swept aside by the wave of collective mourning. Observing the scramble to form new liaisons to fill the void of sudden, permanent loss, the helmer reminds that it’s not easy to pick up the pieces and move on. However, as in Nishikawa’s other films, redemption can be elusive for her protagonists, however deep their contrition. Her controlled direction shuns any sentimentality, denying audiences a single flashback to happier times in Sachio and Natsuko’s marriage, or any catharsis of the husband breaking down to express love or regret.
Instead, the film focuses on the novelist’s battle with his own ego as he swings back and forth between craving media attention and resenting mass consumption of his misfortune. But the more he slinks through soirees or works himself into drunken rants, the more he evinces inconsolable pain. Nevertheless, out of this wretched mood of existential disquiet emerges a moving coda that embraces life with qualified optimism.
Entirely involving audiences in Sachio’s distasteful personality, Motoki gently modulated performance charts his bumpy journey to self-knowledge. Singer-composer Takehara serves as a down-to-earth counterpart to Motoki’s bourgeois glibness. Functioning as an absence rather than presence, Fukatsu still exerts a tantalizing impression in one scene, when she appears as a wistful vision, symbolizing elusive bliss.
Set over a year, the four seasons, captured in carefully composed but decidedly not postcard-pretty cinematography by Koreeda regular Yutaka Yamazaki, register the child actors’ physical growth and mirror the adults’ spiritual cycle of rebirth. Hairstylist Muzuki Sakai devises several different ’dos in line with Sachio’s ups and downs after he vows never to cut his hair. The sonorous, Baroque-inflected score by Toshihiro Nakanishi and Michiaki Kato provides a ripe lushness that softens the film’s august tone.