Toronto: Japanese Director Miwa Nishikawa on Female Helmers and Why She Prefers to Write Male Leading Characters (Q&A)

Miwa Nishikawa - Publicity - P 2016

Nishikawa brings her fourth feature, in a 13-year directing career, 'The Long Excuse', to debut at Toronto.

One of a small handful of prominent Japanese female directors, Miwa Nishikawa broke into the film world as an assistant director to Hirokazu Kore'eda (Like Father, Like Son, After the Storm). Nishikawa caught the eye of audiences at home and abroad with films full of humanity and based on original screenplays, including Sway (2006) and Dear Doctor (2009).

Nishikawa's The Long Excuse (Nagai Iiwake), only her fourth feature since her debut in 2003, is premiering at Toronto. It is the story of an uptight novelist, Masahiro Motoki - star of 2009 Oscar-winner Departures, whose wife and her friend are killed in a bus accident, his difficulty in grieving and the transformation he undergoes helping to take care of the children of his wife's friend.

Ahead of the Toronto Film Festival, Huppert spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Japan correspondent Gavin J. Blair in Tokyo about original filmmaking, the scarcity of Japanese female directors and why it's easier to write male leading characters.

The Long Excuse

You've adapted one of your scripts into a novel this time you wrote a novel and then turned into a film, what are some of the differences between the process of writing a novel and a screenplay?

The biggest difference is when you write a screenplay, there's a limit on the length of the film, so you have put the main premise across in around two hours, as well as the budget of the project. And of course, you can only express everything visually or aurally in a film, so you have to limit what can be expressed that way in terms of character development.

When you wrote the novel The Long Excuse, did you intend to turn it into a film?
Yes, I'd already planned to do it the other way around this time, as a challenge to myself. It’s the story of the main character's journey of the heart, so I wanted to develop his personality fully in a novel first.

Did you make changes from the story of the novel to the script, and why?
Yes, particularly in the second half, where a lot of complicated incidents occur and other significant characters appear in the book. As I was writing the screenplay I thought that introducing new characters and relationships after an hour and a half into the film wouldn't give audiences the chance to digest them properly. There were also scenes that weren't in the novel, like the trip to the beach, which was very visual and worked better on film.

I understand in the book there was an incident where the children's father, the truck driver, is arrested for assaulting a prostitute. The character is a kind of lovable dad; wouldn't that have really changed the image of the character in the film?
Yes, there is an incident like that. He actually visits the prostitute to get her help in committing suicide by strangling him, but then throws her off him in the end and injures her. It's not clear in the novel if he regularly used prostitutes or whether it was a one-off. In a book, you can take your time and depict that properly, but in a film, it's very difficult.

The theme of the difference between public and private faces feels central to this film, and has appeared in your other films. While those differences exist in every society, I think it’s particularly strong in Japan, do you feel that has been a big influence on you?
I guess that's true, but when I watch U.S. films I do think American people have elements of themselves they keep hidden, it's not just in Japan. It happens everywhere once you become an adult.

All your films so far have been based on original scripts, have you thought about a production from someone else's work?
I've been thinking it might be time to give it a try. While I look at writing a screenplay as something you can only do yourself, if everything is based on your own ideas, they will inevitably have similar qualities. So while I'd like to still write the screenplay, it might be good to work on someone else's ideas.

You’ve worked closely with director Hirokazu Kore’eda, how much of an influence has he been on your filmmaking?
He is the kind of filmmaker that starts with an original idea, does a lot of research into it, reads a lot of books, rewriting and rewriting the screenplay, and works on editing and even sales himself. That has been an influence, particularly in terms of working on projects I've written myself. He's very calm on the set. Rather than taking everyone into his world, he creates an atmosphere and environment which allows the cast to demonstrate their best attributes. He also has a second assistant director, I worked with him as an assistant director, who he takes advice on takes and other matters. I tried this with this film for the first time, using one of the young female assistant directors who had worked with Kore'eda. It was quite confusing at first. On a Japanese set, whatever the director says goes, so I was worried about the crew thinking I couldn't decide things myself. But it worked really well, I spent a lot of time editing and we ended up using a lot of footage from takes we hadn't been happy with at the time.


You’ve formed a production company together with Kore'eda-san, can you explain how that came about, what your hopes and plans for its future are?
We wanted to create an environment where the director is not just a part of the filmmaking process, but can take an idea all the way through to the end. The number of films in Japan based on original works has really declined, and we want to be able to support that kind of filmmaking. We'd like to have all kinds of directors, making comedies or anime or whatever, not just filmmakers with similar tastes.

Most of your leading characters have been men, is there a reason for that, is it a conscious decision?
As a woman, if I write a female lead character, then I feel like there's always going to be elements of yourself in there, a kind of confessional. That's kind of embarrassing, so when I write a male character, I can express the parts of me that are weak or immoral: it's easier to be bold with them.

You’re one of the few prominent female directors in Japan, are you conscious of that fact?
The number of female directors has increased a lot in the last 10 years, the environment. But it's still a tough industry for women. The working conditions are tough. There are virtually no women directors who are married and brought up children while having a successful career. I've stayed single and given up certain things for my careers. But I'd like to be someone who women can look at and think it's possible to be a female director.