'The Long Excuse' ('Nagai iiwake'): Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of TIFF
A bittersweet take on family tragedy and the mourning after.

Novelist-turned-filmmaker Miwa Nishikawa probes the mixed emotions of two grieving widowers in her latest TIFF world premiere.

Two newly bereaved widowers bond over their shared grief in The Long Excuse, a sardonic Japanese drama with leavening moments of dark comedy. Working from her own novel, the writer-director Miwa Nishikawa was partly inspired by the aftermath of the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which claimed around 16,000 lives. But her focus here is fictional and much smaller in scale. Launched in Toronto last week, Nishikawa's latest bittersweet dissection of flawed humanity is solid festival fare with potential for niche theatrical success, much like her previous film, the 2012 TIFF premiere Dreams for Sale.

In his first lead role since starring in Yojiro Takita's 2008 Oscar-winner Departures, Masahiro Motoki plays Sachio Kinugasa, an arrogant celebrity author whose loveless marriage to Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu) has degenerated into frosty mutual tolerance. At the very moment when Natsuko dies in a bus crash, Sachio is in bed with his mistress. Though more shocked and confused than sad, his fame requires him to mourn in public, even staging a cynical pilgrimage to the accident site for a voyeuristic TV crew: "Can we get a shot of you looking deeply pensive ... ?"

Meanwhile, truck driver Yoichi Omiya (a robust performance by rock star and occasional actor Pistol Takehara) also loses his wife Yuki (Keiko Horiuchi) in the same crash. The two women were friends, drawing their bereaved husbands together. Consumed by guilt and self-loathing, Sachio recognizes Yoichi's grief as much more heartfelt than his own, especially as the impoverished blue-collar driver is suddenly struggling to raise two young children alone.

When the upheaval of losing his mother looks likely to ruin the upcoming school test results of Yoichi's son Shinpei (Fujita Kenshin), the childless Sachio impulsively offers to help. He becomes a regular presence at the Omiya family apartment, surprising himself with his latent fatherly feelings towards Shinpei.

The main dramatic engine of The Long Excuse is Sachio's enforced reassessment of his selfish lifestyle, but Nishikawa is too shrewd a storyteller to indulge us with facile redemption fantasies. Although these wounded widowers both grow as people, their journey entails some bitter lessons in class snobbery, unspoken jealousy and the searing cruelty of a child wishing his own father dead. The ending offers a kind of closure, but thankfully not too neat or sweet.

A little flat and slow in place, The Long Excuse is not a riveting emotional rollercoaster — more like a quietly engrossing exercise in no-frills sophistication. The story retains its novelistic texture throughout, depicting even life-changing tragedies as complex and the people involved as contradictory, their shattered lives rebuilt via painstaking self-examination rather than blinding epiphany. The prevailing style is somber realism, the overall package understated but polished.

Production companies: Aoi Pro, Bandai Visual Co. Ltd.
Cast: Masahiro Motoki, Pistol Takehara, Eri Fukatsu, Keiko Horiuchi, Fujita Kenshin, Sousuke Ikematsu, Haru Kuroki
Director, screenwriter: Miwa Nishikawa
Producers: Asako Nishikawa, Akihiko Yose
Executive producers: Kazumi Kawashiro, Yasuhito Nakae, Tetsuo Ota, Shuichi Nagasawa, Kiyoto Matsui, Takashi Iwamura
Cinematographer: Yutaka Yamazaki
Editor: Ryuji Miyajima
Music: Michiaki Kato, Toshihiro Nakanishi
Sales company: Asmik Ace Inc.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
No rating, 124 minutes