You only spend a moment with Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu) in Miwa Nishikawa’s “The Long Excuse,” but you spend the rest of the film thinking about her, much like her husband Sachio (Masahiro Motoki). Trimming Sachio’s hair since it has grown long, you feel it’s Natsuko who is getting cut by her husband’s belittling remarks, using the way with words that has fueled a successful writing career as a bestselling author to call her a simpleton for watching game shows and chastising her for calling him by his first name in public since it reminds people of a baseball player. This withering exchange is the last time the two will speak, not by choice, but because tragedy befalls Natsuko the following day when she and a friend die in a bus accident during a blizzard, leaving Sachio to contemplate what his final words to her as he mourns the woman who spent the past 20 years encouraging him.
As Sachio’s hair grows long, with him unwilling to cut it in Natsuko’s wake, “The Long Excuse” intelligently observes the stories that grow in the vacuum of death, even as the author himself faces writer’s block. While the world rushes to attach meaning to Natsuko’s life after she’s gone, it is far more difficult for Sachio to untangle his complicated relationship to her, one in which he clearly undervalued her while she was alive yet begins to fully understand her influence in her wake, particularly as he becomes friends with her late friend’s husband and begins to help care for his kids.
Showing sensitivity reminiscent of the films of her mentor, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Nishikawa depicts Sachio’s transformation with elegance and gentle humor, neither of which her protagonist has when we meet first him, and a depth likely afforded by the fact that she was adapting “The Long Excuse” from her own novel of the same name. In doing so, Nishikawa reversed the trend of her second and third films, “Sway” and “Dear Doctor,” which inspired her to write award-winning novelizations after making them, and while in Toronto for the world premiere of her latest en route to the Vancouver Film Festival where “The Long Excuse” will be bowing this week, she spoke about traversing the two mediums, what inspired the film and how Motoki’s hair dictated the film’s schedule.
What inspired the story?
In March 2011, there was a great earthquake in Tohoku that gave us a great shock. Only in a matter of days, people were separated from their families and colleagues as well, and towards the end of 2011, there were many documentaries and stories published [about the victims of the earthquake]. After watching them, I thought there may have been some people who parted with their loved ones and friends not on the best terms. For example, some of them may have had a great big fight or dispute in the morning [of the earthquake] and ended up not being able to see each other again, so there [must’ve been] some really sad stories not being picked up by the media and some people who had some unexpected, inexpressible deep sadness because of how they parted with each other. That’s what motivated me to create this story.
Is that why Sachio has to decide whether he wants to appear in a TV special? Because that idea about creating a narrative around death when it simply may not exist was an interesting one.
I have my own experience being involved in TV [production] and watching TV, and when there is a tragedy like that, I have seen many examples [of how] media would like to create a very simple story. They try to put together the people into the story just to make it easy to understand, so there is a tendency of media producers and creators wanting to make their own story rather than reporting what’s out there.
Did you write the book knowing it would be a film?
When I had an idea of this story, I first set a goal of making a movie. However, before making a movie, I wanted to make sure I could establish the internal journey of each character, so I decided to write a novel so I could depict the psychology of each character in detail. It was useful for me because I was able to design [a strong] story and I had a complete understanding of each character before I started shooting the movie. Also, [you’re] able to write more when it’s a novel because we have more time and I used a more number of characters, so the challenge was to make the novel into a two-hour movie.
Since you have many creative interests, what was the attraction to filmmaking initially?
When I was much younger, making a movie was a lot more burdensome because it costs a lot of money. Also many different people get involved in making movies, so it was really a fun experience, but I was still feeling more pressure than pleasure. Now when I’m writing a novel, I have to spend a long, long time alone with myself – making a movie is quite opposite and I have to work with a lot people who can bring many different ideas, which I wouldn’t have come up with just working by myself, so of course, there is work for me to coordinate all different people and their ideas, but it’s really fun to be working [together] to create one common product.
Since you meet Sachio only after the tragedy, what kind of writer was he before he was writing from his heart?
Japanese novelists tend to produce works at a very, very fast pace, so in that sense, not all the novelists are putting all of himself or herself into writing a story. In Sachio’s case, I designed him as a very young man who loved literature and probably at the beginning, he was writing using all of his soul. However, as he became more famous, he started to listen to what his editors or managers would advise, and in order to make his living, he would have to start writing something very light or with a theme that he’s not quite interested in, so as he did, he was not able to write what he wanted to write.
How did you cast Masahiro Motoki as Sachio?
I only started looking for actors after I completed my novel, but I was always interested in Mr. Masahiro Motoki. The opportunity came when Mr. Hirokazu Kore-eda, the great director, had a good relationship with Mr. Motoki. They were very close and eating some meals together from time to time. Mr. Kore-eda read my script and said Sachio shares many characteristics with Masahiro Motoki, so Mr. Kore-eda advised me to use Motoki.
Did you shoot in sequence so his hair could grow?
[laughs] It’s not a wig. I wanted to depict how children grow, so we decided to take nine months from the beginning to the completion of the movie shooting. Also, Mr. Motoki proposed himself that he will keep growing his hair just to visualize the length of the time that passed and I wanted to depict how he changes from the beginning to the end. [Sachio] used to be a type of person who does not disclose his emotion, but gradually, he started to open himself up, so that type of a change was one of the keys of the story, and that’s [Mr. Motoki’s] own hair.