Sunday, July 02, 2017

NYAFF ’17: The Long Excuse

Sachio Kinugasa writes under a pen-name, because he is the namesake of a famous Japanese baseball player, but most viewers will simply think of him as the cheating jackass. When his long-suffering wife dies in a bus accident, it hardly phases him at all. However, he might finally start feeling something remotely human when (to his own surprise) he befriends the grieving family of his wife’s best friend, who died alongside her, in Miwa Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Kinugasa is rather put out that he now has to cook and clean for himself, but that is about as far as it goes. On the other hand, Yoichi Omiya is utterly destroyed by the loss of his wife. Assuming they share a kinship in their grief, Omiya reaches out to Kinugasa, who goes through the motions, lest the world find out what cold-hearted jerk he is. However, a minor emergency will force him to briefly mind sixth-grade Shinpei Omiya.

It turns out Shinpei is a smart kid, who starts to bond with Kinugasa. Pre-school-age Akari also takes to him as well. Soon, he is regularly tending to the kids, while their father, a long-haul trucker, is away on a run. It is exactly the sort of TV-movie-style arrangement the celebrity-media he previously courted is eager to exploit, but Kinugasa is of two-minds regarding their offers. Of course, that is not a hard and fast no.

Excuse is the kind of film that just lays a beatdown on viewers, yet there is absolutely, positively no cheap, unearned sentiment to be found within it. Frankly, it is debatable just how much Kinugasa evolves over the course of the narrative, but nobody could say he emerges unscathed. Excuse is probably the messiest emotional tangle you might ever see on film, but it is all bitterly realistic, just like life.

This is Masahiro Motoki’s most prominent film role since the Oscar-winning Departures, which is fitting, because Excuse could almost serve as a thematic sequel. Both are all about grief and regret, but Nishikawa (adapting her own novel) is too honest to wrap it up with a big pay-off. Regardless, Motoki serves up his performance from the depth of his soul as the self-centered, self-loathing Kinugasa. It is not pretty, but it is truly devastating.

Despite their youth, both Kenshin Fujita and Tamaki Shiratori are absolutely extraordinary as Shinpei and Akari. Pistol Takehara arrestingly conveys Omiya’s overwhelming grief, while Maho Yamada is sweetly vulnerable as the woman he eventually meets. Yet, Eri Fukatsu literally haunts the film as the smart, pretty, mature, and ever so unappreciated Natsuko Kinugasa, only really seen and heard from early in act one.

Since the 1930s, filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu and Ysujiro Shimazu have maintained the Japanese film industry’s comparative advantage in domestic dramas. With Excuse, Nishikawa reconfirms it in spades. This is not a Reader’s Digest kind of film, but it is deeply moving. Very highly recommended, The Long Excuse screens on the Fourth of July at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.