Wild Berries (蛇イチゴ, Miwa Nishikawa, 2003)

wild berries posterThe family drama was once the representative genre of Japanese cinema. In the turbulent post-war world, the one unchanging, unbreakable touchstone was the bonds between parents and their children even if it must also be realised that those bonds will necessarily change over time. Tiny cracks might have been visible even in Ozu’s Tokyo Story in the growing disconnection between the old folks in the country and their city kids, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s when Japan’s economic recovery had fully taken hold that the family itself began to come under fire. Yoshimitu Morita’s The Family Game kickstarted a trend of family implosion movies which implied that familial bonds were more social affectation than genuine connection, but post-bubble the tables turned again. These days, Hirokazu Koreeda has picked up the family drama mantle, depicting broadly positive pictures of normal family life. It is then all the stranger that his protege, Miwa Nishikawa, should be the one to ask again if family really is all it’s cracked up to be.

An ordinary breakfast in the Akechi household. Grandpa (Matsunosuke Shofukutei ) is dipping his toast in the coffee again while salaryman dad Yoshiro (Sei Hiraizumi) reads his paper. Schoolteacher Tomoko (Miho Tsumiki) barely has time to look at her breakfast before her mother, Akiko (Naoko Otani), reminds her that today is “Wednesday” – not only does she need her PE kit, but it’s also the day that her fiancé, Kamata (Toru Tezuka), is coming round to tea to meet the folks. The atmosphere is pleasant, genial, but why has Yoshiro had his mobile phone cut off and is the bald spot Akiko has just discovered on the top of her head really anything to worry about?

The Akechis are the archetype of a modern middle-class family, living a comfortable life in a nice home while dad goes out to work and mum does everything else. It is not, however, quite as it seems. Yoshiro’s phone has been cut off because he hasn’t paid the bill. He hasn’t paid the bill because he’s lost his job. He hasn’t told his wife he’s lost his job because he’s too ashamed, so he’s taken out vast loans from gangsters rather than trying to find a more honest solution. Mum Akiko plays the dutiful housewife, cooking, cleaning, putting up with Yoshiro’s imperious behaviour and looking after grandpa who has advanced dementia and thinks he’s still at war. In reality she’s bored and resentful, tired of the burden of looking after her husband’s ungrateful father and longing to have some time for herself. The only uncorrupted member of the family is schoolteacher Tomoko who finds herself giving a strange lesson on the evils of lying to her class of small children. Tomoko is perhaps too uncorrupted, prim as a schoolmarm but dull with it.

When grandpa meets an unfortunate end, the longstanding family secret is revealed – Tomoko is not an only child, she had an older brother, Shuji (Hiroyuki Miyasako), who had been expelled from the family for his immoral ways – i.e, lying, cheating, and stealing. In fact, Shuji’s return was an accident – his main job is stealing the condolence money from funerals and he just happened to be at the one next door. Shuji’s conman credentials might be just what the family needs, but could they and should they let him save them and is “saving” the family that rejected him really a part of Shuji’s grand plan?

Japan’s rapid economic recovery is usually blamed for the collapse of the family, sending sons away from the villages and prizing the commercial over the spiritual. Tomoko’s fiance, Kamata, has a slightly different take on the problem. After his first meal with the Akechis he’s touched by the warm and friendly family atmosphere, comparing them favourably with his own upperclass family which he feels to be cold and austere. The class difference and Kamata’s obvious discomfort surrounding it is one problem as is his problematic characterisation of Tomoko’s family as earnest and hardworking as, perhaps, he thinks people without inherited wealth ought to be is another, but the real irony is reserved for Kamata’s eventual reaction to discovering the truth. Yoshiro didn’t take to Kamata because he thought him “unconventional” with his unkempt hair and pretentious tastes, but Kamata proves himself the most conventional of all in his cruel rejection of his fiancée over what he sees as a betrayal by her family.

Wild berries, once they take root, quickly take over, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Secrets, and the need to keep them, have eaten away at the foundations of the Akechi family but which is the best way to repair them – starting all over again and working hard to put things right, as Tomoko would have it, or opting for Shuji’s dishonest quick fix? The youngsters battle it out amongst themselves for the soul of the family unit while mum and dad are just too world weary to even care anymore. Faith in the family may be running at an all time low, but Nishikawa at least manages to mine the situation for all of its bleak irony, laughing along knowingly with each dark revelation or small tragedy.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Long Excuse (永い言い訳, Miwa Nishikawa, 2016)

long excuse posterSelf disgust is self obsession as the old adage goes. It certainly seems to ring true for the “hero” of Miwa Nishikawa’s latest feature, The Long Excuse (永い言い訳, Nagai Iiwake) , in which she adapts her own Naoki Prize nominated novel. In part inspired by the devastating earthquake which struck Japan in March 2011, The Long Excuse is a tale of grief deferred but also one of redemption and self recognition as this same refusal to grieve forces a self-centred novelist to remember that other people also exist in the world and have their own lives, emotions, and broken futures to dwell on.

Sachio Kinugasa (Masahiro Motoki) is a formerly successful novelist turned TV pundit. As his hairstylist wife, Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu), gives his hair a trim he angrily turns off the television on which one of the programmes he appears on is playing and returns to petulantly needle his wife about perceived slights including “deliberately” using his real name in front of important publishers “to embarrass him”. Upset but bearing it, Natsuko takes all of this in her stride though her husband is in a particularly maudlin mood today, reminding her once again about his intense feelings of self loathing. Shortly after finishing Sachio’s haircut, Natsuko throws on a coat and grabs a suitcase – she’s late to meet a friend with whom she is going on a trip. Sachio barely waits for the door to close before picking up his phone and texting his mistress to let her know that his wife is away.

Later, Sachio figures out that at the moment his wife, her friend Yuki (Keiko Horiuchi), and a busload of other people plunged over a guard rail on a mountain road and into a frozen lake, he was rolling around in his marital bed with a much younger woman. Now playing the grieving husband, Sachio seems fairly indifferent to his recent tragedy but writes an improbably literary funeral speech which boils down to wondering who is going to cut his hair, which he also makes a point of checking in the rear view mirror of the funeral car, now that his wife is gone.

So self obsessed is Sachio that he can’t even answer most of the policeman’s simple questions regarding the identification of his wife – what was she wearing, what did she eat for dinner, is there anything at all he can tell them to confirm the identity of his wife’s body? The answer is always no – he doesn’t remember what she wore (he was busy thinking about texting his mistress), ate dinner separately, and didn’t even know the name of the friend Natsuko was going to meet. The policeman tries to comfort him with the rationale that it’s normal enough to have grown apart a little over 20 years, but the truth is that Sachio was never very interested in his wife. As a funeral guest points out, Natsuko had her own life filled with other people who loved her and would have appreciated the chance to pay their respects in the normal fashion rather than becoming mere guests at Sachio’s stage managed memorial service.

Sachio’s lack of sincere reaction to his wife’s passing stands in stark contrast to the husband of her friend, Yoichi (Pistol Takehara), who is a wailing, broken man and now a widowed single father to two young children. Yoichi is excited to finally meet Sachio about whom he heard so much from “Nacchan” his wife’s best friend and the children’s favourite auntie. Sachio knew nothing of this important relationship in his wife’s life, or much of anything about her activities outside of their home.

When Natsuko left that last time, she paused in the doorway somewhat finally to remind Sachio to take care of the house in her absence but neither of these two men know how to look after themselves from basic household chores like using the washing machine to cooking and cleaning, having gone from a mother to a wife and left all of the “domestic” tasks to their women. Eventually feeling low, Sachio decides to respond to Yoichi’s suggestion they try to ease their shared grief by taking the family out for dinner, only he invites them to a fancy, upscale place he goes to often which is neither child friendly nor particularly comfortable for them seeing as they aren’t used to such extravagant dining. Yoichi, otherwise a doting father but often absent due to his job as a long distance truck driver, neglects to think about his daughter’s dangerous crab allergy and necessity of carrying epinephrin just in case, never having had to worry about something as basic as feeding her.

Hearing that Yuki’s son Shinpei (Kenshin Fujita) is quitting studying for middle school exams because he needs to take care of his sister, Sachio makes the improbable suggestion that he come over and help out while Yoichi is away on the road. Becoming a second father to someone else’s children forces Sachio into a consideration of his new role but his publicist cautions him against it. Whipping out some photos of his own, he tells Sachio that kids are great because they make you forget what a terrible person you are but that it’s just the ultimate act of indulgence, basking in adoration you know you don’t deserve. Sachio frequently reminds people that he’s no good, almost making it their own fault that he’s hurt them through his constant need for external validation and thinly disguised insecurity. Sachio’s personal tragedy is that his attempts at self-deception largely fail, he knows exactly what he is but that only makes it worse.

The Long Excuse, such as it is, is the title of Sachio’s autobiographical story of grief and an attempt to explain all of this through a process of self discovery and acceptance. Though appearing indifferent to his wife’s death, Sachio’s reaction is one informed by his ongoing self delusions in which he tries to convince himself to ignore the issue and attempt to simply forget about it and move on. Yoichi, by contrast, feels differently – he can’t let his wife go and wants to keep her alive by talking about her all the time but his bighearted grief is too much for his sensitive son who has more than a little in common with Sachio and would rather hit the pause button to come back to this later. The best way out is always through, however difficult and painful it may turn out to be. Making The Long Excuse is Sachio’s way of explaining himself and learning to reconcile the person he is with the one he would like to be, and even if he’s still talking to himself he’s at least moving in the right direction.


The Long Excuse was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)