Miwa Nishikawa, filmmaker who has made a career out of depicting the deceits of ordinary people

Already seen as one of the leading Japanese filmmakers of her generation, director talks about her fifth movie, The Long Excuse, working with Hirokazu Koreeda, and Masahiro Motoki

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 11:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 October, 2017, 2:08pm

Miwa Nishikawa has only directed five full-length feature films to date; she has neither a plan nor even an idea for her next film project. It says much about the quality of her exquisite moral dramas that the award-winning director, at just 42 years old, is already commonly recognised as one of the leading Japanese filmmakers of her generation.

Nishikawa’s initiation sounds innocuous enough when we sit down to reflect on her career. “I started watching movies when I was very young – I love movies – but I’d never thought that I would grow up to become a filmmaker,” Nishikawa recalled while attending the recent Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, at which she presented her new film, The Long Excuse, as this year’s director in focus.

“I’d watched a lot of Hollywood films and action films early on – I even had a Jackie Chan poster up in my room – but not that many Japanese films. To me, a movie used to mean something which is big, attracts a lot of attention, and makes people happy. Then I watched Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop (1989) and changed my mind: I realised that you just have to put your heart in when you’re making a film.”

By following her heart, Nishikawa has come up with a small but impressive oeuvre – films that examine the tendency of ordinary people to lie and deceive.

Flashback: Wild Berries – Miwa Nishikawa’s dark family comedy

In her debut, Wild Berries (2002), produced by her then-mentor Hirokazu Koreeda, the facades that members of a respectable family put up for each other are exposed mercilessly, and comically, at the elderly grandfather’s funeral.

In her next three films, Nishikawa respectively turned her attention to a pair of siblings whose unspoken rivalry leads to a death (in 2006’s Sway), a beloved village doctor who turns out to be an imposter (in 2009’s Dear Doctor), and a married couple who con lonely women out of their money (in 2012’s Dreams for Sale). Why is the writer-director so focused on her characters’ deceptions?

“Because people do lie and deceive,” says Nishikawa, before taking a very long pause. “Perhaps I’m interested in the discrepancies between what’s inside and outside a person. Normal people would often feel guilty after they’ve done something wrong. When compared to lies and deception, I’d say that it’s this sense of guilt that most interests me.”

The sentiment is again obvious in The Long Excuse, starring Masahiro Motoki as a jaded novelist, Sachio, who lost his wife (Eri Fukatsu) in an accident while he was having an extramarital affair. After being forced to feign grief in front of media for a spouse he no longer loves, Sachio surprises even himself when he grows close to Yoichi (Pistol Takehara), a father of two who lost his wife in the same tragedy.

I love to find the truth about people
Miwa Nishikawa

That the selfish and unlikeable lead is played by Motoki means a lot to Nishikawa, who blushes like a fangirl when she reveals how she looked up to the actor during his early years as a pop idol in the boy band Shibugaki Tai. “I grew up watching him,” says the filmmaker. “When I became a film director, I also dreamed about the possibilities of casting him in my films. I’ve always found him very handsome.”

Flashback: Departures sees Masahiro Motoki’s musician reborn as a mortician

The fact that Motoki left such a positive impression in the grief drama Departures, winner of the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2009, was equally significant to Nishikawa. “In Departures, Motoki was tasked with conveying the lofty spirit of humanity. It is precisely this respectable image that I want to subvert in my film. His character here doesn’t shed a tear after his wife dies; he’s a weak and nasty man.”

Nishikawa attributes her idea for the story to the sudden loss experienced by many during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, though her characters’ flawed personalities are strictly down to her quirks as a writer. “Maybe because of my personality, I like to check the other side of things even when they appear to be very positive on the outside. I love to find the truth about people,” she says.

Nishikawa acknowledges her new approach in conceiving The Long Excuse. “My previous films were mostly about the sudden upset of equilibrium, when something beautiful unravels gradually, like the peeling of onions, until it reveals the essence that nobody has considered before. But it’s the other way round this time: I began with a big question [of loss] and then developed the story from there.”

Although she has previous experience in novelising her own film (Sway), The Long Excuse marks the first time that Nishikawa has adapted one of her novels for the big screen. “By writing the novel first, I was given the opportunity to shape my characters in much greater detail this time,” she says. “I can understand a character much more deeply in this way, and not be limited by the two-hour duration of a film.”

How Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda cultivates actors’ hidden potential

While only five films into her directing career, Nishikawa’s name has been frequently mentioned alongside that of master filmmaker Koreeda – and for good reason. Both are published novelists who have a habit of writing their own screenplays; to this day, Nishikawa is often still the first person to whom Koreeda shows his screenplays to after finishing the first draft.

Like Koreeda, Nishikawa is a graduate in literature at the University of Waseda in Tokyo. “Although that’s just a coincidence,” she adds. “We’re separated by a dozen years.”

When Nishikawa was still pursuing her literature degree, she says, she didn’t study much and instead went to cinemas with her friends all the time. “As I became more and more interested in movies, I was looking for ways to get into filmmaking. But it wasn’t easy in the ’90s: the industry was in a very bad state then; there weren’t even any openings to join a film crew.”

Nishikawa was persistent in her desire to join the business. Then, at an audition test of a TV production company, she found herself sitting opposite Koreeda at the interview desk. “I wasn’t hired by that company, but Koreeda might have been impressed by my passion, and he invited me to help research for his films. I became his assistant when he was doing pre-production for After Life (1998). That’s how it all started for me.”

The Long Excuse opens on December 8

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