“The very boldness by which Nagayama decided to let the seemingly nonsensical derail the ordinary struggle of a man (…) has to be applauded.”
In 2017, Tadashi Nagayama won the Grand Prix at the Yubari film Festival with Journey of the Tortoise and received 2 million yen to support his next project. Now, one year later, Nagayama finished his new full-length feature, Being Natural. And, of course, Psycho-cinematography was eager to review his latest.
Many years ago, Taka (Yohta Kawase) escaped Tokyo to settle for a live with his uncle (Atsushi Sekiguchi) in rural Japan. Even though he enjoys his tranquil and jobless life – playing the drums at night while gazing up at the stars – the difficult behaviour of his uncle, who suffers from dementia, does not fail to cause some subjective discomfort. Even so, he fulfills his duty without complaining.
One day, Takashi’s uncle dies. Much to his surprise, Mitsu (Shoichiro Tanigawa), now owner of the house, offers him a job, instead of kicking him out. While that’s reason enough for Taka to celebrate, this ‘party’ is soon to be disturbed by the arrival of Keigo (Kanji Tsuda), Satomi (Natsuki Mieda) and their daughter Itsumi (Kazua Akieda). Satomi, supported by her husband, is determined to open a natural coffee shop in the neighbourhood.
Being Natural is first and foremost the story of Takashi, a middle-aged guy who desires nothing more than to life a quiet and peaceful live at the countryside. But his desired kind of life is made impossible by the sudden presence of the Kurihara family. What is so problematic about Keigo and Satomi, besides their obsession with attaining a superior natural lifestyle, is their ego-centrism – an ego-centrism that could be understood as a subtle jab at the mindset of Tokyoites. This ego-centrism is most sensible in the contrast between their gift-giving, a Japanese custom that is lightheartedly put into question, and their speech. While they give presents to Taka and Mitsu, their conversations with others remain rather one-sided (Culture-note 1). Despite their gifts, their monologues have, in fact, no other effect than putting the Kurihara’s and their natural life-style philosophy at the center of their surroundings.
Besides underlining their ego-centrism in a rather funny way, Being Natural offers a subtle commentary of the very optimism Keigo and Satomi express. Their optimism is, as Nagayama strikingly underlines, unnatural and their way of acting towards other people nothing more than a facade. While they are friendly towards anyone, happily giving gifts, they ultimately fail to hide the fact that they do not have any respect for the rural society.
Other themes, like the effect of technology on children and the power of rumors and their condemning effects, are fluidly integrated into the fabric of the narrative. Another theme that Nagayama skillfully touches upon – through the characters of Taka’s uncle and Itsumi – is the inherent impossibility of parents to control the coming-into-being of their children as subject.
Being a comedy, Being Natural does not choose the road of slapstick, but instead subtly extracts the comedy and lightheartedness that daily interactions inherently possesses (Subject-note 1). The result is a very enjoyable lighthearted and often heartwarming interactional comedy. Each interaction that Taka enters into or is forced into entering – with his uncle, Cho-chan (Tadahiro Tsuru), and the Kurihara’s – is a source of lightheartedness. And then, Nagayama decides to radically change the narrative’s direction and provide a what-the-fuck ending that mixes, albeit the lighthearted aspect persists, horror with gore. But while this sudden shift might seem nonsensical at first, it is obviously a reference to the effects of nuclear disasters, like the one in Fukushima. The shift could even be read as a radical questioning of what it means to be ‘Be Natural’ within contemporary society.
The cinematography of Being Natural provides a really enjoyable composition of fixed-shots and non-fixed shots – and features some truly beautiful shots of rural Japan. While the moving shots only aim to provide more cinematographical diversity, the following-shots reveal, as they mainly follow Taka in the beginning stages of the narrative, Taka’s subjectivity as the main subjectivity to sympathize with (Cine-note 1). And in some cases, the subjectivity of Taka is empowered by the very shakiness some following-shots have – shots that, at those moments, do not fail to evoke his subjective discomfort (Cine-note 2).
While Being Natural, compared to Journey of the Tortoise, provides a more standard cinematography, it still shows Nagayama’s talent for composition. One element that is illustrative of this talent is the subtle way by which Nagayama is able to emphasize the presence of the yellow train in the narrative space – an element that is not unimportant in the development of the narrative. This compositional talent is also sensible in the way Nagayama interweaves music with the framing of his narrative – even though the narrative relies less on musical intermezzo’s than Journey of the Tortoise (Sound-note 1).
As the lightheartedness of the narrative originates from interactions as such, the comedy logically falls or stands with the performances of the actors/actresses. In the performances of the actors/actresses do not disappoint. Yohta Kawase brings Taka, who has fled from the busy streets of Tokyo to live a quiet life in rural Japan, in a very natural – this is not meant as a pun – and subtle yet funny way alive. And Kanji Tsuda and Natsuki Mieda, they re-affirm their talent by showing their ability to shift emotions in a fluid and natural – again, the pun is not intended – way.
Being Natural is another great narrative from Tadashi Nagayama. By bringing the inherent comedy of the ordinary to the fore Nagayama – supported by some truly fine performances – is able to serve a delightful comedy of interactions that does not have to rely on any kind of over-acting so common in Japanese comedy. But while this comedy is delightful, Nagayama’s latest comedy does lack the punch and the thematic precision Nagayama’s previous narrative had. Nevertheless, the very boldness of Nagayama to let the seemingly nonsensical derail the ordinary struggle of a man – a derailing that will long linger in your mind after the credits faded – has to be applauded. So, Nagayama-sensei, please stay crazy in your next narrative as well.
Culture-Note 1: Nagayama reveals the fact that the act of giving present can be nothing more than an empty gesture. In this narrative, it is even shown that the custom of giving gifts can be explicitly used in a manipulative way.
Subject-Note 1: Being Natural features two elements that were also present in his previous narrative, two elements that reveal Nagayama implication in the narrative as such. The first element is the presence of turtles and the second element, even though it is less important, the reference to travelling – a reference made even more explicit by Nagayama’s use of a country-like piece of music.
Lastly, the fact that the main character and the director share their first name cannot be a coincidence.
Sound-Note 1: In the opening scene, the non-diegetic music that comes to accompany Taka’s drumming, feels like it is diegetic. While the music, as the editing reveals, in not diegetic, the music can still, in a way, be experienced as “diegetic” to Taka’s subjective experience of drumming and whistling.
Cine-Note 1: There are some moving shots that can be seen as a moving shot – a shot exploring the narrative space – as well as a following shot, as they come to follow something or someone in the narrative space. The main differences between a subjective moving shot is that this kind of shot lack shakiness and generally stays further from the subject to be framed.
Cine-Note 2: There are some exceptions to be noted concerning the use of shakiness. At one point, the shakiness underlines the pleasant surprise of the wife of Kurihara’s when she sees Taka’s uncle’s house from the train-window. In another case, the shakiness is use to empowers an act of violence.