With a new year comes new moments of cinematographic pleasure or displeasure. While it is eagerly waiting to which kind of surprises Japanese cinema might offer, a new-year also constitutes an opportunity to discover and review the hidden gems of the past – and, of course, those narratives that should have remained hidden.
This time, we have the opportunity to continue our adventure into the Japanese indie-scene and introduce Tomonori Nakamura by reviewing his first full-feature narrative Keita Never Die.
While Aki Shimabukuro (Maki Nishiyama), a prostitute, allows her younger brother Keita (Tomonori Nakamura) live at her apartment, she is no fan of Akira (Shinoda Ryu), who appears to be her brother’s lover. Besides seemingly being his lover, he also works, under Keita’s watchful eye, as a prostitute.
One day, Sachi (Takenoshita Momo), the pregnant daughter of Norifumi Kimura (Han Arai), the leader of the Kimura gang, frames Keita for rape in order to be able to elope with Akira, who she loves. Keita pays with his reproductive organs and his life. But maybe a return from the after-world, a return to exact revenge, is not impossible.
Keita Never Die‘s narrative presents a mix between a fantasy story, a yakuza narrative, a revenge tale, and a family drama. And while this blend could have been unbalanced, it is Nakamura’s merit of taming each genre into a consistent narrative whole by emphasizing the simple nodal point of the narrative: Keita’s phallus or the lack of ‘it’. Besides being the nodal point of Keita Never Die, it also subtly underlines the enduring importance of the phallic signifier within Japanese society and how maleness is still synonymous with having ‘it’ physically.
Another great aspect about Keita Never Die is that while the narrative is littered with unsympathetic characters we still come to care about Keita-chan and his revenge. This sympathy is largely function of the detailed framing of the unjust violent ordeal Keita has to go through. In other words, the careful framing empowers the unjust nature of Kei-chan’s punishment and enables the spectator to feel sympathy for Keita. But the sympathy so successfully harvested for Kei-chan’s revenge does not translate in a resolution that is completely satisfying. While this is in part due the imbalance at the level of the structure of the narrative, i.e. the resolution of the narrative is too short compared to the build-up, the narrative is also not able to make the violent revenge of Keita satisfying enough. Another issue at the level of the narrative concerns the somewhat muddled plot-point concerning Keita’s rebirth. As this element is central to the narrative’s plot, a better – or rewritten – integration of this element and the characters involved in this element would have made Keita Never Die a better and an even more enjoyable narrative (Narra-note 1(spoiler)).
Keita Never Die is framed with a nice mix of trembling shots, shots with fluid movement, and fixed shots/moments. But while the cinematography – courtesy of Katsuya Shinzato – is great overall, boasting various interesting camera angles and a beautiful use of slow-motion shots, there are nevertheless some problematic elements to be noted. Firstly, we have two shots that feel odd within the overall framing of the narrative. The very first shot of the narrative, for instance, is very confusing due to the fact that, while the sound and the imagery seem related, the conversation framed is not the phone-conversation we hear (cine-note 1). The second shot that feels somewhat lost within the narrative structure is the very slow-motion shot that opens the final sequence – the revenge sequence – of the narrative.
The second issue Keita Never Die suffers from is the uneven lightning. It is especially in this aspect that the narrative is unable to hide its limited budget. Instead of using sufficient but subtle lighting for night-scenes, the lightening has – in order to heighten the clarity – been adjusted at the editing table, with no other result than washing-out the colours, the blues and blacks, of the night.
Looking at the acting-performances, it is especially Tomonori Nakamura’s performance that stands out. He brings the emotions – fear, pain, … etc. – caused by the anticipation of violence/punishment and the inflicting of violence as such sensible to the fore. It is mainly his performance and the emotion he so sensibly expresses that makes the spectator look forward to the revengeful narrative conclusion.
With Keita Never Die Tomonori Nakamura proves that he is a rough talent that, with some further polishing, will be able to truly shine. Nevertheless, he already reveals himself to be a capable blender of genres, proving, furthermore, that one can still craft an enjoyable but rather serious narrative starting from a rather absurd narrative focal point. Keita Never Die, as a cinematographical narrative, is far from perfect. But due to Nakamura’s talent as director and actor, this indie genre-bender is still a narrative worth checking out.
Narra-note 1: The narrative fails to explain clearly why Mitsuo, Keita’s father, needs to steal the restorative potion, besides sending Akira on the mission to revive his son. The way the narrative unfolds now, the necessity for the theft is too obviously linked with the failure of Akira’s mission. In other words, the theft is merely necessary for the structural evolution of the plot.
Cine-note 1: Later in the narrative, there is a similar composition which, in contrast to the opening shot, is not confusing.