Nagi’s Island (2022) review [Camera Japan Festival]

Introduction

Despite winning some award within Japan in the past, Masahiko Nagasawa has largely remained under the radar internationally. Yet, with his latest narrative Nagi’s Island, this might all change.  

Review

Ever since her parents divorced, Nagi (Chise Niitsu) has been living with her mother Mao (Rosa Kato) at her the clinic of her grandmother (Hana Kino). She happily goes to school with her friends Raita (-) and Kengo (-).

At school, there is a care-taker that never smiles – a waraji (Grumpy Gramps). One day, after Raita fails to make him smile, the friends make a bet: whoever can make Yamamura (Kyousaku Shimada) laugh first, gets a prize. Everyone fails.

Later that day, after a fight breaks out between Kohei and another man causes Nagi to hyperventilate and nearly passes out, Yamamura, after mumbling Hiroko, rushes her to her grandmother’s hospital.

Nagi’s Island (2022) by Masahiko Nagasawa

Nagi’s island does not simply touches upon the fracturing impact of traumatic events on subjects, but also explores the subject’s ability to undo or, at least, mitigate its destructive impact. Nagasawa’s narrative can, in fact, be read as a touching celebration of the healing power of interactions and of the narratives these encounters allow the subject to write.   

It should be evident that Nagi’s hyperventilation is a response to the ongoing failure to give the traumatic events within her past a narrative place within her subjectivity. The possibility of inscribing this past within her subject – and thus undo it from its unsettling character, depends on the narrative that the Other gives to her.

As of yet, Nagi is not given any narrative by the (m)Other. In this sense, one can read her desire to have her mother and father get back together as an unvocalized demand to her parents to write a narrative for her. By making use of this narrative, Nagi would be able to re-entwine the broken familial threads that unleash what remains unbearable – i.e. the clashing sounds that echo the threat of annihilation.      

Nagi’s Island (2022) by Masahiko Nagasawa

Raita, on the other hand, is troubled by the absence of his mother. While his grandfather tells him he can’t visit her in the hospital, his rude refusal to explain why he cannot meet her confronts him with a gaping hole that vaguely puts the dimension of his mother’s love into question. Via this narrative thread, Nagasawa touchingly evokes the problematic dimension of not responding to the child’s demand for meaning. It is thus not surprising that, one day, Raita asks Nagi to go on an adventure to meet his mom: he simply wants answers – above all an answer to the question of her love.   

Yamamura, the care-taker of the school, is marked by the loss of his daughter. His trajectory illustrates that the ability to fully accept one’s loss can take a long time. Here too, we see that, under impulse of interactions with others, the subject finds a way to allow himself to narrativize his loss, to give his loss a place within a narrative that enables him to move on.

Besides exploring the different shapes of loss that the subject is faced with, Nagi’s Island  also offers a visualisation of the loss that small island communities have to deal with, a loss caused by an aging population and depopulation. The island’s struggle is underlined by the fact that there is only one clinic for the whole island – a clinic that lacks the equipment to do proper testing or surgery, one school where only a handful children go to, and the small boat those who want to travel to the main-land need to take.

Nagi’s Island (2022) by Masahiko Nagasawa

The composition of Nagi’s Island offers a balanced blend of static and dynamic shots. Yet, while such balance could easily have become mundane, Nagasawa ensures that his composition has a pleasant and engaging rhythm by his use of the cut.   

The natural colour- and lighting-design ensures that the Nagasawa’s fictive narrative has a ‘realistic’ feel – inviting the spectator to feel the ‘realism’ of the story. Yet, while the visuals echo such naturalism, the musical decorations enables many moments in the narrative to escape the mere mundane nature of reality (Cine-note 1). Certain moments are made poetic (e.g. swimming in the sea), while others are made light-hearted (e.g. Nagi waking up her mom) or subtly endearing (e.g. Nagi bantering with her friends about swimming in the ocean).

Luckily, Nagasawa does not rely too much on such musical decorations. By withholding such musical guidance, he proves that the light-heartedness of Nagi’s Island mainly emanates from the performances, from the way the cast breathes life into their interactions. The natural feel of the frame, for that matter, empowers the touching impact of these light-hearted interactions on the spectator.

Nagi’s Island (2022) by Masahiko Nagasawa

Yet, Nagi’s Island is not merely a concatenation of light-hearted moments. By fluidly integrating evocative flashbacks full of darkness and reverberating voices within his composition, Nagasawa powerfully underlines that behind the charming smiles of Nagi lies a traumatic past of domestic violence and alcohol abuse, an open wound not yet worked-through (Cine-note 2).

In other words, what makes Nagi’s Island so engaging is the very rhythm of rich emotionality that pushes the narrative forward. While the musical decorations play their part in determining this rhythm, the main element that allows this emotional flow to engage and move the spectator are the performances of all members of the cast.

Nagi’s Island is a narrative about loss and trauma that will deeply move anyone who watches it. The power of Nagasawa’s narrative does not simply lie in the engaging emotional rhythm, as dictated by the musical decorations, but in the genuineness that oozes from every interaction – the cast and Chise Niitsu in particular deliver. It is because the pain that marks the subject hurts the spectator that the myriad of hopeful resolutions will not fail to bring a tear to the spectator’s eye.    

Notes

Cine-note 1: In certain rare instances, Nagasawa utilizes slow-motion tofurther accentuate the fact that a moment has escaped the mundane dimension.

Cine note 2: In one instance, slow-motion is utilized to emphasize that something in the present (e.g. the breaking of glass sake cups) irrupts, within Nagi, fragments of the her traumatic past (i.e. the fights between her mother and her alcoholic father.)

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