Being Natural (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2019]

Tadashi Nagayama showed that he is not afraid to experiment with style and shifting genres in his debut feature Journey of the Tortoise (2017), which seamlessly blended drama and comedy with a touch of surrealism. Now with his sophomore project, the even quirkier Being Natural, Nagayama takes the same genre-bending approach and uses it to make a film that is full of charm, excellent performances, an infectious soundtrack, and poignant social commentary. While far from a conventional, Being Natural presents its various topics in ways that are bound to resonate with audiences in Japan and abroad.

The story centers on Taka (Yota Kawase), an unemployed and homeless middle-aged man who spends his entire time playing the bongos and taking care of his sickly uncle. During this time, Taka is able to stay in the family’s ancestral home – a Kayabuki style house, too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, as everyone in town claims. When his uncle passes away, Taka is once again faced with the threat of homelessness because of his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), with whom he does not get along. Their early encounters are fraught with animosity, though eventually they are able to set aside their differences, thanks in part to their common friend Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), a vulgar and somewhat simple-minded out-of-business grocer.

Meanwhile, a family from Tokyo moves to town, hoping to get away from the big city, and instead “live closer to nature,” as they constantly pronounce. They loath anything unnatural or foreign, including something as simple as eating instant noodles. At first they seem utterly enamored with the traditional Japanese lifestyle, particularly with Taka’s Kayabuki house to which they are strangely attached. Soon, however, we find out their praise is less than earnest, and that their real intentions are to open an “all-natural” café inside Taka’s Kayabuki house. Satomi, the matriarch of the family (Natsuki Mieda), intends to do everything in her power to accomplish her dream, even if that involves getting rid of Taka and exploiting her own family. 

The film begins in a relatively light-hearted tone. The first half is a mixture between a slapstick comedy and an idyllic slice-of-life family drama that showcases the simplicity of life in the countryside. The tone shifts between admiration and sarcasm while the film explores themes such as old vs. new, tradition vs. progress, urban vs. rural, local vs. global, among other things. The conflict is rather internal, and it is by charm alone that the plot remains interesting. A beautiful friendship develops between the three main characters, Taka, Mitsuaki, and Sho (this is underscored by an incredibly cheesy montage), as they all reconcile with their past failures.

As Satomi’s quest to obtain her café becomes more vicious and determined, so does the film gain in intensity, at times so much that it steers  into the ridiculous. Life is no longer idyllic but cruel and opportunistic. Everybody turns on the protagonist, and by the third act, Taka is entirely hopeless. This is where the film takes another turn and veers into the supernatural, giving Taka a moment of revenge. The ending is incomprehensible, but it is why the message works. If the film had been a completely serious and somber drama, then the social commentary would be too ham-fisted to make any impression whatsoever. 

The film’s cinematography is conventional, though effective in what it tries to accomplish. Nagayama along with cinematographer Moriaki Kanno take full advantage of the Japanese countryside to capture some truly beautiful shots. Following with the comedic edge of the film, these shots are often juxtaposed with something silly or mundane, as for example Sho smelling the flowers against the stunning backdrop of the mountain, while also relieving himself only feet away from Taka cooking.

The remarkable performances of the film’s cast also deserve ample praise. Much of the success of the film depends on the charisma and chemistry of the three leads, Kawase, Tanigawa, and Tsuru, who completely inhabit their characters and make them not only believable, but also interesting. Kawase (who coincidentally has two other films playing at this year’s JAPAN CUTS) is especially memorable as the always calm and stoic Takashi. His performance is like an all-absorbing sponge, allowing all other characters to act crazy or ridiculous without pushing the film over the edge. This fact becomes all too evident in the scenes where Kawase is not present, as they often feel awkward and incomplete, or at times even confusing, like for example the scenes between Satomi and her husband.

Regardless, Being Natural is a film full of charm and personality that, despite its offbeat style, will largely appeal to those will have a chance to see it.

Being Natural was shown at JAPAN CUTS 2019 on July 20.

John Atom