天然☆生活 「Tennen Seikatsu」
Release Date: March 23rd, 2019
Duration: 96 mins.
Director: Tadashi Nagayama
Writer: Tadashi Nagayama, Yuriko Suzuki (Screenplay),
Starring: Yota Kawase, Kanji Tsuda, Natsuki Mieda, Tadahiro Tsuru, Shoichiro Tanigawa,
Tadashi Nagayama goes back to nature with his second feature following his debut, Journey of the Tortoise (2017) but where the film ends up will prove to be a surprise after a delightful, if slightly disturbing social satire of a sojourn in the Japanese countryside.
It starts off as a gentle comedy where we follow Yota Kawase’s good-natured lead character Taka, an easy-going chap who lives a quiet life in a rural town in his uncle’s traditional Kayabuki (thatched roof) house. Unemployed and easygoing, he lives a simple life of taking care of the old man with dementia, hanging out with friends, BBQs, and playing his bongos but his peaceful life changes when his uncle dies and his cousin Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa) tries to sell the house.
Old family grievances simmer and boil over at the funeral but, with the help of mutual friend Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), they manage to paper over everything and find the essential connection between each other as shown in some cringe-inducing montages of the boys playing games like schoolboys. And so the film flows along with gentle comedy as these guys just chill and work at Mitsuaki’s fishing pond, revealing childish behaviour, eccentric natures and psychological flaws. The laidback tone of the film reminded me of the wonderful Yosuke Fujita films Fine, Totally Fine(2008) and Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats (2012) and its sharp observations on human nature and left-field low-key comedy but the film begins to roil the narrative with the intrusion of some city-slickers into their bucolic paradise.
The intruders are the a family of three from Tokyo: stunningly beautiful and statuesque mother Satomi (Natsuki Mieda), loving husband and father Keigo (Kanji Tsuda) and cute teenage daughter Itsumi (Kazua Akieda). They have been driven to the countryside by the desire to life the “natural life” as they seek to avoid negative aspects of city life. Ostensibly lovely and genuine, the family wage a campaign of winning everyone over with gifts and kindness but reveal their true ruthless natures when they set their sights on converting Taka’s house into a cafe that serves organic food and that means having to turf the poor guy out but Taka refuses to go without a fight.
At this point, the initially sunny atmosphere of the film surges with a darker energy. Nagayama displays great control of tone as the film easily shifts between drama and comedy without breaking its stride or feeling odd and that’s down to the characters he and Yuriko Suzuki have written and the way the actors become them.
Initially 2D, they change over the course of the story to display ugly levels of selfishness and cruelty driven by loneliness and desire that stands in complete contrast to the beautiful countryside landscape they inhabit. This allows the film to become a sharp satire of human nature as both city-slickers with their cynical views of the country rub up against naive by avaricious country bumpkins and naive Taka gets caught in the middle. As the conflict rages on, themes of xenophobia, nature vs urbanity, progress vs tradition are drawn out, mostly for comedic purposes as Satomi and her clan try to crush the poor man in a campaign that features absurdly childish behaviour, rather malicious rumour campaigns and shocking acts of violence.
And then the film goes completely off the rails with an ending that is absolutely bonkers. It is a jaw-dropping genre-hop of a conclusion that is equal parts laugh-out-loud funny, horrific and tragic and is sure to leave audiences gasping. The sudden shift in tone manages to be audacious but fitting because we root for Taka after all he has had to endure and because he is a genuinely lovely guy just trying to be himself. The film rests on Yota Kawase’s performance and you can see exactly why he is often cast in roles where he plays a slimeball (Demolition Girl) or a rogue (The Kamagasaki Cauldron War) and his easygoing nature and warmth bring a softness to a character we might not normally like and so, when he goes full Dragon Ball and turns into his final form in this movie, we still feel a connection with the man. It’s this connection that makes the movie hang together no matter how weird it gets.