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Being Natural
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by Jay Seaver

"Makes an impressive jump from somewhat unusual to genuinely weird."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Before it takes a turn for the weird, "Being Natural" is kind of a low-key charmer, playing as a group of guys in late middle age growing closer, even though those bonds are not exactly of the strongest material. It's pastoral but not over-romanticized, as these things can sometimes be - indeed, not doing so is a good chunk of the point - enough that the satire can perhaps be missed right up until filmmaker Tadashi Nagayama pulls out the sledgehammer.

It introduces late-middle-aged Taka (Yota Kawase) as a bongo-playing oddball, acting as caretaker to his ailing uncle, which gives him a bed to sleep in and a little money from his extended family who don't exactly want to take on that responsibility themselves. It's the kind of arrangement that by its nature can't last forever, and when the old man dies, Taka goes to work at the family's fishing pond with his cousin Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa) and their friend Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), whose market was put out of business by a new supermarket, and things seem nice. Except the train from Tokyo has just disgorged the Kurihara family - husband Keigo (Kanji Tsuda), wife Satomi (Natsuki Mieda), and daughter Itsumi (Kazua Akieda) - come to the country to live a less artificial life. Satomi has always wanted to open a café in a traditional Japanese house, like the one Mitsuaki owns but hasn't really seen any need to kick Taka out of yet.

You can't really strip the entire movie down to Taka, Mitsuaki, and Sho, but there are long stretches where it's tempting to try. Yota Kawase and Shoichiro Tanigawa make a genial odd couple, with Tanigawa's Mitsu showing his age a bit more with a hint of drag in his step, coming across as both endearingly square and kind of prickly (he'd moved to the city when he was younger and isn't entirely excited to be back). Kawase embodies a certain sort of lazy eccentric as Taka, funny but kind of petulant, able to get the audience in his corner because he's able to needle someone without really being mean and because he's the one who is having his circumstances upended. It doesn't hurt that his flaws can seem relatively minor compared to Tadahiro Tsuru's Sho, who is more openly angry and impatient, deployed in quick bursts.

The film isn't really complete until the Kuriharas arrive and start turning things on their head. They're familiar pieces of this sort of story, the city folk who upset the local equilibrium, and they play it to the hilt, barging into the house they want to buy without an invitation - this traditional-style house is, to them, both a museum curiosity that is logically open to the public and a thing they can own - while simultaneously extolling the wonderful authenticity of country living to themselves while dangling their presumed greater sophistication in front of the locals. They're funny, though perhaps a bit underused - they could be played for more comedy and given more time, perhaps with the daughter (clearly not as enthused as her parents for the simple life) fighting more. The plot of the movie is driven by their "invasion", especially later, and this group of actors plays off of each other nicely, too, though it could be argued that them having a relatively small role to play in the movie's first half shows them as insidious.

Or maybe even that would be a bit too conventional for Nagayama, who is playing a more cynical game from the start. There is nothing more pure or beautiful about small-town life than the city here - Sho's store is run-down; Mitsuaki's "fishing pond" is all angular concrete, the barest possible imitation of a relaxing activity, barely even possessed of kitsch value; and Taka was doing the minimum to look after the family's patriarch because nobody else could be bothered. The city folks aren't much better - their tactics for trying to get hold of the house (or, in Itsumi's case, get back home) are predatory and personally damaging. Nagayma isn't telling a wholly misanthropic story, but ultimately he is saying that humans are by their nature self-interested even if also affectionate, and there's no place or way of life that automatically brings out one's best rather than one's worst.

If that's the case, Nagayama chooses one of the most peculiar ways possible to hammer it home, with a last act that takes the fallout of what came before and adds on fallout of an utterly different sort, apparently lining up a character's disgrace with either the Fukushima meltdown or one much like it, leaving that character a blinding ghost followed by the sound of a Geiger counter. It's the very epitome of the worst that modern life can do ot people, but Nagayama and co-writer Yuriko Suzuki seem to be pointing out that, at least in the movies, radiation can make you either a monster or a superhero. Neither option traditionally comes with an easy path or a whole lot of affection, of course, and they show that despite not having a whole lot of time left to send the whole movie down this new path.

That's an utterly bizarre way for something which gave no sign of being that kind of movie to end, eliciting roughly equal reactions of "where the heck did that come from?" and "why wasn't the whole movie like that?" from the festival audience. Even those who like this audacity may wonder if such a jump can speak to the audience to the extent that it confuses, but maybe it kind of works with the other less-obvious shifts in tone to show that life is a mess of conflicting genres and styles at once, and expecting one to be right and good all the time doesn't get you very far.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32406&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/11/18 05:15:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Tadashi Nagayama

Written by
  Tadashi Nagayama
  Yuriko Suzuki

Cast
  Yota Kawase
  Kanji Tsuda
  Natsuki Mieda



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