Japan Times movie reviewer Mark Schilling begins his book Contemporary Japanese Film by discussing how the Japanese film industry's output in the 1990s have become safe, stagnant, and boring. He observes that the reason for this is that the long shadow of business - and its safe hedging of bets - has stretched over the Japanese film world and affects its output. He asserts that "...the majors [studios] are still largely run by graying executives who react to trends rather than set them, and prefer the tried-and-true to the new. Looking at their schedules for 1989 and 1999, one sees the same holiday animation for the kiddies, the period films for the oldsters." While I concur, I think he could add one more group to the list that corporate filmmaking has identified as a sure thing: the 'natsukashii' (nostalgic) film for the middle-aged woman.
It's well understood that the movie business anywhere is a business; the executives want to make a safe product that will yield the biggest reward. In Japan this myopic focus on the business aspect yields such casualties as Nagisa: trite, soulless, hackneyed, maudlin, and manipulative garbage. Besides having a totally uninspired narrative whose plot points are so obvious that the entire story structure, twists and all, is clear from 10 minutes in, the filmmaking is poor and conceptually inept.
Arbitrarily set in the 1960s, Nagisa is a coming of age story about a 13-year-old girl named Nagisa (Seashore) and the summer when she blooms into a woman. Along the way she swims in the ocean, makes some friends, loses some friends, has her first crush/kiss and adult hairstyle, and... and that's about it.
This film, though set in the 1960s, does not warrant the description of a nostalgic trip to the past. It's clear that the 60s setting was a poorly realized promotional gimmick to get middle-aged women (one of the largest film going demographics in Japan) into the theaters. This is not actually a point of criticism for me though, but considering how poor the production design was on this film, I find it hard to believe that anyone could be suckered into this trip down memory lane.
The 60s props are few and far between, limited to a portable record player, Pop Rocks and whistle candy, one or two period cars, and a bouffant hairstyle. The locations are very obviously present day Japan, including modern hotels, freshly paved roads, modern day trucks and cars (!), and other dead giveaways. Quite frankly, it just wasn't convincing; 60s music doesn't make for 60s mood and atmosphere.
But beyond this, the acting is uninspired and Nagisa, played by 13-year-old Madoka Matsuda, is just embarrassing to watch. Her emotional performance is unbelievable and she spends most of her time mugging or giving generalized expressions to the camera, to show her emotional state; when she's happy she smiles, when she's sad she frowns etc. Fortunately for her (although unfortunately for us) she is not alone with her junior high school drama club level performance. Due to poor direction and acting abilities everyone suffers from mediocrity with the arguable exception of Nagisa's aunt (Toshie Negishi), but that's because she's telling jokes constantly and therefore helping to break some of the monotony.
And now we are getting to the heart of the problem. This film doesn't seem to have been directed. Sure veteran Nikkatsu film director Masaru Konuma is credited, but I have a hard time believing that after 47 movies made over the last forty years, he could be capable of directing this work. Before I'd read the press release, I was convinced this was made by a first time director... The shots in the film are sloppy and very little attention seems to have been paid to the craft side of filmmaking. The editing becomes confusing in parts and the author's voice becomes muddled. There are points in the film where you just wonder why it was shot in that way, why the sudden changes of view? Why this particular camera set up? Quite frankly, these are things that shouldn't exist in a commercial film or any film that you have to pay to see. I just find it inexcusable that a veteran film director did it. (As a point of trivia, film director Hideo Nakata (Ring) was, once-upon-a-time, an assistant to Konuma and made a documentary in his mentor's honour entitled Sadistic & Masochistic.)
But perhaps he was confused as to what type of film he was supposed to make. The press release states that in the 1960s "...Nikkatsu Film Studio made a series of ambitiously original and novel films probing into matters of human sexuality..." Nikkatsu is famous for their pink and Roman Porno films made during that era (and how should I interpret the line: 'probing into matters of human sexuality'?). The profile goes on to state that "...Mr. KONUMA made many aesthetic films [,] which were highly acclaimed... KONUMA is good at bringing out actresses' charm and beauty." The inference from that last statement is that he made steamy flicks. This is particularly troubling when coupled with the last sentence of the profile, "'NAGISA' is the first film for children [that] he has directed within the last 12 years."
Konuma made his name through Roman Pornos, which are stylized and generalized shows of love and sexuality - as opposed to honest displays of emotion. It is clear that in this piece about the complexity of human emotions as a girl becomes a young woman that Konuma is on cruise control. It appears that Konuma-san was applying his technique used in the Roman Pornos to illustrate Nagisa's emotional state, but to grave error. There are no honest displays of human emotion in this film, but only generalizations.
Nagisa can be summed up as a shipwreck that is comprised of two parts. One is the business driven, 'safe' and uninspired story that is designed to rope in the middle-aged woman demographic, while the other is Konuma and company's inexcusably poor execution and dishonest portrayal of human emotions in this film. The output is embarrassing to watch and begs a basic question: Why is a disaster like this being shown internationally when there are plenty of films out there that are fighting for distribution and are meanwhile caught in some sort of cinema purgatory - perhaps forever?