“Doctors don’t heal patients. We just help them heal themselves” according to the kindly grandmother at the centre of Masahiko Nagasawa’s warmhearted drama Nagi’s Island (凪の島, Nagi no Shima). In many ways an island film, Nagasawa’s gentle tale of the power of community support and mutual compassion celebrates the healing power of laidback island life while simultaneously lamenting its decline amid rural depopulation and an ageing society which it leave it in someways vulnerable without the protections of big city infrastructure.
For young Nagi (Chise Niitsu), however, it’s a kind of haven. Following her parents’ divorce she’s returned to live with her grandmother Yoshiko (Hana Kino) who runs the island’s only medical clinic while her mother (Rosa Kato) has a secured a job as a nurse at the hospital on the mainland. Nagi has adjusted to island life fairly quickly, but is also haunted by her past and suffers from panic attacks when witnessing small acts of violence and aggression that recall painful memories of her father’s drunken rages. In any case it seems that Nagi has maintained contact with her dad, Shimao, through social media while he is trying his best to undergo treatment for alcohol abuse and repair his relationships with his family.
As Yoshiko puts it, history has in a sense repeated as she too came to the island with her daughter, Mao, after leaving her husband and was comforted by the total acceptance of the island community who asked few questions and never attached any social stigma to the fact she was a single mother. Many people here are, however, also suffering such as Nagi’s new friend Raita who is touched by her relationship with her mother while missing his own. Irritated by his grandfather’s refusal to explain to him what’s happened to her other than that she’s in a hospital, he determines to find out dragging Nagi along for an adventure but perhaps discovers something he wasn’t quite prepared for only to be comforted by a frank yet compassionate outlaying of the facts from a sympathetic doctor and the gentle support of his friends and family.
Nagi’s arrival also begins back painful memories for the school’s janitor who is nicknamed Grumpy Grandpa (Kyusaku Shimada) by the kids (of whom there are only five) because of his morose appearance and the fact he never smiles. Having lost his own daughter to a heart attack, he worries for Nagi who in turn becomes determined to make him smile and eventually succeeds in making him feel a part of the community allowing him to begin making peace with his daughter’s death.
That sense of community is however threatened by the realities of contemporary island life. Nagi’s new friends Kengo and Raita are secretly worried that Mao will decide to remarry and Nagi will leave the island leaving them alone again as the only children of their age. In the local school all the kids are taught together because there are only five of them, the other two being an older boy and his younger sister. Life on the island may seem so idyllic that it’s difficult to see why anyone would want to leave, but with few jobs available younger people often seek better futures in the city while there’s no denying that because of the decreasing population there are few resources available. Yoshiko is the only doctor on the island and her clinic is only a regular GP’s office meaning those who require more serious medical treatment will have to travel to the mainland which is possible only by small fishing boats in good weather.
In any case the island provides a healing environment of its own, allowing Nagi and her mother to begin putting the past behind them while offering a chance of redemption for Shimao who may be able to start over in a kinder place free of the pressures of city life. As the islanders celebrate the first marriage taking place in the village in 30 years, there is promise of new life and new beginnings despite the prevailing narrative that communities such as these have little future in a continually evolving society. What is clear is that Nagi has found her place to belong along with a purpose in life in the gentle lull of the island’s seas and its welcoming shores.
Nagi’s Island screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan. It will also be screening at Japan Society New York on Nov. 20 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.
Original trailer (no subtitles)