There’s beauty in simplicity, and this movie exemplifies it. This is one of those films that does not look too special or interesting at all at first, but is likely to end up being extremely rewarding to many viewers. In short, the film’s plot is about a group of people that work on an island to harvest sugar canes, that’s pretty much all there is to it. The diverse cast of main characters is relatively unknown (aside from Nao Ohmori perhaps) and the director Tetsuo Shinohara isn’t a true household name either as far as I know. Yet ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ shows that even without a complicated plot, without big shot actors/directors, or without anything truly crazy going on, can still blow you away as long as it has.. well yeah what exactly? Call it magic, call it an x-factor, for this movie the best definition is probably simple genuineness.
To elaborate on the story a bit more; an elderly couple, living on an island near Okinawa, farm sugar cane during the summers, and hire some extra help each year. Initially we witness five fresh recruits coming in by boat to the moderately desolate island. It takes a while before we get to know these five completely, but the first impressions they make are as follows; Hinami, a seemingly happy-go-lucky girl and the most normal of the bunch; Kanako, a very shy high-schooler; Etsuko, a vain and demanding girl who constantly complains; Daisuke, a juvenile-looking selfish guy; and Shuichi, a kind man and the oldest of the bunch. They are greeted by Yuda, a man who helps out at this farm every year and takes the new workers under his wing. Their mission is to harvest a vast field of sugarcanes in 35 days, which turns out to be quite the challenge especially due to everyone being completely inexperienced when it comes to hard labor.
From the get-go it becomes clear that Etsuko is a hard case, refusing to eat properly, whining about pretty much everything, and hardly even trying to do a proper job. Daisuke also doesn’t seem too motivated, and Kanako refuses to speak a single word. It really makes you wonder why exactly these three even came here, it’s obviously not because they wanted to. After the first week both Etsuko and Daisuke decide to bail, but when realizing how ridiculously warm and friendly the old man and his wife have been, they end up reconsidering. As the movie progresses some details of most characters’ lives come to the surface, though this is never forced, it’s all quite subtle. Though it seems like a real mix-bag of different people, one theme seems to recur in each of their stories (aside from Hinami perhaps); they are here because they are either running from something or generally just needed a break from hectic society. For the biggest part we merely observe these people work, eat, sleep and repeat this process, but in the meanwhile we learn so much about them, and every viewer is bound to recognize themselves in at least one of these characters.
As they strive towards a common goal they grow closer, and for a few weeks this harvest becomes their everything, and turns out to be that spiritual-existential cleansing all of them have been needing quite badly. And although we aren’t there ourselves, this is kind of what the movie does to the viewer too. Watching this movie, especially around summer time, is a tremendously relaxing experience. The soundtrack helps a lot in creating the rhythmic atmosphere, also generated by the visuals. The sugar cane field has a hypnotizing effect, although I wouldn’t dare say it measures up to the visual poetry of the sand in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s ‘Woman in the Dunes’ or the reeds in Kaneto Shindo’s ‘Onibaba’, it still feels like it entails an additional character in itself. Somehow everything fits together perfectly and every time I watch this movie I end up feeling completely invigorated and all I want to do is jump on the first plane to Okinawa and do some sugar cane farming myself. ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ is a very humble little film, presenting very everyday scenes, and somehow this turns out to be escapism in its purest form.