Public domain island image

It’s a bit odd that Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (Hadaka no shima, a.k.a. The Island, 1960) has taken so long to receive the Criterion treatment on DVD and Blu-ray, for this Japanese movie has been praised all over the world since it first arrived on the international scene in the early 1960s. Filmed on the tiny island of Sukune in the Inland Sea, not far from Shindō’s native city, Hiroshima, the bare-bones plot concerns a family of four – a man, a woman and their two young boys – who must transport, with great difficulty, their daily supply of water from the mainland to the island to cultivate their sweet potato crop, which would die (as would they) without this obsessive attention. Its vision of poverty and struggle in an exotic setting won such enthusiasm from European art house audiences at the time that the French actually turned its melancholy theme tune, composed by Hikaru Hayashi, into a hit pop song.

Yet the film, considered a classic by many, has had its share of detractors and doubters. Pauline Kael, in her review, dismissed the movie as phony, even sneering at the undeniable pictorial beauty of its Inland Sea setting, photographed by Shindō’s excellent cameraman, Kiyomi Kuroda. (“It’s pictorial, all right,” she wrote.) The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther – who, in his much more favorable review, naively called the work a “documentary” – wondered why the couple failed to build structures, such as cisterns, for catching and storing rainwater, so as to spare themselves at least some of those long, laborious trips carrying buckets of water.

Oddly, one of the film’s most vocal skeptics has been the director himself, who once candidly pointed out that the sweet potato crop that the family is shown cultivating would not, in real life, have required such enormous quantities of water to thrive. He also noted on this video’s commentary track – recorded in 2000 – that not only was the island on which they shot the movie uninhabited, but farmers from the area, such as the ones depicted, would never have actually watered their crops in the heat of the noonday sun, as is done in the film, because the water would almost immediately have evaporated.

So how has a movie of such dubious plausibility managed to evoke such a powerful response from audiences and critics for over fifty years? More than most films, The Naked Island is an overwhelmingly visual experience – except for one song by some schoolchildren, there is no spoken dialogue at all – with very little in the way of plot. So evoking its almost tactile beauty and primal power in a print review like this one is well-nigh impossible. A more profitable approach would be to examine why and how Shindō created it, beginning with some relevant background on the director’s difficult but very interesting early life.

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Kaneto Shindō was born in 1912 in Hiroshima into a rich and respectable family. But while he was still a child, his father agreed to serve as guarantor for a loan on which the borrower apparently defaulted, leaving the family suddenly destitute. They lost all their land, and the boy’s mother had to go to work as a farm laborer to support the others, which seems to have drastically shortened her life.

The young Shindō, resolving to enter the film industry, worked at menial jobs for various film studios while writing scripts at night. He eventually drifted into the orbit of his idol, the great Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff), who kindly informed the young man that he had no talent as a screenwriter. Undaunted, he continued to work for Mizoguchi as an art director and assistant and kept on writing, with the loyal support of his common-law wife, Takako… until she perished from tuberculosis in 1943. Drafted into the Japanese navy, he was one of only six men of his 100-man unit who survived, and happened to be absent from his hometown when it was reduced to rubble by the first atomic bomb in August 1945.

After the war, he formed a scriptwriter-director partnership with the established filmmaker Kōzaburō Yoshimura. Their very first collaboration, the classic The Ball at the Anjo House, was voted the best film of 1947 by Japanese critics. But the movies that the partners wanted to make were too dark and daring for the mainstream studios of the day. So in 1950, at a time when independent cinema was virtually nonexistent in Japan, the two men, together with the colorful character actor Taiji Tonoyama, formed their own production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai (The Modern Film Association). It was for Kindai that Shindō directed, with the help of funds from the Japanese Teachers Union, his third film, the beautiful, moving Children of Hiroshima (Genbaku no Ko: literally, Atom-Bomb Children), which premiered in Japan on August 6, 1952 ‒ the seventh anniversary of the atomic explosion, and only months after the end of the American Occupation.

At the dawn of the 1960s, after making a number of other socially-conscious films for Kindai, with very little to show in the way of box-office success, Shindō and his young company were near ruin. As a last-ditch effort, he conceived of a simple story set on a remote island that would require only four actors – Tonoyama, Shindō’s favorite leading lady, Nobuko Otowa, and two children from the area – plus a skeleton crew, including Kuroda, on a miniscule budget. When he screened the film at the Moscow Film Festival, the audience received it warmly and it won the Grand Prix. The total lack of dialogue proved, ironically, to be an asset on the festival circuit: since virtually no subtitles were required, the picture could be marketed anywhere. Thus, both the film company and Shindō’s career were saved.

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The Naked Island, which focuses particularly on its hard-working farmer heroine, is a prime example of what Japanese critic Tadao Sato called Shindō’s “feminism”… but the meaning of the word, in this context, must be clearly understood. Like that of his mentor, Mizoguchi, Shindō’s feminism is far removed from the common Western sense of the term, that is, support for the social and political emancipation of women. Rather, it implies a very personal love, even a kind of awe, for the capacity of Japanese women for sustained self-sacrifice, but it is also about the duty of Japanese men to accept the harsh burden of guilt such sacrifice imposes on them.

Where Shindō parts company from Mizoguchi, however, is in his frequent identification of female oppression with class oppression. Throughout his film career, he rejected solidarity with the social class his family was born into – the comfortable bourgeoisie – and embraced (often with ambivalence) the class his family fell into: the manual laborers, the dispossessed, the utterly marginalized. Many of the women in his films thus carry the double stigma of gender and class discrimination, and their heroism is the patience and grace with which they bear this yoke.

 

Nobuko Otowa in The Naked Island

A farm wife (Nobuko Otowa) labors in the fields in Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (1960). Credit: Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

This is why Shindō’s muse and mistress (and future wife), Nobuko Otowa, became so essential a part of his filmmaking team. Otowa worked with Shindō for over 40 years, from 1951 to 1994. To my knowledge, in all of Japanese cinema, the only director-actor collaboration that surpassed theirs in sheer output was that of Yasujirō Ozu and Chishū Ryū, though the Shindō-Otowa partnership, while not quite as prolific, lasted longer. (She also did fine work at the same time for other illustrious filmmakers, such as Heinosuke Gosho and Keisuke Kinoshita.)

Yet when the best actresses that Japanese cinema produced during its Golden Age are recalled – including such names as Setsuko Hara, Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada and Hideko Takamine – Otowa never seems to get name-checked. This is a shame, for she excelled at portraying Japanese women of every class and profession. For Shindō in the 1950s, she played, among other characters, a prim young schoolteacher (in Children of Hiroshima), a geisha who gets transformed into a mindless toy before our eyes (in the devastating Epitome, 1953) and, in what may have been her oddest role, a mentally-challenged (autistic?) homeless woman (The Ditch, 1954), whose bizarre behavior Otowa somehow makes relatable, even sympathetic.

A particularly striking example of her skill at getting to the essence of a character occurs in a powerful scene from Shindō’s very first film as director, the semi-autobiographical Story of a Beloved Wife (1951). The screenwriter hero’s common-law wife, who is named Takako (like the director’s own deceased wife), is ill with tuberculosis. In the middle of the night, she begins coughing up blood. The hero, with trembling hands, holds a porcelain basin in front of her to catch the blood. The couple’s eyes meet, and she grasps his hand as if to steady it. Then she takes a pen and paper from a nearby desk and, without speaking a word, writes “Don’t worry. I won’t die” (though the hero, and presumably the audience, by this time knows she will die). So when Shindō decided to make his movie about farmers consisting entirely of such scenes, in which deep emotions are conveyed completely nonverbally, he knew that Otowa was up to the job.

 

Nobuko Otowa and Taiji Tonoyama in The Naked Island

A farm wife (Nobuko Otowa, left background) and her husband (Taiji Tonoyama, right) carrying water in Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (1960). Credit: Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

It has seldom, if ever, been noted that one of the reasons The Naked Island works so well is not only Otowa’s skill as an actress (according to Shindō, the Moscow audience believed she was an actual farmer), but her high comfort level with her unprepossessing co-star, Taiji Tonoyama, who plays the husband. With his bald head, bug eyes and stuck-out ears, Tonoyama strongly suggests to the modern viewer (or at least to this viewer) a depraved Yoda. But he was, at the time, a character actor much in demand whenever a lecherous, dissolute or generally unsavory middle-aged character was called for. And, as a full partner in Kindai Eiga Kyokai, Tonoyama had acted in many films with Otowa throughout the 1950s.

The extraordinary chemistry between the two stars of The Island can be witnessed in a scene that occurs almost exactly half an hour into the film. The heroine, as per her routine, is dragging two heavy buckets of water up a steep slope towards the crops at the top of a hill when she suddenly stumbles. As the husband, standing on the hill slightly above her, looks on impassively (apparently, this has happened before), one of her buckets tips over, spilling the precious water uselessly over the arid earth. The wife carefully secures the other bucket and looks up expectantly towards her husband. He stops what he’s doing and walks down the hill… probably, we suppose, to help her. He pauses in front of his wife and suddenly slaps her, hard, knocking her to the ground, an act to which she offers no protest or resistance. She then gets up, and only then does he help her carry the remaining bucket the rest of the way up the hill.

As USC film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit has noted (in an interview included as a supplement on this disk), there’s no rage or animosity in the husband’s sudden, shocking act of violence. In other words, the slap isn’t the equivalent of saying, “You’re a stupid, useless idiot.” Instead, the slap is an extreme way of telling her, “You’re my wife, but you can’t make mistakes like this if we’re going to survive,” and the fact that she makes no complaint proves that she grasps this fact. And all the complex, painful ambiguity of the scene is perfectly and silently conveyed by these two veteran actors.

It should be noted that the director, through such scenes, is not really calling for the liberation of such women from their hard lot in life. Rather, he is calling on viewers to bear witness to the almost superhuman sacrifices that the heroine, and women everywhere in Japan, particularly those of the lower classes, make every day on behalf of the men in their lives.

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As Professor Lippit remarks in his interview, many of Shindō’s fellow filmmakers in Japan were not exactly over the moon about The Naked Island’s international success. “This is a film,” he says, “that for many of them played into an image of Japan that was too easily consumed by the rest of the world,” that is, an image of a country transitioning, very slowly and painfully, from a “backward” agrarian past to the technologically-driven present. Yet the film may have been seminal, for in the coming years, some younger filmmakers, particularly Shohei Imamura, would follow Shindō’s lead in exploring the legacy of “primitive” Japan.

When American film scholar Joan Mellen asked Shindō about this theme in The Naked Island, as well as in films by others, he gave a very interesting answer. “Yes,” he said, “that tendency has been rather popular among Japanese filmmakers for the past five or six years. The reason is that, since the latter half of the nineteenth century, we have been witnessing the weakening of the human mind. I think this is a universal problem. Consequently, modern men, and I for one, are in the process of reevaluating primitive man’s energy and identity.”

This belief of Shindō’s is probably the reason why The Naked Island, despite the hardscrabble, frustrating, grief-filled lives it depicts, does not really belong to the ever-expanding category of Miserabilist Cinema. The brief scenes of joy in the film – the father playing with one of his sons, the boys engaging in a fight with toy swords, the mother enjoying a bath alone – feel real and unforced. Unlike contemporary urbanites, these people of the land are not alienated from pleasure or from themselves. For Shindō, the eternally struggling “primitive” family in the film is to be respected and admired, not pitied, for its “energy” and “identity.”

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Shindō’s remarkable longevity as a man and as an artist – his final film, Postcard (2010), directed from a wheelchair, was released when he was ninety-eight years old – must surely have come at the price of tremendous survivor’s guilt. He once said that he had “always had the souls of the 94 [men in his battle unit who died] with me and have made them the theme of my existence.” Indeed, because he passed away at age 100, he could be said to have lived exactly one year apiece for each man in his unlucky squad, including himself.

I suspect that the only way he could have survived so long the burden of the many dead souls haunting him – his mother, neighbors and friends killed at Hiroshima, his fellow servicemen, Mizoguchi, his amazing wives – was to make films. By creating the false-yet-true masterpiece, The Naked Island, as well as famous films like Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968), and many other excellent works, he bore that burden with the same stoic grace he so admired in his female protagonists.

Postscript: After she died in 1994, Otowa’s ashes were scattered, at her request, over the island, Sukune, featured in the film. When Shindō died nearly two decades later, his ashes joined hers on the same island… as if the couple had really grown sweet potatoes there, rather than a movie.

The DVD of The Naked Island (I have not viewed the Blu-ray) is a typically top-notch, full-scale Criterion release. The quality of the widescreen black-and-white images (and this movie, more than most, stands or falls by its visuals) is breathtaking, with literally pearly grays and wonderfully subtle gradations of tone in nearly every shot, and virtually no sign of scratches, dirt or other flaws, though the film is over half a century old. The commentary track (from 2000), provided by both the director and the film’s composer, Hikaru Hayashi, mixes technical details and personal reminiscences that are illuminating and sometimes moving, though at times the two men focus overly much on the film’s score to the detriment of other aspects of the production. There is also a brief but touching video introduction by Shindō himself from 2011 (he was 99 at the time), as well as a very casual but heartfelt tribute from the filmmaker’s number one fanboy, Hollywood actor Benicio Del Toro. Finally, an interview with film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit provides additional context, and a printed essay by Haden Guest makes a strong case for Shindō as a neglected Japanese master. All in all, an essential purchase for all J-Cinema fans.

 

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