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The Truthful Fakery of Kaneto Shindō: A Review of “The Naked Island”

Kaneto Shindō’s film “The Naked Island” (also known as “The Island”), which was released in 1960, has garnered global acclaim since its international debut in the early 1960s.

The movie, set on the small island of Sukune in the Inland Sea near Hiroshima, revolves around a family’s arduous task of transporting water from the mainland to nurture their sweet potato crop.

Despite its widespread praise, the film has faced criticism, with some questioning its authenticity and practicality.

A Review of The Naked Island

The movie’s scenic depiction of poverty and hardship captivated European art-house audiences, transforming its melancholic theme tune into a popular song in France.

However, critics like Pauline Kael and Bosley Crowther disagreed about the film’s authenticity and practicality.

Even the director has acknowledged certain inaccuracies in portraying the family’s agricultural practices.

Despite these criticisms, the film has resonated with audiences and critics for over fifty years.

Its predominantly visual nature, minimal dialogue, and sparse plot make it a challenging but captivating cinematic experience.

To fully appreciate the film, it is essential to delve into the director’s background and the creative process behind this remarkable work.

Kaneto Shindō, born into a prosperous family in Hiroshima in 1912, faced a dramatic shift in circumstances when his family fell into poverty due to a defaulted loan, leading to the loss of their land.

His mother, compelled to work as a farm laborer, tragically saw a shortened lifespan as a result.

Determined to pursue a career in the film industry, Shindō engaged in menial jobs at various film studios while honing his scriptwriting skills during the nights.

Despite being told by his idol, Kenji Mizoguchi, that he lacked talent as a screenwriter, Shindō persisted, working as an art director and assistant for Mizoguchi.

His resolve was further tested when his common-law wife, Takako, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1943.

Surviving the war as one of six men from his 100-man unit and being absent from Hiroshima during the atomic bombing in 1945, Shindō’s resilience was put to the test.

Following the war, Shindō collaborated with filmmaker Kōzaburō Yoshimura, and their debut joint project, “The Ball at the Anjo House,” earned acclaim in 1947 but faced resistance from mainstream studios due to its unconventional nature.

Undeterred, they established their production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai (The Modern Film Association), pioneering independent cinema in Japan.

In 1952, Shindō directed “Children of Hiroshima,” a poignant film supported by the Japanese Teachers Union, premiered on the seventh anniversary of the atomic explosion.

By the early 1960s, Shindō’s independent film company faced financial instability.

However, his innovative creation of “The Naked Island,” featuring a minimal cast and budget, proved to be a turning point.

The film’s success at the Moscow Film Festival and its universal appeal, despite minimal dialogue, revitalized Shindō’s career and saved his struggling company.

Kaneto Shindō’s film “The Naked Island” is lauded by Japanese critic Tadao Sato as an exemplar of Shindō’s “feminism,” a concept that diverges from the conventional Western understanding of the term.

Shindō’s feminism, akin to that of his mentor, Kenji Mizoguchi, centers on a profound admiration for the enduring self-sacrifice of Japanese women.

It also underscores the responsibility of Japanese men to bear the weight of guilt imposed by such sacrifices rather than advocating for women’s social and political emancipation.

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

Also, see Jerry Lewis: An Appreciation in Three Films.

Distinguishing himself from Mizoguchi, Shindō frequently intertwines female oppression with class oppression, rejecting solidarity with his family’s bourgeois background and embracing the struggles of the marginalized and laboring class.

Many of the women in his films endure the dual burden of gender and class discrimination, showcasing their heroism through their grace and patience in bearing this burden.

Nobuko Otowa, Shindō’s muse and later wife, played a pivotal role in his filmmaking endeavors for over four decades.

Despite her remarkable contributions to Japanese cinema, she is often overlooked when acknowledging the era’s finest actresses.

Otowa’s versatility enabled her to portray women from diverse backgrounds, presenting compelling performances across various roles.

Shindō’s directorial debut, “Story of a Beloved Wife,” features a poignant scene where Otowa’s character, afflicted with tuberculosis, silently reassures her husband of her survival despite the inevitable outcome.

This emotive non-verbal communication exemplifies Shindō’s reliance on Otowa’s exceptional acting prowess.

In “The Naked Island,” Otowa’s seamless rapport with her co-star, Taiji Tonoyama, significantly contributes to the film’s success.

Their profound chemistry is evident in a pivotal scene where the husband, without resentment, delivers a sudden, jolting slap to the wife after an accident, symbolizing the unspoken acknowledgment of their shared struggle for survival.

A Review of The Naked Island
A farmwife (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.

Shindō’s portrayal of such poignant scenes does not advocate for the liberation of these women but rather implores viewers to recognize and appreciate the extraordinary sacrifices made by women, especially those from lower classes, in their daily lives.

According to Professor Lippit, many of Kaneto Shindō’s contemporaries in the Japanese film industry were not entirely enthusiastic about the international success of “The Naked Island.”

The film was perceived as perpetuating a portrayal of Japan transitioning from a traditional agricultural past to a modern, technologically-driven future, a depiction that resonated with international audiences.

However, this work may have been influential, as it inspired younger filmmakers, notably Shohei Imamura, to delve into the legacy of “primitive” Japan.

When questioned by American film scholar Joan Mellen about this thematic approach, Shindō expressed his belief that the weakening of the human spirit has been a prevalent issue since the late nineteenth century, not limited to Japan.

He emphasized the ongoing reevaluation of the vigor and identity of primitive man, indicating a universal concern.

Despite its portrayal of arduous and sorrowful lives, “The Naked Island” does not fit neatly into the category of Miserabilist Cinema.

The fleeting moments of happiness within the film, such as the father playing with his son and the family’s genuine interactions, are depicted authentically and without contrivance. Unlike contemporary city dwellers, the film’s rural protagonists are not disconnected from pleasure or their selves.

Shindō’s perspective views the perpetually struggling “primitive” family in the film as deserving of respect and admiration for their “energy” and “identity,” rather than pity.

Kaneto Shindō’s enduring life as a man and an artist, culminating in the release of his final film “Postcard” from a wheelchair at the age of ninety-eight, likely carried a weight of profound survivor’s guilt.

He expressed that the souls of the 94 men from his battle unit who perished had always been a central theme in his existence, and his passing at the age of 100 could be interpreted as living one year for each of the unfortunate members of his squad, including himself.

It is plausible that filmmaking served as Shindō’s means of coping with the burden of the departed souls that haunted him, encompassing his mother, neighbors, and friends who perished in Hiroshima, his fellow service members, his revered mentor Mizoguchi, and his beloved wives.

Through crafting cinematic masterpieces like “The Naked Island,” “Onibaba,” “Kuroneko,” and numerous other remarkable works, he bore this weight with the same composed grace that he admired in his female protagonists.

Following Nobuko Otowa’s passing in 1994, her ashes were scattered over the island of Sukune, featured in “The Naked Island.”

Almost two decades later, Shindō’s ashes were laid to rest alongside hers on the same island, symbolizing a profound connection reminiscent of tending to sweet potatoes, as depicted in the film.

The Criterion release of “The Naked Island” on DVD, known for its exceptional quality, presents striking widescreen black-and-white imagery crucial for a visually-centric film like this.

The commentary track offers valuable insights from the director and the film’s composer, Hikaru Hayashi, while a video introduction by Shindō, a tribute from actor Benicio Del Toro, and an interview with film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit provide enriching context.

Additionally, a compelling essay by Haden Guest advocates for Shindō’s recognition as an overlooked Japanese master, making this release a must-have for fans of Japanese cinema.

Also, see Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jess Franco, Ousmane Sembène & more!

Ashish Maharjan
Ashish Maharjan
Ashish, a seasoned editor and author for World Cinema Paradise, intricately weaves creativity with precision in his writing, establishing himself as a prolific content creator. Renowned for clarity and captivating storytelling, Ashish has cultivated a devoted readership, driven by his unwavering passion for words and commitment to excellence.

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