Friday, July 11, 2008

REVIEW: The Naked Island - Kaneto Shindo (1960)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

A family lives on a small island in the Setonaikai Archipelago just off the southwestern coast of Japan. They grow a meager crop of potatoes and wheat to eat and to sell, but the cruel irony is that even though they are surrounded my miles of lapping waves they may as well be trying to farm in a desert. Every morning and every evening the father (Taiji Tomoyama) and mother (Nobuko Otowa) must row out to the mainland to fetch buckets of fresh water, hauling their precious cargo up the steep slopes of their island home while their two sons (Shinji Tanaka, Masanori Horimoto) tend to chores around the house. They do this without a word passed between them. Each of them knows what needs to be done, so talking things over would be a waste of energy. It’s a back breaking existence, the simple and punishing life of peasants in feudal Japan, but when the family leaves the island we’re surprised to see motorboats, cars, restaurants and television. The juxtaposition of medieval and modern in Kaneto Shindo’s nearly silent 1960 film “The Naked Island” magnifies the isolation of this entirely noble or utterly masochistic family.

It’s hard to write about “The Naked Island”. Like its nameless family it’s very pragmatic. Without a single line of dialogue it shows us rather than tells us: their store of water is ladled over their crops as if it were liquid gold, tree stumps are wrenched out of fields, wheat is beaten and winnowed while all the while Shindo uses the recurrent images of the father and mother balancing buckets of water on their shoulders and the oar of their boat rowing through the waves to reinforce the routine of their daily lives. In a lot of ways it’s this sense of hard won survival, a rustic example of the “gambatte” spirit of the Japanese that makes “The Naked Island” the positive flipside to Shindo’s best known work, 1964’s “Onibaba”. That film, which also starred Shindo’s wife Nobuko Otowa, is also concerned with survival, albeit in a hardly noble way, its characters murdering and stealing to fill their stomachs. Also both films stun the audience with beautiful, haunting images of the natural world courtesy of Shindo’s longtime cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda. The big difference between the two films though is that while we have little sympathy for the savage mother/ daughter duo in “Onibaba” our hearts go out to the family in “The Naked Island” especially after their eldest son is taken from them by a sudden illness. Once again the absence of dialogue heightens the grief, with Shindo creating an absolutely sublime moment where Otowa as the mother stands at the edge of a cliff, tears streaming down her face as she watches fireworks being launched from the mainland to burn and fizzle out over the sea.

But while Shindo’s choice of showing us rather than having his characters tell us about their lives is for the most part a very effective narrative strategy it has its shortcomings too. With no exposition we’re left to guess who exactly these people are. Born farmers working a tiny plot of hereditary land? A family displaced by the war? Idealistic back-to-the-earthers? What confused me was that it was obvious that Shindo set “The Naked Island” in contemporary Japan for a reason, but it seemed odd that these people were choosing to hold onto their grueling existence while the country was gearing up for an economic and social boom that saw people abandoning rural life and swarming into the cities looking for steady work, good pay and a role in reconstructing their country. While I sat watching “The Naked Island” the even thought of the allegorical interpretation of the island as being Japan itself, the family working intensely hard, but still dependent on the mainland (or in this scenario the continent) for imports of food and goods. It’s strange how your mind fills up with these kind of ideas when you don’t have the characters spouting dialogue…

In the end it may be a bit fruitless to throw a bunch of words at “the Naked Island” like I’ve done with this review. The wisest choice would be to meet the film on its own terms, quietly allowing it to show you a kind of life and a level of commitment and work that on one hand inspires and on the other reminds us just how easy our “modern” life has been made for us.

1 comment:

Phantom of Pulp said...

I love this movie, and I admire much on Shindo's work.

It's so encouraging that he is still creating.

THE NAKED ISLAND establishes a tone you either go with or reject.