The Naked Island (1960)

Review first published by EyeforFilm.

Although Hiroshima-born Kaneto Shindo had written screenplays for seminal Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, and had served as both art director and chief assistant director on several Mizoguchi films, his own communist leanings effectively excluded him from Japan’s studio system during the postwar Occupation by a red-dreading American administration. So like many other leftist filmmakers of the time, Shindo established his own independent film production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai, through which he had his directorial debut with The Story Of A Beloved Wife (1951), following it almost immediately with his internationally renowned semi-documentary The Children Of The Atom Bomb (1952).

By the end of the fifties, however, as Kindai Eiga Kyokai faced financial ruin, Shindo decided to go out with a bang, making “one pure film, with no concessions to commercialism” – a film which would, ironically enough, end up reviving the fortunes of director and company alike.

Made in black and white with a tiny budget and no dialogue, The Naked Island portrays the endless struggles of a mother (Nobuko Otowa) and father (Taiji Tonoyama) to irrigate the fields of the small, barren island on which they live with their two young sons (Shinji Tanaka, Masanori Horimoto). From dawn to dusk, they are shown repeatedly collecting fresh water in buckets from a larger neighbouring island, rowing the precious load back over the strait in a small scull, and carrying it up a steep incline to the fields where they carefully pour it by hand onto each and every plant. This arduous routine creates the impression of a timeless cycle, varying only with the natural modulations of the passing seasons, and disrupted by only two narrative events – a family day trip to a nearby town (where the sight of a television set seems an incongrous intrusion by modernity onto their medieval lifestyle), and an untimely death.

Made over many months by a tiny cast and crew who themselves lived on the otherwise uninhabited island and sowed and tended the crops there, The Naked Island is both in love with labour, and a labour of love. It is the film’s extraordinary simplicity that makes it truly memorable, and opens it to all manner of allegorical interpretations. For The Naked Island can be viewed as a celebration of the value of toil, or as a Sisyphean spin on the futility of effort, as a nostalgic elegy for Japan’s agrarian traditions, or a critique of its past insulation from progress, as a lament for the lives cut short at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or a paean to Japan’s capacity to work through its tragedies.

It might even be seen as reflecting Shindo’s own struggles at the time to keep producing films for a changing market. The focus on labour no doubt helped it to share the Grand Prix at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1961 – but, paradoxically, it was also to become Shindo’s best know work in the US, where at least early critics tended to project onto its family’s primitivism a convenient, if grossly inaccurate, image of the Japanese in general as essentially backward, thus reinforcing America’s own postwar sense of superiority over Japan’s perceived ‘noble savagery’.

Shindo has crafted a beautiful, melancholic eclogue that can be savoured for the documentary-like naturalism of its performances, for the sublime sense of place achieved by Kiyoshi Kuroda’s ‘Scope cinematography, and for Hikaru Hayashi’s soundtrack, which weaves a spell all of its own.

Anton Bitel