The Naked Island (Kaneto Shindo, 1960)
Director Kaneto Shindo succinctly describes his 1964 film The Naked Island “as a cinematic poem to try to and capture the life of human beings struggling like ants against the forces of nature.”
The film, set on a rural, isolated island follows a couple and their two small children struggle with their day-to-day lives turning the viewer almost into a voyeur as we watch as the parents strenuously carry heavy containers of water up a steep hillside so that they can water their crops. This slow and difficult task is repeated at different points throughout the film, each time appearing more arduous, as it reflects the characters metaphysical difficulties through the films progression.
The central narrative of the film is scaled back and in its place the director uses a slow, cyclical narrative structure allowing the emotions of its central characters and their surroundings to convey its story to the audience. In keeping with this minimalist approach Shindo decided to use (almost) no dialogue throughout the film, and this conscious decision certainly helps immerse the viewer and bring attention to the angst felt by the family.
The Island and its surroundings are beautiful and the cinematography strongly captures its elegance, yet it also shows how small and helpless its inhabitants are. Indeed it, along with the slow, minimalist style employed by Shindo in the film works to illustrate its prominent humanist theme. While there are different ways to read the film, this humanist message appears the most apparent. With the family in an almost constant struggle, whether it is attempting to water their crops or dealing with family tragedy, their insignificance is evident throughout and this certainly invites our sympathies.
While in the process of watching the film one could almost be mistaken for believing that it was set in feudal times, indeed the old worn clothes and poverty the family is subjected to would suggest this. However when we follow the family’s excursion to the mainland, we can see that it is set in a modern post Second World War society. The mainland has cars, motorbikes, televisions and restaurants and it is obvious to see how alienated the family feels amongst these surroundings.
Arguably the discord that they experience on the mainland was intended to be a comment on how traditional Japanese culture was fading with the new post-war cultural changes that the country was experiencing. While Japan‘s identity was in constant flux at this time and the social commentary featured in the film shouldn’t be overlooked, it is certainly dwarfed by the harrowing portrayal of the mother trying to come to terms with the loss of her son.
This brings us back to Shindo’s humanist approach, which featured especially in his early films (also see the excellent Children of Hiroshima). Indeed The Naked Island above all else is a film about survival, its haunting score and beautiful imagery combined with an understated yet poignant depiction of its central characters ensure its place amongst the key Japanese films of the 1960’s.