This article is part of a year-long feature - watching and blogging about twenty acclaimed, cult, challenging and rare films over the course of 2013. The full list of films can be found here. 三 (three): Kaneto Shindo's 1960 study of farmers in Hiroshima Prefecture - The Naked Island.
Sometimes it's mere minutes into a film that you know you're dealing with something completely unique. Having only been familiar with the extremely prolific Shindo's (who died only last year) duo of endearingly pulpy ghost stories - Onibaba and Kuroneko - I didn't quite know what The Naked Island was going to offer. A portrait of rural Japanese life, yes, but other than that I went in more-or-less blind. Didn't even read the spiel on the back of the box! From the opening widescreen aerial shots of sweeping Hiroshima landscapes, however, it's clear that visually the film triumphantly differentiates itself from of its peers. Japanese cinema is, at the risk of generalisation (there are plenty of exceptions), often heavily focused on interiors and, more specifically, claustrophobic and closed rooms. The Naked Island barely features any indoor sequences - its beautifully framed, wide-angled and deep-focused exteriors instantly jump off the screen. Primarily set on a small, barren island in the middle of a bay, Shindo makes stunning use out of the Hiroshima environments and geography.
'The rule of thirds' in cinematography is based on the theory that shots can sometimes seem a bit dull or boring if the subject is placed dead centre of the frame. The Naked Island is one of many exceptions to that rule. There's some stunning symmetry and emotional intensity achieved by the decision to place characters smack bang in the middle of the shot. There's no shortage of visual invention on display elsewhere too - whether that's a swaying 'in-boat' camera that effectively captures the difficulty of carrying heavy barrels of water onto an anchored craft, or radical close-ups that expertly represents the or physical state of the characters. As ever, Eureka's Master of Cinema DVD release does admirable justice to the images. Hopefully a HD release will be forthcoming.
It's vital that the film's visual identity is so compelling, because The Naked Island's riskiest artistic decision puts an extra burden on the ravishing 2.35:1 cinematography - the film has no dialogue. It's not exactly silent - there's plenty of atmospheric sound, and there are a few 'chants' that provoke the film's only subtitles (outside credit and title card translations). Initially, I thought it was simply going to be a bold decision to open on an extended period of contemplative silence, but to the late director's credit he sticks with the dialogue-free approach it to satisfying and compelling effect. The characters do not need to excessively verbalise their situations - they have long ago segued into a form of acceptance, and their actions and faces say all that needs to be said.
It would be a pedantic act to unnecessarily classify the film - it is unto itself, after all - so it's hard to call whether The Naked Island deserves the 'non-narrative' label. It does, however, achieve a purity of cinematic vision not often found outside the plotless likes of Man With a Movie Camera or Godfrey Reggio / Ron Fricke production. In fictional terms, the closest recent example would be something like La Quattro Volte. There's a story of sorts, and distinctive characters, but there's no 'plot' in the traditional sense. There are dramatic events, but the film also spends much time simply portraying the rhythm and repetition of these people's lives.
Shindo's film follows the routine of a farming family living on a barren island over the course of a year or so (seasonal changes divide the film into relatively distinctive chapters of varying lengths). Mostly, we witness the grind and toil. Every day the mother (Nobuko Otowa) and father (Taiji Tonoyama, who featured in an enviable number of important mid- and late-20th Century Japanese productions) travel to the mainland a number of times to procure buckets of fresh water for their sweet potato crops (Shindo himself amusingly points out in an interview included with the accompanying booklet that's an agricultural goof). Reaching the island, they have to painstakingly climb a steep incline to reach the plants without spilling the precious water. The H2O dispersed, the process starts again. Their older son travels to and from school on these roundtrips, while the younger child amuses himself fishing and exploring the small island. The routine is broken up by the annual harvest, and once a year the boys are treated to an extravagant 'vacation' to the mainland (partially funded by the younger son's fishing successes). The cycle of work, eat, rest, sleep wears on, almost entirely uninterrupted by the march of technological progress - a TV in a shop window, displaying a woman doing an absurd little dance, is a rare glimpse of distant modernity. However, everything is eventually thrown into disarray by an unexpected death.
Narrative is a strong word, and there's not much traditional 'plot' to speak of. Instead, we're treated to a straightforward, intriguing portrait of a working class family relegated to the fringes of society. Interestingly, this seemed to be a sticking point for many commentators following the film's initially positive reception - dissenters included Nagisa Oshima and famously articulate curmudgeon Pauline Kael. Kael dismissed the film as "ponderously, pretentiously simple", while others accused it of perpetuating Japanese stereotypes. I couldn't disagree more - the film's lyrical, compassionate critique of normal life and ritual is an affecting and insightful one. It isn't excessively romanticised nor harshly dismissed - we are shown joy and acceptance alongside profound sorrow and other tribulations (including a heartbreaking act of aggression when the exhausted 'mother' spills a supply of freshwater). Furthermore, as an allegorical study of post-war Japan - the island's proximity to Hiroshima is no mere coincidence - it's a thoughtful look at a proletariat who have been left behind as a result of decisions out of their control and rapid modernisation. Again, such things could lead to criticisms of 'privileged guilt', but the film is far too evenhanded and - yes - unpretentious to completely justify such observations. Simple and straightforward though it may be, sometimes such an approach is exactly what's required.
Regardless of the potentially divisive 'narrative', however, the film is ultimately memorable primarily for its expertly realised presentation. Even if the film's themes leave you feeling uneasy, the film's distinctive stylistic voice will leave few unimpressed. Shindo's craftmanship in this film allows him to establish a directorial identity that's distinctive from his peers and mentors (he started his career under the great Kenji Mizoguchi). More than anything, The Naked Island's proud silence and majestic land & seascapes ensure the film earns its keep in the annals of Japanese cinema, and indeed the wider spectrum of cinema too.