A family of four live a simple life on a remote Japanese island, their days spent tending the crops planted across its hills and travelling back to the mainland to replenish the fresh water that is so vital to the survival of the plants. Despite the tranquility of their way of life, they eventually suffer the consequences of their isolation.
The Critics Said
“A film of intense beauty and entrancing deliberation, Shindô’s Naked Island is a tale that articulates very little, yet manages to speak volumes.” – Patrick Gamble, CineVue
The Naked Island is the film that saved Kaneto Shindô’s production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai, from bankruptcy, a work that despite its lack of commercial focus proved financially and critically successful, winning the Grand Prix at the Moscow Film Festival in 1961 and providing the means for Shindô to go on to create some of his more notable works, Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968) in particular. Its lean narrative and repetitive imagery mark it as an antecedent of the slow cinema now proliferating through directors like Lav Diaz and Ben Rivers but what The Naked Island lacks in plot it makes up for in its captivating imagery.
For the plot is negligible: a family of four – mother, father and two young boys – live their simple lives on a remote island in the Seto Inland Sea in Japan, travelling back to the mainland twice a day to replenish the fresh water needed to keep their hillside crops alive. Apart from the repeated trips between the island and the mainland and the watering of their many plants little else happens besides a brief altercation between husband and wife and a concluding tragedy that exposes the extent of the family’s isolation. The film lacks any meaningful dialogue which means the focus very much remains on the daily actions of this humble family, the rinse-and-repeat that defines their existence.
The absence of any notable plot means that the success of The Naked Island rests largely on its imagery; the sparse beauty of the island and the sea in which it sits provide the perfect backdrop against which the strictly regimented lives of the family are articulated. Shindô sometimes pulls his camera back so far that the husband and wife working on the hillside look like ants upon their nest. At other times it lurks beneath the pair to shoot them in closeup as they go about their work, their faces set in rigid focus as they water their crops. Similarly their trips across to the mainland are notable for their tranquility and only later, when tragedy strikes, is the trip imbued with any sense of urgency.
Kaneto Shindô has here stripped life back to its roots and the impression it leaves is one of deep familiarity. The interactions of the islanders with their habitat touches upon the rudiments of the human condition; we exist, we toil, we nourish life and let it nourish us. We suffer loss before we ourselves are lost. Yet at the same time the austerity and the isolation of their existence seems completely alien in today’s interconnected world, which is perhaps why The Naked Island has such an emotional pull. We can associate Shindô’s glorious imagery with the romantic vision of the simple life that lurches into daydreams and lingers thereafter, forever tantalising as an unpursued ‘what if?’ One of the most arresting aspects of The Naked Island is that it dispenses with such romanticism in its exploration of life’s rigours. The sun sets handsomely upon the sea but there is never enough water. The soil that is so faithfully nourished dries out again.
More by Kaneto Shindô
Kureneko (1968) – Shindô’s ghost story, about two women who in death strike back at the samurai who killed them, takes its cues from Kenju Mizoguchi’s more supernatural tales. The slow cinema of The Naked Island is a world away from this passionate drama but the director’s eye for detail is ever present.