Do not adjust your set. The Naked Island is not from the silent era; in fact, it was made in 1960. However, this soul-wrenching Japanese film exemplifies the art of visual story-telling. With well-placed music, a choice smattering of ambient sound, next-to-no speech and the barest of captions, director Kaneto Shindô relies on his imagery to craft an engrossing realist drama. This is one of the most sophisticated, and powerful, of modern silent films. I found it completely engrossing – and the moment it finished, I pressed play and watched it all over again.
Shindô, best known for Onibaba and Children of Hiroshima, started out in the studio lab, before getting work as an art director and screenwriter and assisting Mizoguchi in the late 1930s. His common-law wife died of TB in 1943; the following year he was drafted into the army to do menial work as a cleaner. More than with many other cineastes, you could say that by the time he found success as a film director, Shindô had an appreciation for the struggles of working people. Many of his early films portray the degradations of poverty, and emphasise female suffering in particular. The Naked Island is no exception, described by Shindô as “a cinematic poem to try and capture the life of human beings struggling like ants against the forces of nature”.
A family of four live alone on a remote, hilly island in Japan’s inland sea. The mother and father raise their crops by hand, carry fresh water from the mainland in pails slung across their shoulders on painful yokes, and live at the mercy of the elements. It’s the definition of a hand-to-mouth existence, thrown into relief when the boys catch a fish and the family take it to town to sell. There, all four experience the baffling luxuries of televisions, restaurants and leisure time before they return to their relentless routine. A third of the way through the film, a shocking act of violence reinforces the fragility of their livelihood. The tragic final act is an object lesson in how poverty crushes the human spirit.
The film is elegantly, cleverly photographed too – in lush monochrome CinemaScope by Kiyoshi Kuroda. The long takes of the family’s manual labour create not a documentary effect, but in their reworking and repetition, bring foreboding, life-or-death fear and sorrow. As the central couple, picked out against the overbearing hillside or the lowering sky, bear their yokes like crosses or dredge for seaweed in the pouring rain, their story speaks for itself. It is abundantly clear that the strength of this film would be diluted by conversation or narration. Shindô himself (in conversation with composer Hikaru Hayashi on the commentary track) explains during The Naked Island‘s heartbreaking climax: “We decided at the beginning to have no dialogue and that enabled us to express this scene so boldly.” The finale is all the more horrifying for its wordlessness – a twist of fate that is inexplicably cruel.
The Naked Island is accompanied by the aforementioned audio commentary, the option to watch without English subtitles, a video intro by Alex Cox and a booklet of supporting material including an interview with Shindô.
The Naked Island is released on Blu-Ray by Masters of Cinema on 24 June 2013. You can order a copy from Amazon http://amzn.to/10TeBv3; The Hut http://tidd.ly/a5a1126b; or MovieMail http://bit.ly/11aAEMw