On a tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea, a long path winds from the
shore to a large field of sweet potatoes. Every day, two tired figures
can be seen lugging massive buckets of water up and down the path over
and over and over again. Once at the top, they carefully water each
individual sweet potato sprout. But their buckets only provide enough
water for a few plants. So, once again, they must climb down the path,
board a boat, travel to another island, refill their buckets with fresh
water, and return. It is harsh, back-breaking work. But for this husband
and wife, nothing less than the livelihood of their family depends on
it. They have two young sons, both of which are not strong enough yet to
help with the crops. So every day they are ferried to school while
their parents continue their monotonous, thankless work. Such is life
for the family in Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island, one of the great treasures of 60s Japanese cinema.
the explosion of Japanese cinema into the international marketplace in
the 50s, Shindō was largely overshadowed by such luminaries as Akira
Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. But he still managed to score a number of
critical hits overseas with such films as Children of Hiroshima (1952) and Lucky Dragon No. 5
(1959). The former was the first Japanese film to confront the horrors
of the atom bomb attacks during World War Two while the latter was based
on the true story of a fishing boat that accidentally got hit by
further atomic testing near Bikini Atoll in 1954. But the end of the 50s
saw Shindō with almost no money left. So he scraped together what
little money he could into one last project: The Naked Island.
The film was a daring gamble. It didn’t focus on politics or hot-button
issues. It focused on only a handful of characters. And, most
importantly, it contained no spoken dialogue.
misunderstand what I mean when I say that The Naked Island doesn’t have
any dialogue. The film has a soundtrack. But Shindō fills the film with
“in-between” moments. We assume that the family talks to each other. But
Shindō focuses on scenes of extreme toil and tedium. After decades of
living on the same island and raising the same family, what is there to
say while monotonously watering the same field of sweet potatoes? Take
one scene where the husband and wife lug massive buckets of water up to
their fields. The wife stumbles and spills her water. The husband is
furious. They will have to make an extra trip to the mainland to make up
for the loss. He knows it. She knows it. In anger, he smacks her in the
face. But then, without a word, he helps her up and the two continue up
the hill. Their silent communication is more powerful than anything
they could have said.
But the absence of dialogue does
more than force Shindō to present the film in purely visual terms. The
silence and monotony forces the audience to re-evaluate the family’s
relationship with their surroundings. Allow me to explain: early in the
film Shindō cuts between the mother and father watering their crops and
the waves washing things ashore their island. As we move back and forth
between the two, we start to see them as equal and essential parts of
the environment. Just as the waves must crash, the family must toil and
But that isn’t to suggest that The Naked Island
is completely bleak. There are small moments of merciful joy. One of
the sons catches a fish and eagerly presents it to his weary parents.
Despite the day’s hardships, the father smiles and playfully throws him
into the sea. The mother beams and breaks into laughter. The family
takes the fish to the mainland where they sell it to a merchant. With
the money, they treat themselves to a big meal at nice restaurant. Life
may be hard, but it is not without its pleasures.
It’s tempting to describe The Naked Island
as a quasi-documentary. But to do so would be to miss Shindō’s purpose.
After all, there are inaccuracies in how the family lives. For
instance, sweet potatoes do not need to be constantly watered every day.
What’s important to Shindō isn’t the crop itself, but the demands that
it places on the family. Without the crop, they die. They work so they
can live. But can you call what they do living? I believe that the
answer can be found in the tragic last quarter of the film where one of
the sons gets sick. They rush to get a doctor. But the trip to the
mainland is long, much too long. When they finally return the son is
dead. After the funeral, we see the husband and wife continue their
thankless task of watering their sweet potatoes. But suddenly, the wife
freezes. She reaches down and begins to rip the precious plants out of
the ground in a frenzy. Finally, she collapses and lets forth a
piercing, haunting shriek of anguish. Watch the husband’s reaction. It
may surprise you. It may infuriate you. It may make you laugh. But it is
the key to understanding Shindō’s intentions. Living is a burden. But
we survive because...well...we must.