Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Sunday, October 14, 2012

裸の島 (The Naked Island)

Kaneto Shindō

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.

After 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.

Don’t 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 suffer.

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.


  1. "They work so they can live. But can you call what they do living?" ... it sounds like this filmmaker dealt with that question beautifully. I have not heard of this movie, but am intrigued by your article. Nice work!

    1. Thanks, Becky! Always a blessing to hear from you!

  2. I admire your dedication in watching classic movies. I'd be interested in watching these movies after reading your reviews. May I ask where you watch them or how you obtain them?

    1. I'd say that I get about 90% of the films I review here from Netflix, Hulu, and youtube. Many of these films are nearly impossible to acquire, so youtube can end up being one of the best options. I believe I watched THE NAKED ISLAND on youtube. But movies don't traditionally last very long on youtube before they are taken down.

      Does that help?

  3. I can't help but think of Woman In The Dunes. "Do we shovel sand to live or do we live to shovel sand?" Who would have thought I would break out in tears during a film with no dialogue? And was it just me or during the last couple of trips up the hill with water, did mom's face in the closeups appear to have aged significantly? What a magnificent film.

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