The Naked Island: The Silence of the Sea

On Film / Essays — May 17, 2016
Naked Island essay

With its novel melding of techniques from silent cinema and contemporary documentary, Kaneto Shindo’s masterful The Naked Island seems suspended between two worlds, its portrait of twentieth-century peasant life offered as both a timeless fable about human endurance and a sharp critique of Japan’s sudden leap into the capitalist new world order. Indeed, the 1960 film marked a crucial transitional moment in the history of postwar Japanese cinema, between the late flowering of studio production that defined the fifties as a last golden age of classical filmmaking and the radical New Wave launched in the late sixties. The Naked Island’s heartfelt concern for Japan’s underclass clearly aligned it with the former’s staunch and often embittered humanism, embodied in the postwar works of Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, and Kenji Mizoguchi, Shindo’s first mentor; its focus on life and work in contemporary rural Japan anticipated the ardent interest in the local and in folk traditions soon to be explored by a new generation of filmmakers.

The film’s striking avoidance of spoken dialogue lends an abstract, almost mythological quality to the four characters who remain its resolute focus: a couple and their two young sons struggling to subsist on an isolated rocky island without freshwater or any other inhabitants. Given neither name nor voice, the family in The Naked Island seems at times to have emerged from one of those surging odes to Land and Labor directed by such Soviet filmmakers of the silent era as Aleksandr Dovzhenko and Vsevolod Pudovkin. Yet the haunting serial score by avant-garde composer Hikaru Hayashi makes clear the alternate, empathetic vision of the proletariat offered here. Rather than heroic symphonic music, the tale of the peasant farmers is adorned with only a minimal, melancholy theme, whose constant repetition takes on an almost work-song-like cadence that echoes the endless cyclicality of the film’s starkly utilitarian world, where every movement is bent to the absolute purpose of the family’s meager yet onerous harvest.

The Naked Island was a deeply personal project for its forty-eight-year-old director, who was himself at a pivotal juncture in his career, fighting to survive as an independent filmmaker and find creative and financial freedom outside the dominant studio system. Active as a screenwriter from the early forties, Shindo had directed his first two films for Daiei Studios, but he found himself increasingly frustrated by the rigidly hierarchical studio structure and, in 1950, bravely joined forces with his fellow director Kozaburo Yoshimura and the actor Taiji Tonoyama to form the pioneering independent production company Kindai Eiga Kyokai. The company’s early projects included Shindo’s extraordinary third feature, Children of Hiroshima (1952), a documentary-styled melodrama that gave moving voice to the politically charged humanism that would remain the highest aim of his long and diverse career. Although the project was commissioned by the Japan Teachers’ Union, Shindo flatly refused to deliver the outspoken anti-American statement the group had requested, creating instead a mournful lament for the tragic destruction of war that refused to assign easy blame to either side.

As a native son of Hiroshima and an army veteran, Shindo was keenly sensitive to the human toll of war, a subject to which he would return in Lucky Dragon No. 5 (1959), a harrowing dramatization of the story of the ill-fated Japanese tuna fishermen contaminated by fallout from the Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb tests. Despite such urgent topicality, Shindo’s films failed to attain the commercial success needed to buoy his ambitions, but he decided to try once more, staking the hopes of Kindai Eiga Kyokai, along with a substantial personal investment, on the uncompromising and potentially final project that would become The Naked Island. With a minimal budget, crew, and cast—the latter including Shindo’s future wife, Nobuko Otowa, and business partner Tonoyama—the film’s tenuous production emblematized the precarious condition of Japanese independent filmmaking in the postwar years.

Although more boldly stylized, The Naked Island is a subtler post-Hiroshima film than Shindo’s earlier work, a more nuanced meditation on the traumatic legacy of the atomic bomb and on postwar Japan’s ambiguous future. Located, in fact, in Hiroshima Prefecture, the eponymous setting is an impossibly diminutive island, revealed in its miniature entirety by the dramatic aerial shots that open and close the film. Taken as a geographic metaphor for the archipelago nation, the difficult island is a graphic reminder of the isolation and the paucity of natural resources that are Japan’s primal conditions, and that were a root inspiration for the nation’s disastrous reinvention, in the first half of the twentieth century, as an imperialist superpower. Yet the fierce industriousness that propelled Japan’s first, thunderous industrialization and would later fuel its post–World War II economic recovery is also ambiguously embodied in the agricultural labor that The Naked Island renders so starkly Sisyphean. Running, never walking, the family works tirelessly, with no time to meaningfully engage with one another, let alone speak. Like the iconic briefcase-clutching “salarymen” who drove the economy of fifties Japan ever forward, the farmers remain locked in a perpetual work cycle that excludes them from the world they indefatigably uphold.

The Naked Island is often compared with Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934), and celebrated as a similarly poetic ode to Man’s eternal wrestling for dominion over restless Nature. But while both are high dramas of lives dependent on and destroyed by the sea, The Naked Island’s pointed critique of its moment sets it markedly apart from Flaherty’s folkloric and mythopoetic vision. While Flaherty used nonactors from his Aran Islands setting to give rich dimension to the remote world he bravely explored, Shindo worked with professional actors on an uninhabited island. Rather than a real-life location with rooted traditions, Shindo’s island is a constructed metaphor, defined, moreover, in contrast to the modernized mainland glimpsed in the floating interlude where the family briefly leaves home to be captivated by a glittering world of material goods, mesmerized by the novel, technologically mediated views offered by a shop-window television and a funicular ride up a steep hillside overlooking the Inland Sea. With its sharp reminder of Japan’s emergent consumer culture, this singular sequence breaks the spell conjured by the island’s seemingly faraway world, rendering cruelly absurd the condition of its geographical proximity to yet unyielding distance from the miraculous offerings of the twentieth century.

Politically charged figures, the atavistic peasants in The Naked Island are also clear expressions of a new fascination with the “primitive” in Japanese history and culture, which had been gradually emerging in 1950s cinema and would later find full flowering in the work of such New Wave directors as Nagisa Oshima, Hiroshi Teshigahara, pioneering documentarian Shinsuke Ogawa, and, most of all, Shohei Imamura. Consider an early scene that plays out a strangely comic juxtaposition between the family, eating a hurried meal, and the farm animals that surround them, with frequent cuts between the farmers shoveling rice into their mouths and the goats and ducks greedily eating grain and leaves. Like Imamura’s black comedies of venal characters and capers gone awry—Endless Desire (1958) and Pigs and Battleships (1961), for example—this ribald moment in The Naked Island can be taken as a retort to the polite and polished world of late Yasujiro Ozu films, turning the ritual of the meal into a comically grotesque and vulgar spectacle. In the same way, the peasants’ uncanny stare at the storefront TV renders alien and almost obscene the coveted television set so central to Ozu’s Good Morning (1959). In subsequent films, however, Shindo moved distinctly away from the anthropological and entomological study of contemporary culture embraced by Oshima and Imamura, turning instead further back in history and mythology to rediscover the dark ghost stories that would inspire his back-to-back masterworks Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968).

Despite his prolific and versatile output, however, Shindo has remained a largely overlooked figure both in Japan and abroad, and his early directorial career in particular is in need of reconsideration. For like his rough contemporary Susumu Hani, Shindo ignited a documentary impulse in the postwar cinema, an ardent and unflinching quest to confront the paradoxes of Japan’s postwar moment that is fully voiced in The Naked Island. As a resolutely independent and politically engaged filmmaker, Shindo challenged the nationalist homilies and hymns erected by the censorship reigns of both the U.S. occupation and the fascist regime before it, by making the uncomfortable argument that the Japanese national character was in essence unchanging, rooted in the rocky island soil haunted by ghosts and shipwrecks and famine. With its final message that life and work must continue—no matter the costs—The Naked Island becomes simultaneously an existential fable, a ghost tale, and a harbinger of the radical countercinema to come.