The Naked Island (Hadaka no shima)

The Naked Island
(Hadaka no shima)
Director: Kaneto Shindô
Screenplay: Kaneto Shindô
Stars: Nobuko Otowa (Toyo, the mother), Taiji Tonoyama (Senta, the father), Shinji Tanaka (Tarô, the elder son), Masanori Horimoto (Jirô, the younger son)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1960
Country: Japan
The Naked Island Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Naked IslandKaneto Shindô’s The Naked Island (Hadaka no shima) was an unlikely international breakthrough for the prolific Japanese auteur, who had already directed 14 features over the previous decade, including the provocative Children of Hiroshima (1952), which played in competition at the sixth Cannes Film Festival. Yet, it was Shindô’s 15th feature, The Naked Island, a documentary-like portrait of a family’s daily struggles to farm a tiny, arid island in the remote Setonaikai archipelago off southwest Japan, that made his name familiar throughout the cinematic world. Winner of the Grand Prix at the Moscow International Film Festival, The Naked Island was such a box office success that it saved Shindô’s struggling production company, even though some Japanese critics were concerned that its portrayal of an isolated, rural peasant family made Japan look primitive.

Shindô intended the film as a sort of experiment, an attempt to make a cinematic poem that conveys the rural peasant life without resorting to dialogue, and in that effort he is largely successful. The Naked Island is a film of rhythms and repetitions, as Shindô focuses on the daily grind of trying to grow crops on a rocky, steep island without any source of water. The family—a father (Taiji Tonoyama), mother (Nobuko Otowa), and two young boys (Shinji Tanaka and Masanori Horimoto)—must work the land against all odds, bringing water to the island from the mainland on a tiny boat, hauling it up a craggy hill in large pots precariously dangling from a bow across the mother’s shoulders, and then individually ladled onto each plant. Throughout the film Shindô shows us the close-up image of the small cup of water being dumped and then soaking into the dry earth next to each plant, and it becomes a kind of visual metaphor for the difficulties the family faces and, to some extent, conquers each day. The Naked Island is above all an impressively physical film, daunting even, in the way it depicts the family laboring in their seemingly Sisyphean battle against the elements.

That, of course, makes the film sound like a chore to endure, but it is quite the opposite. Once its rhythms are set and we get to know the characters through their actions and interactions, The Naked Island develops a surprisingly strong narrative and emotional allure, drawing us into the action without resorting to cheap gimmicks or tricks. The film itself—a documentary that isn’t a documentary—is something of a gimmick, but Shindô is so resolutely steadfast in his intentions that it never feels like a ploy. Even when the family sits down to eat and not a word is spoken, it doesn’t feel like avoidance of dialogue for its own sake, but rather the depiction of hard-working people whose brief moments sharing a meal are more about much-needed sustenance than opportunity for idle chatter. And, while we most often see the family toiling away in their work, there are also moments of pure pleasure and joy, which roots their labor in a sense of camaraderie and familial connection. That is also why the film’s one moment of violence, when the father slaps the mother for being clumsy and spilling a jug of water, has such shocking force. It also helps that the film is so beautifully rendered, with Hikaru Hayashi’s modernist orchestral score and the widescreen black-and-white cinematography giving the rugged environment an evocative aesthetic depth (the cinematographer, Kiyomi Kuroda, shot several of Shindô’s most acclaimed subsequent films, including 1964’s Onibaba and 1968’s Kuroneko).

The Naked Island’s only real misstep is a third-act melodramatic development that, while emotionally effective and true to the life the characters lead, feels somewhat out of place with the rest of the film. The drama develops organically from the realities of the family’s life, but it also borders on cliché in a way that keeps it from being fully engaging. It’s really the only time The Naked Island feels created, rather than observed.

The Naked Island Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioJapanese Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by director Kaneto Shindô and composer Hikaru Hayashi
  • Video introduction by Shindô, recorded for a 2011 retrospective of his work
  • Video interview with actor Benicio Del Toro
  • Video interview with film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit
  • Trailer
  • Essay by film scholar Haden Guest
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 17, 2016

    Criterion’s Blu-ray, which marks The Naked Island’s debut in high definition in Region 1, looks marvelous. The 4K transfer was made from a 35mm print newly struck from the original camera negative, and extensive digital restoration has left it clean and virtually blemish-free. The black-and-white cinematography boasts excellent contrast and detail while maintaining a pleasant filmlike appearance. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack positive and also digitally restored, which leaves both the film’s impressive array of ambient sounds and the evocative musical score sounding very good.
    Criterion’s list of supplements is quite impressive, mixing together previously existing material and some new additions. The audio commentary by director Kaneto Shindô and composer Hikaru Hayashi, which is in Japanese with English subtitles, was recorded back in 2000 for an earlier video release. It is a great listen, with plenty of information about the film’s unique production and the impact it had. There is also a video introduction by Shindô, which was recorded for a 2011 retrospective of his work (he passed away in 2012 at the age of 100), and a trailer. New to Criterion’s edition are an 8-minute appreciation of the film by actor Benicio Del Toro, who is apparently a longtime fan and supporter of Shindô’s work, and a 17-minute interview with film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit, Professor of Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages and Cultures in the USC.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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