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Life, toil and water
A region 2 DVD review of THE NAKED ISLAND / HADAKA NO SHIMA by Slarek
 

It's fairly safe to say that nowadays veteran Japanese filmmaker Shindô Kaneto is best known in the west as the director of the vividly atmospheric 1962 erotic horror Onibaba, but nip back two more years and it was Hadaka no shima [The Naked Island] that was grabbing all the attention. Made on approximately one-tenth of the usual feature budget of the time, it was in many ways the result of Shindo throwing all caution to the wind and making the film he wanted to make rather than one a studio expected. His production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai, looked set to fold, and he decided that before it went under he was going to "make a pure film with no concessions to commercialism." The resulting work met with international acclaim and was the joint winner of the Grand Prix at the 1961 Moscow International Film Festival. For some years, however, the film has remained virtually unseen in the UK, which is where Eureka's Masters of Cinema label steps in.

Hadaka no shima is the very essence of minimalist cinema – there is no real dialogue and precious little in the way of story, while actions that would normally be cut short by editing are shown almost in their entirety. This is likely to present a problem for the impatient viewer, but if you surrender to Shindo's technique, temporarily put aside those early high-octane Yakuza movies that have helped bring about the present revival of interest in classic Japanese cinema and move down in pace a few gears, then you will experience something really rather wonderful.

The film is centred entirely around a poor farming family, consisting of a mother, a father and two young boys, who are the only inhabitants of a small, sun-baked island in the Setonaikai archipelago in south-western Japan. They make their very basic living growing crops on the steep hillsides, but there is no fresh water supply on the island and the couple have to make regular trips across the bay to collect it in order to feed both themselves and their harvest. The island has no modern machinery and no electricity and the water has to be laboriously transported and carried up steep and precarious paths in wooden pails balanced on shoulder-mounted poles.

The importance of the water and the work required to transport it is shown in extraordinary detail – journeys are completed almost in real time, as the camera focuses on the couple's facial expressions or their sometimes nail-bitingly uncertain footing, as they slowly struggle with balance and weight up a path that would leave even the unburdened out of breath. Shindo clearly wants us to understand the importance of the water and the controlling nature of the labour required to collect it, and achieves this through an opening sequence whose length would seem to defy all cinematic logic. Try to imagine just how long you could keep such a scene going without losing your audience. Five minutes? Ten at a push? Try thirty minutes, almost a third of the film's ninety-three minute running time. It simply should not work, but by thunder it does. A brief meal and the transportation of one of the children to a nearby school is worked in there too, but essentially the first half-hour of the film is just about the transportation of water and the feeding of crops. But as with contemporary Bresson and later Kiarostami, there is absolute purpose to Shindo's approach. This resonates sharply when, almost inevitably, some water is accidentally spilled, and in a whole number of ways later in the film, notably when a tragic turn of events prompts a sobering rethink of that long walk up the hill, of the relationship between the father and mother, and even the watering itself. By reducing life to its most basic elements, the film very effectively prompts a degree of introspection in its audience – stripped of the trappings and conveniences of modern life and society, there is a clarity here that is startling, enlightening, and deeply affecting.

If the first third passes almost invisibly, then the economy of storytelling moves the rest of the film at a disarming pace, as an entire season comes and goes in only a few short minutes, and the fruit of the couple's year-long labour is represented by four small packages delivered to the local mayor by way of taxes or rent. Much of the film has an documentary quality to it (at the 1961 Moscow Festival, the press did not realise the two leads were actors), with the turn of events in the final third providing the only examples of traditional story development, and even here the purpose is linked specifically to life and location rather than narrative needs.

Clearly much of the film is meant to be read symbolically or metaphorically. The primitive tools and methods employed by the family ground the film in no specific historical period (Alex Cox observes in his introduction that for the most part it could be set in medieval times), and the portrayal of poor farm workers bypassed by rapid industrialisation is still relevant today. Just a few short years ago, as Poland prepared for its European Union application, I observed the stark divide between the commercialisation of the city centres and farmland that was still being worked by horse-drawn machinery, its workers untouched by the arrival of urban capitalism (a situation Shindo also observed in China some years after this film was made). Shindo himself talks of the film as a portrayal of life dependent on labour, and the idea that "human behaviour essentially stems from the task of survival," reflecting his own political concerns with those struggling at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

The film's minimalist approach and political undertones have nonetheless had their detractors, most of whom seem to have completely missed the point and taken the story and characters at face value, seeing the lack of dialogue as an inability to communicate and the presentation of the primitive lifestyle as a rejection of modernity in favour of older, simpler times. The family's brief flirtation with progressive Japanese society midway through the film is definitely a jolt, as they travel on a fuel-driven boat, observe a downright peculiar dance/aerobics display on a shop window TV, and eat a café meal using western cutlery instead of chopsticks. But it seems to have escaped the notice of the detractors that a later tragedy is brought about in part because of the family's disconnection with regular society. Shindo presents their way of life in starkly honest terms, with both the positive and negative aspects plainly on display. For the family here, life is about survival – it's hard work and fraught with possible danger – but it still represents a freedom that anyone tied to a company and a mortgage and the trappings of modern western society can only dream of achieving.

In Hadaka no shima Shindo created something unique, a stripped-to-the-bone but richly humanist and profoundly moving study of life and labour and the essentials of survival that is a genuinely audio-visual experience, from Kuroda Kiyomi's beautifully composed scope cinematography and Toshio Enoki's purposeful editing to Hayashi Hikaru's gorgeous score – soulfully reflecting the family's toil and trauma, it is at the same time both universal and somehow specifically rooted in its location, as much part of the storytelling as the movements of the actors. Shindo has said that his intention was to create "a visual poem." I can think of few films more deserving of that description than this one.

sound and vision

The print here has been licensed from Toho in Japan and has been restored and remastered for this DVD. The result is a mixture of good and bad news, but it's mostly good. On the down side is the sometimes variable contrast – blacks are almost never black, but on a few shots the contrast is reduced to a narrow range of light grays. This would seem to be an issue with the source material, as the contrast can be seen changing from shot to shot in places, but this has not been adjusted at the remastering stage. The transfer is occassionally a little on the bright side, though some of this may have been an intentional aspect of the original film to emphasise the heat of the sun. Film splices can also be intermittently seen at the top and bottom of frame. That aside, the anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 print is otherwise very nice indeed, with an often impressive tonal range and very good detail. There is occasional dust and damage, but this is minimal and never distracting. Contrast issues aside, even Criterion would not be displeased with the print here.

The original mono soundtrack is reproduced in Dolby 1.0 and is a clean and largely clear affair. The usual age-related issues regarding slight distortion of louder musical notes is par for the course, but the score, which is effectively the film's dialogue, comes over well otherwise. On the whole a decent job.

extra features

A video introduction is provided by director and student of Japanese cinema Alex Cox. Filmed in medium long shot from an angle that feels almost as if we are eavesdropping on a conversation with an unseen companion, it initially had me reaching for hair to tear out simply because just about every adjective I'd jotted down in my notes was also used by Cox, making it look almost as if I'd gone straight to this feature rather than watched the film. But this very fact helped to re-enforce that Shindo's minimalist (that's one of them) approach is clearly communicating his message, not leaving it to viewers to bring their own reading. Though identified as an introduction, I'd definitely watch this after seeing the film, as it contains some spoilers.

Given the film's age and origin, it's something of a treat to find included a commentary by director Shindo Kaneto and long time friend and composer Hayashi Hikaro, recorded in Japan in 2000 shortly after Shindo has completed work on Sanmon yakusha, his film about the actor Taiji Tonoyama, one of the stars of this film. Given that Shindo was in his late 80s and Hayashi was knocking on the door of 70 when this was recorded (you wouldn't know it from listening to them, it has to be said), it's a surprisingly chatty and lively affair, and a very informative one. Inevitably the music is discussed at some length – its construction, effectiveness, and even the moment when one of the French press at the Moscow Film Festival could be heard whistling it between jobs under the impression that it was the Japanese national anthem – but plenty of background is also provided on the filming, the locations and the island people who worked in and for the film. Shindo also discusses the thinking behind his approach and the importance of having the whole crew working along the same lines. An enthralling and valuable commentary.

The Gallery feature 18 production stills, 3 international posters and a poster for Sanmon yakusha. The stills are of high quality and produced close to full screen, a rare treat. It has to be said that contrast on the stills is better than it is on the film.

Also included is an excellent 24 page booklet featuring a detailed essay on the film by Acquarello, part of a detailed article on Shindo by Joan Mellen (to be concluded on the Masters of Cinema releases of Onibaba and Kuroneko) and and excerpt of an interview with Shindo, conducted by Mellen in 1972.

summary

Noted Japanese director Oshima Nagisa has been dismissive of Hadaka no shima, saying that the film reflected "the image foreign people hold of the Japanese." As a westerner myself (albeit one who has done a fair share of traveling in rural Japan), I am in no position to contradict this, though a close friend who grew up in just such an area in southern Japan in the 1950s and 60s felt that the portrayal of the people here was largely accurate (she did take issue with the logic of aspects of the couple's lifestyle, however, and did not pick up on its symbolism). For many, though, this remains one of the most poetically beautiful films yet to emerge from Japan, and, minor print contrast issues aside, it's a delight to see the film released in such impressive shape with these special features. Unless Criterion get hold of a new print and work the sort of wonders they have on Kurosawa's Red Beard and The Hidden Fortress, this looks set, for now at least, to be the definitive DVD version of a genuinely extraordinary work.

 


* All quotes from Kaneto Shindo and Nagisa Oshima were taken either from the commentary track or the booklet included with this DVD.

The Japanese convention of surname first has been used for all Japanese names in this review.

The Naked Island
Hadaka no shima

Japan 1960
93 mins
director
Shindô Kaneto
starring
Otowa Nobuko
Tonoyama Taiji
Tanaka Shinji
Horimoto Masanori

DVD details
region 0
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 1.0 mono
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Introduction by Alex Cox
Commentary by Kaneto Shindo and Hikaru Hayashi
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
Out now
review posted
16 July 2005

related reviews
The Naked Island [Blu-ray review]
Onibaba
[DVD review]
Onibaba
[Blu-ray review
Kuroneko
[DVD review]
Kuroneko
[Blu-ray review]

See all of Slarek's reviews