The director of Onibaba and Kuroneko explores a bleak tale of isolation and quiet despair.
Note: the following review, by necessity, contains what some people may consider ‘spoilers’. As The Naked Island is not a mystery with plot twists, I would disagree. But proceed with caution.
Prior to making the remarkable horror films Onibaba and Kuroneko, director Kateno Shindo made this even more astonishing 1960 low-budget film, an understated and low-key study of the human condition that could well be his finest moment. Taking a small film crew and living out in the middle of nowhere, almost as isolated as the characters in the film, he crafted a genuinely haunting and grim tale that remains as powerful now as it ever was.
Set on a small archipelago in South-West Japan, the film follows the lives of a small family who are the island’s only inhabitants as their lives progress over the four seasons of a year. For them, every day is a struggle as they deal with scorching heat, occasional downpours and harsh living conditions as they grow their crops – even their drinking water has to be brought over from the mainland. The characters – a man, Senta (Taiji Tonoyama), a woman, Toyo (Nobuko Otowa) and their two sons, Taro and Jiro – approach this life stoically, without fuss. We don’t know how they ended up here or how long they have been here, but their lives seem regimented and passionless. Yet these are not peasants in ancient Japan – this is a modern-day story and it seems that this isolation is something that they have willingly chosen. More to the point, it does not seem to be because they are dysfunctional characters who cannot cope with the modern world. We see one of the children being taken by boat to school every day, and at one point the family take a day out to the mainland, where they stare at trivial shows on TV, ride the cable cars and behave like typical tourists before returning to the primitive world of their timeless existence. The intrusion of these familiar, everyday moments is unsettling and strange, and it makes their desolate lives all that more baffling.
The family live a silent, emotionless life – the only dialogue in the whole film comes during a brief scene in the school and the main characters don’t say a word to each other – or anyone else, for that matter – throughout the entire narrative. Yet there are hidden passions, moments of love, despair and anger – when the wife spills a bucket of their precious water, her husband snaps and slaps her face; the family enjoy a brief moment of joy splashing about in the water; and as the story progresses, one of the children dies, leading to a short explosion of grief and anger from his mother before life returns to its monotonous, unchanging routine.
The island location for the film is as bleak and inhospitable a place as you could imagine, and Shindo brilliantly captures the hardships of the family’s life. He makes the act of carrying buckets of water up a winding dirt path as tense as anything you might see in a thriller. Because you know how vital this is to the survival of the couple, it is intensely nail-biting just to see if they can make it with the precious load – it’s no wonder the man acts so angrily when a bucket is lost. These scenes of water carrying take up a surprisingly large part of the film’s first act, the constantly repeated journey a reminder of just how hard and unforgiving a life these people lead. By rights, it should become boring – the same dull acts carried out again and again. But it’s far from that. The subtle performances from Nobuko Otowa and Taiji Tonoyama manage to convey the suffering, the hardship and the desperation of the couple as they transport the precious water and as they lead their spartan lives. The few scenes where they experience joy become wonderful because you want these long-suffering people to have at least some relief from a life that seems to be nothing but horribly hard work for very little reward.
The closest the film gets to conventional drama is with the death of the son, but here too it is handled with a lack of sensationalism. The burial of the child – carried out silently by his parents as his schoolmates, brought over on a boat, watch – is extraordinarily sad because it isn’t at all melodramatic. The loss of the child seems to be just one more dreadful thing that the family must endure, and Otawa’s brief rebellion later – throwing down a water bucket and uprooting the crops – seems an authentic cry for help, not only in the emotional outburst but also in its briefness. Life, in the end, must go on, even if we never quite understand just why the family are growing these meagre crops in the middle of nowhere. Other filmmakers might feel the urge to fill in a back story – Shindo sensibly knows that we don’t need one.
The Naked Island is genuinely remarkable. It’s a film of great beauty, despite the barren locations – Shindo called it a ‘cinematic poem’ and I can’t think of a better description. It has a documentary realism about it, but it still works as a powerful drama – and the lack of dialogue is a master stroke. We don’t need words to see the emotions of these people, it’s written in their faces and their quiet, resigned actions – and the potent, haunting score of Hikaru Hayashi.
In its own way, the film is as grand a tragedy as anything you’ll see. We don’t always need grand sweeping melodrama – sometimes, just quiet misery will do the job just as well. The film doesn’t try too hard to hit you with a sense of tragedy and emotional misery but succeeds in doing so anyway. As a story of survival in the face of hardship and tragedy, it has an authenticity and a resonance that few films can match. A masterpiece.
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