Tuesday’s Editor’s Pick: The Naked Island (1960)

by on April 26, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick


4:30, 9:15 at BAM [Program & Tix]

 

J. Ho for the Village Voice:

Gorgeously shot in wide-screen black-and-white on a hilly chunk of rock off the coast of Japan, the movie eschews all dialogue in recounting a farming family’s daily struggle to coax a crop of scrawny greens from the arid soil, irrigated with water they bring by boat from a neighboring island and then schlep up the cliff. With its emphasis on backbreaking routine (and narrative use of traumatic disruption) the movie anticipates the regiment of Jeanne Dielman, but, like Children of Hiroshima, it’s mainly a paean to resignation.
 
Ninety minutes of never-ending chores shot like a travelogue and performed to the persistent accompaniment of a moody flamenco guitar and flute ensemble, The Naked Island borders on kitsch. Still, once seen it is not easily forgotten—the myth of Sisyphus transposed to Tahiti.

 

Mark Asch for The L Magazine:

The Naked Island (1960) appropriates the language of the poetic-ethnographic documentary for existential metaphor. Favoring musical, task-oriented crosscutting over dialogue, Shindo spends a year with a family who live alone on a rocky island in the midst of a bustling harbor, across which mom and dad constantly row their single-oar boat to fetch fresh water, which the dry soil absorbs as soon as they can carry it up the terraced hillsides in heroic low-angle shots, suspenseful and Sisyphean. It’s Shindo’s tribute to heroic persistence in the face of encroaching modernity, made persuasive by the isosceles-triangular arrangement of the widescreen frame for thrilling, epic depth.

 

 
Zack Friedman for Bomblog:

Shindo gives space and meaning to each task his characters have to perform—the stroke of an oar, pouring out water, placing bowls on a rough table. Though the characters live in a world almost without language, their attentiveness gives them some faint dignity. The performance of routine tasks, when captured in such detail, seems almost like a ritual, exquisitely choreographed…It is perhaps almost as hard for us to figure out what to do with the people of The Naked Island—what can go on in such minds? Shindo no doubt has political lessons for us to draw from this picture of destitution on the margins of society. Their life is almost impossible to romanticize, except that it is made beautiful

 
David Fear in Time Out New York:

The one you should drop everything for, however, is 1960’s The Naked Island, perhaps the ultimate poetic-ruralism masterpiece not made by someone named Malick. Following two peasants (Otowa and fellow Shindô regular Tonoyama) on their daily labors, the filmmaker finds the familiar in a rigorous setup of toil, rinse, repeat—no dialogue is spoken for the first 40 minutes—until tragedy quietly strikes. Graceful goodbyes are said, then life moves on. The characters’ urge for survival wins out, even if you’re left shattered.

 

 
Acquarello at The Masters of Cinema Series:

The film proved to be a transformative experience for Shindo and Kindai Eiga Kyokai, which had not only redeemed the struggling independent production company from the brink of financial collapse and ensured its continued operation, but also impressed upon Shindo the virtues of a collectivist approach to filmmaking, implementing an isolated, communal environment for the production crew during the course of filming in order to harness the personal conflict and travails inherent in their situational intimacy towards a focused, creative synergy for the project. It is this humbled, collective strength borne of shared struggle and sacrifice that is poignantly articulated in the farmers’ return to the familiar, wordless ritual after their heartbreaking tragedy: the defiant resilience of a socially disposable, anonymous people that cannot be annihilated by cultural suppression, unconscionable acts of reckless inhumanity, or the inconstancy of fate.

 
A more mixed reaction from Michael Atkinson at Moving Image Source:

The Naked Island (1960) is substantially more auteur-ish—a risky, dialogue-free, widescreen portrait of a family of four living a hardscrabble existence on a rocky island, farming in the sand and transporting buckets of fresh water every day by canoe from the mainland. As always, Shindo homes in on the overbearing physical difficulties of the landscape, but if the experiment comes with a tinge of mezzobrow patronization, it has nevertheless acquired a substantial fan base over the years, including The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, whose initial accolades lose their amperage as it becomes obvious he thought the film was a documentary.

 

 
Bruce Bennett at The Wall Street Journal interviewed Shindo enthusiast Benicio Del Toro, who is co-presenting BAM’s traveling Shindo retrospective with Japan Foundation:

WSJ: What is it that makes his work so compelling to you?
 
Del Toro: He’s like a Japanese maverick. He started, if I’m not mistaken, one of the first truly independent production companies in Japan and brought together filmmakers and actors to do the first independent cinema in Japan. Shindo is a master, a master of movies. He’s done all kinds of films. Some of them are socially conscious, some of them are horror stories. “Kuroneko” is a great, classic horror movie. “Onibaba” is like a thriller. Some of them are really political, like “Children of Hiroshima” and “Lucky Dragon No. 5.” Those are strong, strong political films, almost [Italian director Gillo] Pontecorvo style, you know? They are all films to be watched that I think are solid and have withstood the test of time. Like him. He’s about to be 99.

 
And a 1972 interview with Shindo by Joan Mellen, posted on Nihon Cine Art:

M: Why do you think so many Japanese directors, including Imamura and yourself, treat the relationship or conflict between civilization and an earlier primitive life? Your The Naked Island is a renowned example.
 
S: Yes, the tendency has been rather popular among Japanese filmmakers for the past five or six years. The reason is that since the latter half of the nineteenth century, we have been witnessing the weakening of the human mind. I think this is a universal problem. Consequently, modern man, and I for one, are in the process of reevaluating primitive man’s energy and identity. This is a very central question.

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