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When Words Aren't Necessary on 'The Naked Island'

Kaneto Shindo's 1960 movie made a splash, disappeared, and has now resurfaced with Criterion.

The Naked Island

Director: Kaneto Shindo
Cast: Nobuko Otowa, Taiji Tonoyama
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1960
USDVD release date: 2016-05-17

Criterion puts out deluxe editions of many classic movies that have been on home video before, and it's something of a special event when they unveil an important movie that hasn't yet seen the digital light of day, at least in Region 1. Such is Kaneto Shindo's The Naked Island, a unique film that caused a splash around the world upon its release in 1960 before pretty much dropping off the map.

Frustrated with the Japanese studio system, Shindo boldly founded an independent company in the ‘50s with actor Taiji Tonoyama and fellow director, Kozaburo Yoshimura. Their productions weren't successful enough to keep them afloat and the company was on the verge of bankruptcy when Shindo made a film that, while unusual, was truly international in potential because it has virtually no dialogue.

The Naked Island follows a year in the life of a husband (Tonoyama) and wife (Nobuko Otowa, who married Shindo) who live on a small island in a lake and do nothing but carry heavy buckets of water up the hill to tend their crops for a meagre harvest. It sounds kind of like the Sisyphean life of an indie filmmaker, although Shindo's intentions are clearly universally existential as well as specific to Japan's postwar economy in a rapidly developing world. In exquisite black and white clarity, the photography looks up at its stoic central couple like sweating gods, except when the camera flies above for a godlike perspective on their antlike struggles, as scored in a lilting and repetitive manner by Hikaru Hayashi.

Things do happen in the course of the year and the 96-minute movie, but most of the events are small, if no less vivid for that. The farmers and their two small boys have small pleasures, like baths and an outing in the nearby town, where they see a whimsical female dancer on TV. There are also pains, including a moment of lightning-like violence and one very serious development. Despite a word here or there and some group songs, the viewer can quickly look past the lack of dialogue, just as we can overlook the fact that Otowa is too beautiful to have been schlepping through this unforgiving lifestyle, long enough to have two kids.

Shinto is most famous for two ‘60s ghost stories, long available from Criterion: Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968). These are stylish black and white shockers, starring Otowa as women who rebel violently against the world of soldiers, incorporating class and sex issues into their scheme. Although seemingly as far as possible from the docudrama mystique of The Naked Island, which was entirely contrived for filming on an uninhabited island, it's clear that Shindo remains concerned with Japanese society in general and how women feel trapped in particular.

The three films together give Otowa a great panorama of work. In fact, she was Shindo's primary actress and their careers depended on each other, professionally and personally. More of their works should be available, and we hope this release signals that. Perhaps the 1952 milestone Children of Hiroshima, the first Japanese film to address that topic, is coming down the pike?

The disc comes with commentary (in Japanese with subtitles) by Shinto and Hayashi, appreciations by Benicio Del Toro and historian Akira Mizuta Lippit, a video introduction made by Shinto at 99 in 2011 (he died the next year), and a trailer.


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