In 1960, his studio on the verge of bankruptcy, Kaneto Shindô retired to the isolated Setonaikai archipelago in South-West Japan, to shoot a film which needed to succeed if he and his crew were to continue their work.
For this film, that was to decide his and his studio's fate, what did he choose? The Naked Island, a near silent 'cinematic poem' to the inevitable hardship of life in isolation, featuring next to no dialogue, plenty of abstract imagery and not very much at all that would be considered 'marketable' today. How times have changed.
Where a studio now might turn to a superhero to save them, Shindô follows a family of four as they toil on their land, an isolated outcrop which requires them to row backwards and forwards to fetch the water needed to grow crops. Clearly, it's a hard existence, and the director goes to pains later on to show us just how hard it can be, his charges circling towards increasing tragedy varying from the mundane to the genuinely crushing.
The level that they live at, and the mundanity of tragedy, is shown early on when the mother (Nobuko Otowa) drops water it has taken her and the father (Taiji Tonoyama) many hours to carry from the mainland and then up to their hillside planting beds. She is hit by him and hit hard, dropping to the ground like the water from her long-carried bucket.
Water and the use-there-of seems to be a topic of some fascination to Shindô, who pans across the salty expanse and focuses in on the dusty soil the family are trying to give life to, absorbing their dribbled drops like a callous leech. His cinematic poem of hardship clearly recognises that which gives live, but it equally shows that obtaining such an everyday commodity is far from simple for many of the world's inhabitants.
There is then, a real sense of form and plenty of beauty in Shindô's depiction of a fruitless battle, but for many, this will prove a watch as difficult as the lives being depicted. There's very little narrative here, and that which is present in told in snatches of glimpsed story; a fish is caught (water again) and taken to market, where the family struggle to sell it; one of the children attends school whilst the other must help on the land. Like the crop which sprouts from the land, the morsels that Shindô offers hardly prove to be satisfying.
Endless shots of the mother walking up the hill to the family's house do accurately depict the life and journey Shindô wants to talk about, but there's a question here about how engaging they prove, a question which hangs over the film as a whole, successful though it was in saving Shindô's studio.
Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.
The Naked Island is released in the UK on Monday 24th June 2013
By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, amongst other things, all of which are secret unless Jack Bauer says so. You can find him on Google+, Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.