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The Naked Island

The Naked Island

Hadaka no shima

Kaneto Shindo

Japan, 1960

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Review by Michael Nordine

Posted on 20 May 2014

Source Masters of Cinema DVD

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The End

Kaneto Shindo died in May of 2012 at the age of 100. A native of Hiroshima, little seems to have affected him in his century on this planet more than the atomic bombs dropped on his hometown and Nagasaki to end World War II—not just the events themselves (for which he wasn’t present) but their lingering effects both physical and spiritual. Though set in the 11th and 14th centuries, respectively, Shindo’s horror films Onibaba and Kuroneko are commonly understood as allegories for post-World War II Japan. The baleful spirits of murdered women eke out vengeance on those who did them wrong, masks are worn to conceal deformed visages. There’s no such deformity or even violence in The Naked Island, nor is there much of anything else. The film, though not exactly silent, has fewer than five lines of dialogue. The action consists of a nuclear family carrying out their daily tasks, the drudgery offset by the eponymous island’s striking beauty. The gentle rhythm with which the mother guides a rowboat ashore is almost musical, and the closer she and her husband get to their modest homestead, the larger the dot that is one of their two sons appears in the distance.

Ducks quack, a goat chews away at some foliage, and there’s the sense that this would all be rather idyllic were Shindo not so carefully cataloging the toil of daily life. It may not carry the same undercurrent of dread as, say, Jeanne Dielman, but when the name of the movie is preceded onscreen by a title card reading “the difficult land” it seems clear enough that the tone won’t exactly be celebratory. At the family’s first meal together, Shindo cuts between the four of them eating and their livestock doing the same; their survival isn’t in immediate doubt, but neither does the idea of them ever flourishing seem especially likely either.

Though never explicitly indicated, The Naked Island is set in the then-present of 1960. A decade and a half later, this is the collateral damage of those two bombs. Even speech can be likened to a luxury they can’t afford; better for the mother to save her energy for the two buckets of water she retrieves from the main island and balances over her shoulders on the journey back every day. The ability to get used to nearly anything is part of what keeps people alive, but it can also be responsible for nullifying any hope that things might one day improve. For a family so on the fringes of society, the notions of happiness and discontent never even seem to enter the picture. They exist; that will have to be enough for the foreseeable future.

A minor exception occurs midway through the film when a large fish is caught by the children. The family takes a day trip to the island, including a meal at a restaurant, a ride on a cable car, and some window-shopping. There’s a woman dancing on a television set on the other side of the glass, and it’s as though they’ve glimpsed another world. The Naked Island creates such an immersive environment that everything not directly related to keeping oneself alive for one more day seems strange, even flippant. The same can be said when, on the way to or from school, the boys observe dances and other rituals carried out by the mainlanders—who are these people, they must wonder, and how do they have time for this sort of thing?

We eventually learn one family member’s name after it appears on a tombstone near film’s end. There’s no finality even here, as the mourning process gets cut short by the need to return to the everyday, irrevocably altered though it may be.

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