The Criterion Collection Review | The Naked Island
According to the better-learned theater scholars, there is a specific phenomenon from modern theatrical realism that describes the general feeling of profound emotional elevation an audience can experience from witnessing nothing more than usual struggles and consequence-free, quotidian, everyday life. In realist theater, there are no major plot points, no revelations, no melodrama, no contrived stories. Just people going about their business, working hard, and having conversations. But the audience – in the best of circumstances – will sit rapt, enshrouded by deep a feeling of universality. You can be sure there’s a wonderfully difficult-to-pronounce, multisyllabic German word for this feeling.
Kaneto Shindo’s 1960 film The Naked Island – now available on a Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, is perhaps the best cinematic exemplar of this sort of incident-free realism. It is a film that, while without much in the way of story and featuring no notable dialogue, can, through profoundly subtle cinematic skill and wholehearted devotion to the realistic form, provide an audience with a slow-motion explosion of emotional devastation. The Naked Island is tiny glorious. It hurts.
The Naked Island is about a family of four – a father (Taiji Tonoyama) a mother (Nobuko Otowa) and their two sons of about 10 and 5 – living on a tiny, tiny island in the Seto Inland sea. They live on the island alone, and the parents spend their days trekking to faraway locations, procuring fresh water, carrying it to their island precariously sloshing out of shoulder-mounted buckets, and going through long, long, backbreaking labor processes to grow and prepare big bundles of what I assume is wheat. Mere survival on this island is a constant onerous grind. The family doesn’t speak. Indeed, the film has no dialogue. Just a lot of long scenes of people working very, very hard. There are many shots of water seeping slowly into dry soil.
There are a few notable incidents. When the wife accidentally drops a bucket of water, she is slapped by her husband. When one of the boys catches a large fish, the family is able to sell it and go out for a meal in a nearby city. The elder boy attends classes, and is rowed to school every morning. There is another enormous incident in these people’s lives, and while I am loath to reveal what it is, I can say that the amount of labor required to stay alive will not allow the family to properly acknowledge or process it.
Modern audiences may not work as self-sustaining farmers on tiny Japanese islands, but the brilliance of The Naked Island is how it allows modern audiences to feel as if they have everything in common with this hard-working family. Modern survival requires an unending – almost Sisyphean – amount of hard work. Nothing will allow us to stop, take stock of our lives, or gather our thoughts about us. Nose, grindstone, repeat. There is one small moment near the end of The Naked Island wherein the mother stands on her island at night, crippled by an emotional blow so severe she can hardly stand, looking across the water at a fireworks display in the distance. At that moment, her tragic division from joy and her horrid longing is palpable as well as physical.
The Naked Island was one of the first films of the 15-year Japanese New Wave that lasted from the late 1950s all he way through the mid 1970s. The Japanese New Wave included filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima (Double Suicide), Shohei Imamura (Vengeance is Mine), Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter), and Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Woman in the Dunes), and started stressing a more natural, realistic aesthetic. Kaneto Shindo, perhaps best known for his horror movies Onibaba and Kuroneko (both available through The Criterion Collection) was one of the first filmmakers to infuse the nation with a previously unprecedented naturalism. He let the scenes breathe, unfettered by melodrama. He then festooned his bare-bones asceticism with stripped-down ultra-modern, non-orchestral scores.
The Naked Island may demand much patience for incident-hungry modern audiences. It’s the type of movie that some may describe as a meditation. It’s not so much a meditation, however, as a co-existence. We live with this family. They say nothing to us, but we know them. And when they hurt, we hurt just as much.
Top Image: Janus Films
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.