Home Video Hovel: The Naked Island, by David Bax
On its website, Criterion describes Kaneto Shindô’s The Naked Island as “documentary-like.” I suppose, in our overall tendency to draw a sharp line between fiction and non-fiction, that’s fair. But, in a world where Robert Flaherty’s largely staged Nanook of the North is categorized as a straight up documentary, it’s hard to make an argument that this fierce and entrancing film is much different. It’s hard to say where the line is between re-creation and dramatization but, with exception of some dramatic flourishes like a slap to the face or a sudden sickness, most of this nearly wordless film could be as real as anything Flaherty produced, only more beautiful.
Four people—mother, father, two sons—live and farm on an isolated Japanese island. Most of their day is comprised of rowing to another island to gather water, bringing it back and trudging up the hill carrying buckets to irrigate their crops. There is grace and nobility in this repetitiveness as it is portrayed by Shindô but we also feel the drudgery and the glorious relief when it is broken by events like a daytrip into town. This focused and subjective look at the realities and difficulties of the remote, agricultural life make The Naked Island feel a bit like Little House on the Prairie transported to twentieth century Japan.
Most fascinating is Shindô’s decision to tell his story almost completely without dialogue. On the one hand, for non-Japanese speaking viewers like myself, it removes the language barrier. But, for the most part, it has the opposite effect, putting more distance between the spectator and the subjects. The resulting otherness of these silent agrarians lends the film an anthropological viewpoint. Or, in more drastic terms, The Naked Island is essentially a nature documentary that could just as easily be about birds or insects; it just happens to be about humans.
None of that, however, should be taken as a mark against the film. On the contrary, it’s what makes it so special. Just as we tend to insist on delineations between fiction and non-fiction, we build subconscious walls between humanity and nature. Shindô seeks to collapse those walls. He succeeds with the help of cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda, who composes every breathtaking shot such that your attention is drawn to the beauty of the rolling hills, the incomprehensible vastness of the skies and the liquid metal shimmer of the still water just as much as it is to the people. The Naked Island is a testament to the essence of humanity in the world. It belongs in a time capsule for future generations or visiting aliens to discover.
The transfer, a 4K scan of a new 35MM print struck from the original negative is about as close to flawless as a 56-year-old film can look. And the audio—which is more, not less, important in a film with no dialogue—is lush and immersive.
Special features include a 2011 video introduction by Shindô, a commentary with Shindô and composer Hikaru Hayashi, an “appreciation of the film by” (read: interview with) Benecio Del Toro, an interview with film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit and an essay by film scholar Haden Guest.