The Naked Island Review
Taking place on a small island situated in south-west Japan, The Naked Island tells the tale of a poor family struggling to make ends meet, when faced with the elements of a sometimes cruel nature. Day by day they perform the same difficult tasks, with little time to simply enjoy life. Director, Kaneto Shindo describes his film as “a cinematic poem”, that lets its visuals and composer Hikaru Hayashi’s infectious score take precedence over dialogue.
Shindo takes us through four seasons, beginning in the summer and finishing the following spring. This describes the repetitive cycle that befalls the small family living on Setonaikai. Their daily chores consist of fetching fresh water from the main island; making sure the children are taken to school; harvesting their crops and any number of other important jobs that they must carry out in order to get through a single day. The director illustrates these difficulties by prolonging several scenes during the course of the film and rather than use dialogue he relies on the expressions of his actors to carry across a series of emotional events. When the film opens the mother, Toyo (Nobuko Otowa), is seen carrying water up a hillside, looking as though she struggles whilst trying to maintain a steady balance. Ordinarily such a scene would be deemed as trivial, let alone showing it two or three times in succession, but this is where Shindo hammers home a harsh reality. Upon the final time in the first act as Toyo reaches the top of the hill she stumbles and spills the water, receiving a slap in the face from her husband Senta (Taiji Tonoyama). It’s a cruel payoff after the hardship she’s endured to which desperation surrounds itself. By now the very meaning of their existence begins to show: they’re merely survivors who cannot afford to make mistakes, should time and wealth refuse to be on their side. Of course it can also serve as an extension of Shindo's already widening ideas and the way in which he chooses to depict family relationships.
The following contains spoilers:
Clearly the Summer months are important and a large portion of the film consists of extreme emphasis on this, while later glossing over the Autumn festival season and winter’s crop growing for the spring ahead. It is during these moments in spring that we can finally see the proud family take time out to go on trips; using them for both pleasure and work, while appreciating some of things they don’t have back home, e.g. television. The sakura blossoms are in full bloom and at this point in time they’re the ideal family unit. However, soon after the rain season falls and things get busy again the eldest son Taro (Shinji Tanaka) falls ill. With his parents out to work that leaves his brother Jiro (Masanori Horimoto) to do what he can, which admittedly isn’t much. Jiro rushes as he sees his parents return home and soon afterward his father goes back into town to fetch a doctor. Sadly Taro passes away and the picture becomes a frame for the departed. In the coming days and weeks the family continue to work until the mother finally breaks down in tears upon wrecking the newly harvested crop, taking her anger out on nature itself, while her husband just stands and watches her until she’s finished. He then gets back to work as if nothing had happened; a clear signalling that no matter how bad things in life might get everybody must carry on regardless. In a nutshell that is the very bane of The Naked Island‘s existence and Shindo succeeds in what he’s set out to achieve.
End of spoilers
As a “cinematic poem” The Naked Island is a beautiful looking film, so beautiful in fact that it almost seems impossible that Shindo managed to capture the kinds of things that he did. His composition is astounding; showing off a busy foreground, while in the back we have the visual delights of the outer island and yonder. Little things like butterflies playing as if they know the camera is watching them, or fish desperately trying to escape from their line add so much more realism to an almost dreamy-like place. Continuity and editing are the vital components, so delivered to perfection that you just have to applaud it. You can imagine that a single shot, like the fishing scene for example, could have taken hours to set up, before Shindo had the young boys run over to tend to their catch; it’s so exquisitely timed that at various intervals it’s almost like watching a painstaking documentary. And in many ways it is; it’s a simple look at surviving in the aftermath of atrocity, making do with what you have and appreciating the value of life itself.
Eureka presents #12 in their Masters of Cinema series much in the same manner as previous releases. Accompanying the disc is a glossy 24-page collector’s booklet, which goes into plenty of detail with contributions from Acquarello and Joan Mellen (who conducts an interview with Shindo). Once again a very impressive inclusion for an important piece of work.
The menu design is very attractive and ridiculously soothing. I can’t tell you for sure just how long I left it playing in the background but however long it was it certainly placed me in a good mood. The menu is accompanied by the sounds of trickling water; almost as hypnotic as Hikaru Hayashi’s complete score. While still on the same subject I love how quickly it kicks in, which is literally one second after inserting the disc.
The Naked Island is presented on a newly restored high-definition transfer, and is anamorphically enhanced in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Although there are still signs of damage, albeit infrequent in the form of the occasional nick this looks quite brilliant. The image is very sharp, though this time Edge Enhancement is immediately noticeable. Aside from this contrast and brightness levels seem spot on, while blacks are solid and shadow detail is perfect. The film itself owes a lot to its environment and Shindo has utilised the 2.35:1 format splendidly, so it’s great to see it being presented as intended.
For sound we have the original Japanese 2.0 track and it’s on par with the transfer. The Naked Island should truly be enjoyed as much aurally as it should visually; and it can be with a solid soundtrack that makes full use of Hayashi’s wonderful score. Because dialogue is practically non-existent, aside from some singing or cheers there’s little need to worry, with everything else being nicely forwarded centrally.
Optional English subtitles are provided. This translation was provided by Terry White; it's easy to read and well timed with no mistakes.
Director, Alex Cox provides his thoughts on the film, which was recorded in April this year. He starts off by talking about Shindo’s career, having started prior to the Second World War. He talks about the political situations in Japan at the time briefly, before talking about the main feature The Naked Island and its budget and lack of overall story; which failed to gain it much recognition in Japan and a whole lot more in Europe for its impressionistic values. Cox talks a little about Shindo’s standing as a director, having not taken off as largely as Kurosawa and yet his films have been very varied over time. There are some nice little titbits here to enjoy from the great director, Cox.
Audio Commentary with director, Kaneto Shindo and composer, Hikaru Hayashi
When I heard that director Kaneto Shindo was going to feature on this upcoming release I got very excited; and it’s great to see that Hayashi is by his side. This was actually recorded in 2000, presumably for the Japanese DVD release, so while not entirely exclusive it’s still a damn fine addition, complete with subtitles which make it a must. In all this is a very nostalgic track, with Shindo and Hayashi providing plenty of insightful comments. Both are very attentive and strongly recall most of the shoot. Shindo talks a lot about the shooting process and working from a brief script about birth to death. He mentions the film budget and how his crew were small and they used islanders for most of the cast, aside from Otowa and Tonoyama; who he goes on to commend for their hard work and willingness to learn. He continues by explaining his intent to make an expressionist film with principles relating to silent cinema, which is where Hayashi’s music comes in to play. This was Hayashi’s second film and Shindo asks him about his inspiration for it. Hayashi simply replies by explaining that he’s prone to last minute decisions. Usually composers begin their work based from a script and then develop later on, whereas Hayashi decided to wait until he saw the completed film. Having quite a bit of time he could work out his exact melodies, focusing primarily on a single one. He talks a little about his prior inexperience to film scoring and how that probably aided him in the long run. We learn how he applied the main theme and what perspective he took in doing so. Shindo further talks about his desire to capture the island’s beauty and that working with black and white helped that tremendously, believing that colour would otherwise ruin the feel he was going for. This is a solid track, where both participants barely take a breather which makes it all the more exemplary.
Consisting of 24 pictures, this gallery is largely made up of stills, with a few international posters.
This was a nice surprise. By pressing “right” after highlighting the commentary you will highlight a question mark. Clicking this takes you to the original 7” French vinyl release which features four tracks from the film. Here you can play them as “Side A” and “Side B”. Being straight recordings there’s a fair amount of crackle, which is no big deal. The music sounds great and if only Eureka threw in a CD as a bonus.
Due to licencing difficulties, second pressings onward no longer include this easter egg.
The Naked Island truly is a masterpiece of cinema; a film that feels like it could have belonged 30 years prior in the silent era, yet carries with it experienced and emotional baggage that could only have possibly been forged in the heat of despair. Yet the film is equally as uplifting and celebratory about life. As much as its visuals suggests an endless cycle, so does Hikaru Hayashi’s remarkably hypnotic score, comprised of a single repetitive theme that I guarantee will stay with the viewer long afterward, aided by the occasional tweak or added instrument - simply perfect.
Eureka’s presentation is solid; The Masters of Cinema are in the very safe hands. Accompanied by some must-have extras this is a disc worth hunting down immediately.