The opening aerial shot in The Naked Island surveys a small island on the Seto Inland Sea with minimal signs of human life, aside from the movement of two figures who soon become the film’s central focus. Actually, the name of the sea is only known by consulting production notes, as writer-director Kaneto Shindô refuses a proper name for both places and people throughout the film. Shindô also denies the two central characters, married farmers played by Nobuko Otowa and Taiji Tonoyama, dialogue with one another; even a dinner with their two young sons unfolds without words. But the meal doesn’t unfold silently, as Shindô integrates a sound design that features the crashing of waves, the bristling of plants, and the milling of animals as a constant presence and aural reminder of the island’s sensorial presence.
While the couple spends their days fetching water from the sea for their dying crops, Shindô’s camera takes almost fetishistic note of their toil, lingering on each’s repetitious, even Sisyphean, act of carrying heavy buckets up and down the island’s rocky terrain to very little noticeable effect. A repeated close-up of water seeping into the dry earth begs for symbolic readings regarding infertility and stagnation: Are these portentous metaphors for Japan’s economy and political state or, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, is it possible that sometimes a dying plant is just a dying plant?
That question haunts The Naked Island with no less intensity than the more literal horrors of Shindô’s later films Onibaba and Kuroneko—both revisionist ghost stories about instances in Japan’s violent and misogynist past. No vengeful women emerge in The Naked Island, but the very land itself seems to be wreaking some sort of havoc against the father, whose silent frustrations turn to violence when he smacks his wife after she tips over a bucket of water. In hindsight, Shindô has been building to the confrontation with prior, prolonged scenes of the characters carefully maneuvering across the island; it’s as if the camera, in chronicling these characters’ every step, seeks a level of ethnographic particularity. Before the violent outburst, the characters are naturalized and made a part of the very ground they work to cultivate.
Stripping the characters of dialogue and embracing the ethos of documentary filmmaking makes The Naked Island initially unfold like a work of exploitation, reveling in the hardship of noble rural folk to proffer a mythological image of Japan as a primitive place untouched by the influence of Western nations. The slap confronts the ugliness beneath the couple’s previously peaceful veneer by indicating a potentially abusive relationship. In retrospect, the slap could also be seen as the pivot point in film history between a Japanese cinema of humanism, embodied by Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa, and one of transgression, further emboldened by Hiroshi Teshigahara and Shohei Imamura, since it symbolically jolts The Naked Island from being a strict work of humanism into a more textually ambiguous, contemporary style that would come to define the Japanese New Wave.
After this incident, Shindô expedites the film’s sense of time, as seasons suddenly pass almost in a single shot, with subtitles announcing autumn, winter, and finally spring. The new season momentarily takes the family away from the island and into a nearby town, where they sell a fish for some money and eat at a local restaurant. Even in the city, conversation remains absent and voices unheard, aside from a ceremony unfolding within earshot of the protagonists. Cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda, who worked exclusively for Shindô throughout the 1960s, switches between close-ups and extreme long shots, the most striking of which comes as the mother walks alongside a dock in the city and remains the only human being in the frame. The shot presents the city as no different from the island in a spatial sense and refuses easy contrast between the two places; wherever the woman goes, she remains isolated and separated, without access to meaningful human contact.
A sudden tragedy superficially heightens the film’s emotional register in the final half hour, but Shindô’s images and editing patterns remain calm and steady, suggesting something irrevocable about the film’s internal rhythms, which cannot be shaken into hysterics even by death. The only outlier to the film’s stripped-down state is the score by Hiraku Hayashi, which swells throughout like a rising and falling tide, appearing suddenly after a prolonged absence, only to recede once again. If the music provides a counterpoint to the island’s sense of narrative quietude, it also highlights the film’s fundamental interest in breaking away from a strict relationship where form services content. Both a film about a family and a reflexive work on the function of aesthetic choice, The Naked Island simultaneously interrogates certain formal components of the cinematic medium without sacrificing the emotional honesty of the characters at its core.
The Criterion Collection’s high-definition presentation of The Naked Island lacks the depth of field and acute detail that a 2K or 4K scan would likely bring, but it’s hardly a reason to quibble, since this is a beautiful transfer that’s been largely stripped of image defects. Contrast remains consistent throughout, with light appearing appropriately balanced. The image never appears dimmed or overexposed. The monaural track featuring Hiraku Hayashi’s score and the film’s meticulous sound design has been mixed and restored to minimize pops or cracks throughout.
Another wholly solid effort, Criterion checks off nearly every box for supplements, with a commentary, interviews, and appreciations. The commentary, from 2000, features Kaneto Shindô and Hayashi recounting their memories of the production and explaining how certain choices, like the aerial footage, were realized during the shoot and in the editing room. Shindô also provides a video introduction, taken from a 2011 retrospective at BAM. A pair of excellent interviews—one with film scholar Akira Lippit, the other with actor Benicio del Toro—reveal different approaches, from the scholarly to the appreciative, to Shindô’s work. Lippit handles the film’s reception and placement within the Japanese New Wave; unsurprisingly, the film was controversial among Japanese filmmakers for its depiction of Japan, one that certain directors felt engaged an "easily translatable vision of the nation." Del Toro offers a personal assessment, both of when he first saw the film on DVD in the early 2000s and how his appreciation for Shindô’s filmography led him to curate a retrospective at BAM in 2011. Also included are the film’s trailer and an essay by film scholar Haden Guest.
Kaneto Shindô’s oeuvre is perhaps best known for outright horror tales like Onibaba and Kuroneko, but the complex textures of The Naked Island, a fascinating blend of documentary, silent cinema, and covert horror, cannily refute absolute categorization.