Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Naked Island

With this post, I will have documented every film I watched in 2012.  I did say I was going write dedicated posts to Something Wild & Body Double so those are still coming but I have largely caught up with my film backlog on this blog...just in time to create a new backlog of films starting with Thursday's Mostly British Film Festival.

I saw The Naked Island at the YBCA in August.

The Naked Island starring Nobuko Otowa & Taiji Tonoyama; directed by Kaneto Shindō; Japanese with subtitles; (1960)

Japanese film director Kaneto Shindō died in May 2012 at the age of 100.  The YBCA had a three film retrospective in his honor.  The other two films in the series were Kuroneko & Onibaba; both of which I had seen previously.  Actually, I recall liking the soundtrack to Onibaba quite a bit.

When I wrote that The Naked Island is in  Japanese with subtitles, it's a bit inaccurate since there is no dialog in the film.  Most of the subtitles translate Japanese signs or other written words.

The premise of The Naked Island is that a family of four (husband, wife and two sons) live on a small island off the coast of Japan.  The characters are not give names.  They are one step above subsistence farmers.  It is never explained why they live on this island so close to a town on the main island (filming took place on an island off the coast of Hiroshima).  The island has no fresh water so they must  row their boat onto the main island to pump water and bring it back for human consumption and irrigation.  Close to a third of the film involves them rowing their boat, pumping the water, rowing back, climbing the treacherous trail uphill and watering their crops on the terraced hillside of the island.  All this was done in silence as if it were their normal daily task.  This could easily become tedious but for reasons I cannot articulate, I was fascinated by it.  Carrying heaving buckets on poles resting across their shoulders, I wondered how the actors kept their footing.

By eschewing dialog, the film has a documentary feel to it.  There is no dialog to shape our opinions.  In fact, the only questionable action was the husband slapping his wife when she slipped and spilled water.  Other than that, the film shows the family going through mundane tasks for them - gathering water, tending to crops, sharing a meal, rowing into town, enjoying a day in the town, etc.

It's not until the end when the older son falls seriously ill that any drama is introduced.  As the father makes the agonizingly slow journey across the bay to fetch a doctor, we see the boy's feverish last minutes as the mother looks on helplessly.  The boy dies and his classmates attend the funeral but there is limited opportunity for grieving as the family is locked into this daily struggle for survival.

There is a harsh reality to the family's lives which Shindō never challenges.  No one ever talks so it's difficult to introduce new ideas.  However, they avail themselves to the modern conveniences in town and at least, the older boy goes to school on the main island, so it is somewhat odd that they would choose this life.  Poverty isn't the issue either as they enjoy a meal in the town and are able to make rent payments in the form harvested crops.  They have city clothes too.  The family co-exists with the modern world so close geographically but so far technologically from the modern world.

Actress Nobuko Otowa (the mother in Onibaba) was Shindō mistress during production of The Naked Island and Onibaba (1964).  In the late 1970s, the two would marry when Shindō's wife divorced him.

The Naked Island is tremendous film.  It is certainly minimalist but it never lost my interest.  Rather than appearing to be slavishly adhering to the self-imposed silent structure of the film, The Naked Island uses that silence to create a detachment between the audience and the characters which allows Shindō more freedom in telling his story.

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