Kaneto Shindô’s The Naked Island is arguably one of the masterpieces of the Japanese New Wave, yet the saga of its production is just as compelling as the events depicted on screen. Set on a small island in the Setonaikai archipelago, the body of water that separates the three main islands of Japan, this is a story of hardship that frames the struggles of a peasant family against an awe-inspiring yet unforgiving landscape. It was also a location that would test Shindô’s resilience throughout the two-month shoot, with the treacherous natural environment serving as an appropriate metaphor for the economic conditions under which the director was working. The Naked Island was financed through the independent company Kindaï Eiga Kyokai, which was founded by Shindô, fellow director Kôzaburô Yoshimura, and actor Taiji Tonoyama when the two filmmakers left Shôchiku Studios to develop personal projects without restriction. Yet audiences did not share their concerns. Politicised films such as Lucky Dragon Number 5 (1959), which criticised atomic bomb testing, failed commercially, and as his company was on the verge of bankruptcy Shindô embarked on The Naked Island with a budget that was one-tenth the national average. If a family member had been shooting behind-the-scenes footage, or if the film had been made during EPK (electronic press kit) era, then a documentary about the production of The Naked Island would rival Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) and Lost in La Mancha (2002) as an examination of an ambitious project on the brink of collapse.
However, such a record is perhaps unnecessary, as anyone with some knowledge of the production process of The Naked Island, or the geographic region in which it was shot, will be able to appreciate the difficulties that Shindô and his crew dealt with on a daily basis. Although the film is infused with a poetic quality that is enhanced through the almost total absence of dialogue, this is very much a realistic vision of island life: surroundings are not presented as a utopian paradise, but as tough terrain with limited hydrologic resources. The problems caused by the lack of water largely constitute the minimalist narrative as the family, who are the island’s only occupants, obtain water for their plants and themselves by rowing their boat to a neighbouring island. This task is undertaken alongside other physically draining chores, carried out while unprotected from the heat of the sun, resulting in a cyclical experience for both the protagonists and the audience. Drudgery eventually leads to disaster: while the parents are away from the island, their older son falls ill, and his father must race to find a doctor before his offspring’s symptoms prove to be fatal. Such drama would usually inject urgency into a study of the family unit, but Shindô maintains the detached approach of a documentarian. He positions the family as hard-working farmers trying to live off the land, but is unsentimental with regards to their predicament. Nature is in control of both their future and the rhythm of Shindô’s filmmaking.
The Naked Island evokes the necessary routine of life away from civilisation through the constant sound of waves and Hikaru Hayashi’s haunting score, which mostly repeats the same melody throughout the film. Kiyoshi Kuroda’s striking cinematography captures each area of the island with such clarity that the family’s constant struggle becomes deeply moving, despite Shindô’s restraint. Nagisa Ôshima famously criticised the film, suggesting that Shindô had conceded to the image that other countries had of Japan in order to achieve overseas success. Beyond its setting, however, The Naked Island is characteristic of Japanese cinema in that it emphasises steadfast determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity: the only ‘reward’ that the family receives for suffering the trials of the island is being able to carry on living until their shared willpower runs out. Shindô was more fortunate as The Naked Island was awarded the Grand Prix at the 1961 Moscow International Film Festival in a tie with Grigori Chukhrai’s Chistoye nebo (1961), with sales to international distributors rescuing his company in its hour of need. In addition, the firm relationships that were formed with Hayashi and Kuroda under considerable pressure led Shindô to adopt a collective mode of production that would result in such subsequent classics as Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968). When he went out on location, the financially desperate Shindô thought that The Naked Island would be his last film, but it instead resulted in the kind of resurgence that can only come from the most trying of circumstances.