Kaneto Shindo's The Naked Island is a piece of “cinematic poetry” (the director's accurate description) steeped in the language of silent cinema. It is a thoroughly realistic, unsentimental look at the harsh realities faced by a humble family of Japanese farmers living on a small island, but also a staggeringly beautiful hymn to their perseverance. There's a story, but it unfolds through precisely-constructed, elegantly rhythmic examinations of mundane activities that collectively become something extraordinary.
As the opening credits play, Hikaru Hayashi's stunning main theme floats across the soundtrack. It's a remarkable piece, anchored by an irresistibly beautiful melody (first performed by atmospheric woodwinds, then by a heavenly choir) and accentuated with delicate chimes that give the piece a certain fragility. We hear this theme over and over again throughout the film, and it gives us the impression that we are witnessing images of an earthly paradise: serene waters, windswept wheat fields, happy children, a lovely little village, healthy gardens.
Even so, simply surviving in this lush world takes an extraordinary amount of effort. We watch as a husband and wife (Taiji Tonoyama, In the Realm of the Senses and Nobuko Otowa, Children of Hiroshima) take a small rowboat to a nearby island to get fresh water for their garden and for themselves. The buckets of water are heavy, and they have to carry them a long way, but they seem to be used to it: this is their daily routine. We see this and other pieces of daily life repeated over and over again, with repeating shots turning up on a regular basis to emphasize the repetitiveness of this life. There is no dialogue, probably because words might disrupt the film's carefully-constructed flow.
For quite a while, that's more or less all there is to the movie. Though the striking cinematography and lush music weave a hypnotizing spell, the early scenes are slow and methodical. The film requires patience, but that patience will be rewarded: midway through the movie, we begin to see accidental disruptions to the routine, and the predictable repetitiveness of the film's first half gives these moments an extraordinary dramatic impact. Slowly but surely, the film begins to transform into a tense melodrama (still dialogue-free, though there's a bit of gasping and panting here and there). That lovely main theme suddenly gets a tense new arrangement, and the world begins to look less idyllic.
This isn't the sort of film that most viewers are likely to return to over and over again – its spareness and stillness ensures that there's very little you'll miss the first time around – but it leaves an incredibly strong impression. The closing minutes of the film offer a brief but unforgettable moment of catharsis; a display of raw emotion in a film that otherwise doesn't have room for raw emotion. As the film closes, we return to that gorgeous main theme, which now seems to be saying so much more than it did when we first heard it.
The Naked Island
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Year: 1960