Kaneto Shindo's "The Naked Island" (1960) is founded on the same basic premise of other existential 'struggle' films such as Hiroshi Teshigahara's "The Woman in the Dunes" (1964) and more recently Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse" (2011). It wouldn't be wrong to say that Shindo laid the groundwork for these later films. For a significant part, Shindo's excellent drama of survival finds a closer comparison to Tarr's film, considering a minimal cast, a small family, and a modest existence with the day to day tedium of performing the same, repetitive, physically strenuous routine.
Where this film primarily differs from Tarr's, is in its tone. Tarr's film is excessively bleak with an almost surreal, doom-laden atmosphere and a sonorous dirge-like score, giving it a more hypnotic feel. Shindo's film is a bit more ethereal, simplistic, realistic, embracing nature in its pure, pleasant form with a more ponderous, rather than depressing score to go along.
Shindo's film chronicles a year in the life of a small farmers' family. The husband, the wife and their two sons seem to be the only inhabitants on a lone island in the middle of the sea. They have abundant plantations in some part of the island. However, they have to go through the tortuous task of carrying buckets of fresh water from the neighbouring mainland in order to water their crops.
This takes the form of their daily routine, the purpose of their being. But they are quite content with their life. Post all the routine, they share a happy meal, the kids go on to study, and the parents get on with preparations for the day after. It is the typically dream-like, tranquil country life, cut away from the stress, pollution and noise of the city, complete, with even the usage of a large, firewood-heated drum of water for bathing. There are, not surprisingly, all joyous smiles on the faces of the foursome as they indulge in these small pleasures of life.
The first forty odd minutes of the film are spent showcasing the couple's daily tasks, which mostly comprise of carrying buckets of water from one island to the other and watering of the crops. That's all! But ever frame drips so much beauty, it is difficult to complain about the filmmaker's indulgence in capturing the scenery in this beautiful, but challenging world. The silhouetted figure of the boatman against a dusky sky, close-up of water seeping in slowly in the soil, a delicate, emotional moment contrasted with fireworks, are all paintings in motion really.
Occasionally there are shots of a single pine cone floating in the water. There are at least ten such shots of this cone! Very beautiful, all these shots, thanks to the outstanding cinematography. Well, the same pine cone needn't have been shown ten times, but that's excusable in the larger context of the film's objective. Shindo wants us to soak in this world. He wants us to take a dip in the ocean. He wants us to feel the languor. He wants us to really live on the island for those ninety-five odd minutes of its duration. The only deviation that occurs in the first half of the film is the somewhat alarming slapping incident, which we will come to later.
It is in the final half of the film, that the happenings divert and we get to see a lot more than just their day to day activities. Seasons change, moods change, there is a fleeting glimpse of some traditional celebrations and gatherings of the locals. And then there is that awesome scenario of the big fish catch, its selling in town, clubbed with a cable car joyride and a hearty meal at a restaurant, something they don't often get to indulge in, or simply don't, as a matter of choice.
One wonders if the illness of one the sons that follows eventually, owes itself to that infrequent trip to town and that rare meal outside of their humble abode. So far they are used to having home-cooked meals from their own crops and earnings. And now with foreign grounds being trodden, does their system lose balance?
"The Naked Island" is an expertly crafted chain of ups and downs in the life of a family. There is happiness, and there's a tragedy. And finally there's the message that life has to go on, no matter what. The lack of dialog complements the primitive, earthy nature of the family's existence. While Shindo, the director is in top form for the most part and delivers as far as a putting out a fine product is cinema is concerned, it is the pacing that leaves a bit to be desired. Rapid editing in the latter half and a fast passage of time in contrast to the languorous, almost real time depiction of events in the first half, renders the film unevenly paced.
It is the final act, where the crux of the film comes in, which makes one ponder about what it's driving at. On one hand, this is a family that lives a simple hand-to-mouth, satisfied life. Almost zero materialism; just work hard, eat, get a good night's sleep, repeat! Perhaps that is what the title alludes to.
The island is naked, stripped of concrete jungles, modern technology, worldly pleasures and practically anything that has to do with the contemporary urban life as we know it. The family represents the island they thrive on. The island is their life. Whether this kind of lifestyle, no matter how healthy and cut out from technology and modern science is actually not a cool way to live, no matter how human? Or is it simply suggesting that whether you are a slave to the modern life, or whether you shun it completely, there's practically no difference?
The attitude of the husband seems to suggest so. He slaps the woman for a small error. She quietly resumes her duties without protesting. Later, the son dies, but there is no room for grieving. The woman clearly has her heart elsewhere. But the husband ignores his woman's bawling and continues to water the plants! The woman watches him and follows suit. This scene is perhaps the most crucial part of the film.
Does it mean that even if connected to nature, a general insensitivity comes in anyway? The existence of these folks is almost robotic, going through the same rigmarole day in day out. Similar to any materialistic family in the city, where the modern man has no time to look up from his tablet or computer; where the human connect is lost, and reality is virtual, a lack of emotion; where perhaps a conference call is more important than the wife's birthday, for example.
So how different is the humble farmer's behaviour from the modern man, really? Shindo gives us something to think about.
The concluding shot of the camera zooming out, revealing the island in the vast sea, perhaps suggests something on similar lines, that the lives of the members of this family serve as a microcosm for the entire universe surrounding it. The family is but a miniscule part of the whole, that essentially follows the same pattern.