The Naked Island
Director Kaneto Shindo’s documentary-like, dialogue-free portrayal of daily struggle is a work of stunning visual beauty and invention. The international breakthrough for one of Japan’s most innovative filmmakers—who went on to make such other marvelous movies as Onibaba and Kuroneko—The Naked Island follows a family whose home is on a tiny, remote island off the coast of Japan. They must row a great distance to another shore, collect water from a well in buckets, and row back to their island—a nearly backbreaking task essential for the survival of these people and their land. Featuring a phenomenal modernist score by Hikaru Hayashi, this is a truly hypnotic experience, with a rhythm unlike that of any other film.
Kaneto Shindo’s The Naked Island comes to Blu-ray from Criterion, presented in its original aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 on this dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition digital transfer is taken from a scan of a 35mm print struck from the original negative.
Criterion delivers a consistently pleasing and stable presentation that looks clean and natural. There can be faint softness to the image at times but the level of detail, from longs shots of the island and its crops to various close-ups of the actors or the dry earth of the island, manages to still stun. The black and white image also delivers strong blacks and nice tonal shifts in the gray levels and contrast looks to be balanced well. There are a couple sequences that are either really dark or really bright, but these look to be intentional. The restoration work has also been very thorough and other than a few minor bits of dirt I didn’t notice any other bits of damage. It’s a fine, clean image in the end.
The film’s soundtrack is presented in lossless PCM 1.0 mono. Other than a short sequence featuring singing/chanting and a few other vocal effects the film doesn’t contain any dialogue, leaving us with sound effects and Hikaru Hayashi’s stunner of a score. These aspects of the track both sound fine enough, though are limited by age. There can be a slight distortion that creeps in to the score, and fidelity isn’t all that strong. General quality is otherwise fine and I didn’t detect any pops, drops, cracks, or any other type of damage.
A few supplements are included, starting with an audio commentary recorded in 2000 featuring director Kaneto Shindo and composer Hikaru Hayashi. The participants speak in Japanese but English subtitles are provided. It opens with Shindo recalling a trip to the islands he had taken years after finishing the film, recalling how things have changed (or stayed the same) and then both participants then recall the construction of the film, the shooting, and so forth. Shindo talks a bit about what his intentions were with the film, how he pulled techniques from silent films to help convey the dialogue free story (though Hayashi points it out it wasn’t even that simple since silent films could use intertitles), and share stories about the shoot. The two also do talk quite a bit about the score, about using it appropriately and using it to even help tell the story. The two recall quite a bit about the production (something I was a little surprised by) and share some decent insights. It can be a bit dry here and there but it’s still a great addition.
Criterion then includes a greeting from director Kaneto Shindo recorded in 2011 for a retrospective of his films put together by actor Benecio Del Toro and shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This over 7-minute video features the filmmaker (then turning 99) thanking Del Toro and then we get what appears to be just an excerpt of it where he talks about making The Naked Island and his intentions of making a “cinematic poem” (something he also covers in the included commentary track) and better representing the lower working class in Japan. He also talks about his last film, Postcard. Like I said it appears we just get excerpts and I assume he talked about his other work in the bits we don’t see, so it’s disappointing to not get the whole clip with the filmmaker reflecting on his work (though maybe this could appear on other releases for his films). Otherwise it’s a another nice inclusion.
A bit of a surprising addition to the release is an interview with actor Benecio Del Toro. As mentioned previously Del Toro put together the 2011 retrospective at BAM for Shindo’s films and here he talks about his fondness of the filmmaker’s work, which grew after receiving and watching a DVD copy of The Naked Island years before. The film had blown him away and once he realized it was the same director who made Onibaba, a film he had seen and liked long before, it appears he became more intrigued by Shindo. From here he talks about the moments that stood out to him and delivered a real impact, managing to affect him deeply. It’s sadly only 8-minutes long but it’s a rather loving tribute and I’m happy Del Toro took the time to talk about it. The only disappointing aspect to the interview is that Del Toro recalls an interview/conversation he had with Shindo during the retrospective, and nothing about that appears on this release, though it’s possible it wasn’t recorded or available for this edition.
At any rate, moving on we next come to an interview with film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit. Lippit offers his own thoughts on the film, admiring how it effectively portrays the hardships of its characters in a purely visual way, but never romanticizing it nor making it look absolutely bleak. For most of the feature, though, he talks about Shindo’s career from an assistant to Kenji Mizoguchi to founding his own production company. What surprised me most (despite it being mentioned in the copy for the older Masters of Cinema DVD) is it sounds as though The Naked Island was born more out of financial necessity since Shindo, when his company was in financial trouble, made the film in the hopes of it saving his company. Considering the limited commercial appeal of the film (a near-silent 96-minute film depicting the hardships of farmers on a lone island where a good chunk of time focuses on them moving water from the mainland to their island doesn’t scream box office) I was admittedly surprised Shindo would put so much on a film, but the film ended up being a fairly big hit. Teamed with the Del Toro interview, and then the insights provided in the commentary, this interview provides another nice scholarly slant to the film and Shindo’s work. It runs a fairly brisk 17-minutes.
The disc then closes with a 2-minute theatrical trailer that really pushes the lack of dialogue, surprisingly, while the included insert features a short essay by Haden Guest going a little over Shindo’s career up to this point and sharing the possible political aspects that can be found in the film.
Not jam packed admittedly, and its biggest feature, the commentary, has been recycled from previous home video releases (it appears at least the on Masters of Cinema DVD and Blu-ray releases in the UK) but everything is quite satisfying and worth going through, rounding out the film nicely.
Still a little surprised it took this long for the film to be released by Criterion over on this side of the world (it was one of the Masters of Cinema’s first DVD releases in the UK, and also came out fairly quickly on Blu-ray by them) but the wait was worth it and they’ve put out a solid edition for the film. With its satisfying set of supplements and solid presentation it comes with a high recommendation.