Silence and Sorrow | The Naked Island (1960)

In 1960 an independent Japanese production company sat on the verge of bankruptcy. Using a shoestring budget and shooting entirely on location, one of their regular directors shot what was expected to be the company’s final film. The Naked Island, directed by Kaneto Shindo, is a sparse, stark art-house drama. It features only four characters. It does not feature any dialogue at all. Against the odds, and I suspect both Shindo and production house Kindai Eiga Kyokai’s expectations, The Naked Island became a surprise commercial hit and a critical darling internationally.

It is an almost wilfully frustrating film. It follows a family of four: a mother and father, and two young sons. They live in a shack on a rocky island, and farm their land the best that they can. There is no fresh water on this ‘naked island’, and so every day the mother and father must take a boat to the mainland, load up four wooden buckets with water, row back and then carry the buckets up a treacherous rocky path to their crops on the top of the island. They do this several times a day. Their sons help where they can, but it is a tough and unforgiving life. We watch them carry the water over and over in a film that runs a full 96 minutes without dialogue. The characters are not even named. While there are some additional plot developments in the film’s second half, why spoil what little surprises the story has?

Whether The Naked Island is a masterpiece of filmmaking or a tedious bore is going to come down entirely to the taste and perspective of the viewer. It is often a difficult view, but to my mind it’s difficult for good reasons. By making the film in the manner that he has, Shindo has brought his audience closer to the toil and suffering of this kind of primitive, agrarian lifestyle than ever before. By removing all dialogue from the production, he has made a deeply effective allegory of the post-war Japanese experience. We cannot get too close to the characters because we do not get enough detail from which to fully hang our sympathies. Instead we’re force to question what it is that we’re watching: what does this all mean?


Let us backtrack a moment and explore who writer/director Kaneto Shindo was, since more than any other notable Japanese director his films seem a direct product of his own life experience. Shindo was born in Hiroshima in 1912 to once prosperous land-owners who, by Shindo’s childhood, had been forced into a subsistence lifestyle as farmers. Their backbreaking labour using primitive farming equipment would be echoed decades later in The Naked Island.

Wanting to break into movie-making, he got his start developing film for a Kyoto production house before shifting into set construction. It was in a set-building capacity that he started to work for Kenji Mizoguchi, notably for Mizoguchi’s 1941 film The 47 Ronin. In 1942 he followed Mizoguchi to the Shochiku film studio, where he hoped to fulfil a long-held dream of becoming a screenwriter. His screenwriting aspirations were short-lived: in 1943 Shindo was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Navy. One of a 100-man unit, he was one of only six to survive the war. ‘I have always had the souls of the 94 with me,’ he later explained, ‘and have made them the theme of my existence.’¹

At the end of World War II, with his home city of Hiroshima devastated by the atomic bomb and the majority of his Navy comrades dead, Shindo returned to the Shochiku studio in Ofuna. He finally began forging a career as a screenwriter, penning The Ball at the Anjo House for director Kozaburo Yoshimura. By 1950 the pair had teamed with actor Taiji Tonoyama to found their own production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai (Modern Film Association). By separating from Shochiku they were able to develop their own projects free from studio interference. While this independence afforded them enormous creative freedom, it also left them in a precarious financial position: Kindai Eiga Kyokai spent the majority of its time on the verge of bankruptcy. Like many writers, Shindo turned to directing as well. His debut feature, Story of a Beloved Wife (1951), was partially autobiographical, and starred popular actress Nobuko Otowa in the role of Shindo’s own deceased common-law wife Takako Kuji. Shindo and Otowa later married each other.


In 1952 Shindo became the first director to directly tackle the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The left-leaning Japan Teachers’ Union commissioned him to direct a film about Hiroshima, and to satisfy their requirements he wrote and directed Children of Hiroshima in which a school teachers struggles to locate her students in the aftermath of the bombings. While the film was a critically and commercial success the union that funded it condemned Shindo, claiming that by making it an emotive melodrama he had ‘destroyed its political orientation’.²

Shindo covered similar territory two years later in Lucky Dragon No. 5 (1954), which related the true story of a Japanese fishing crew who suffered radiation poisoning from the USA’s Bikini Atoll nuclear weapons tests.

As the 1950s progressed, Shindo established a well-earned reputation for socially conscious critiques of poverty and women’s issues in post-war Japan. Epitome (1953) tells the story of a young woman who becomes a geisha to support her impoverished family, only to fall in love with a rich client – who refuses to marry her for the shame it will bring upon his own family. Dobu (1954) is a tragedy about a woman forced into poverty, then prostitution and is ultimately shot dead by the police. While Shindo’s films were widely praised by critics, they were not particularly popular with a general audience. By 1960 Kindai Eiga Kyokai was almost entirely out of money, and with what little remaining funds were left Shindo directed The Naked Island.


The Naked Island was shot on location on the island of Sukune near Hiroshima. The island was entirely uninhabited, allowing Shindo’s crew to construct the family’s shack and farm as they saw fit. The film was shot in black and white through financial necessity, although it must be said that the monochromatic imagery adds an appropriate level of drabness. Had all of the mountains and water in the background been in colour, there is a risk the family’s surroundings could have looked rather beautiful. Instead it is rather spooky and oppressive.

The film was essentially cast like a repertory theatre company, with production company partner Taiji Tonoyama playing the father and regular Shindo actress (and future wife) Nobuko Otowa as the mother. Tonoyama delivers a very powerful, stoic performance as a father in a hopeless situation, and living his life one weary step at a time. Otowa is more emotive, and therefore more emotionally engaging, as the farmer’s dutiful wife. As with the majority of Shindo’s female protagonists she is in a bleak and relatively upsetting position, and certainly she ends the film in an unhappier place than where she started.

There is actually a rather shocking moment quite early into the film where the mother, weary from carrying heavy buckets of water from the boat to the crops, accidentally slips and spills a bucket onto the ground. The father (Tonoyama) sighs, puts down the long wooden ladle he’s been using to water the crops, walks down the slope to his wife – and exactly at the point where you might expect him to hug or console her he strikes her viciously across the face. It seems to me that Shindo’s films occur in a cynical, quite brutal world. Any opportunity for happiness is quickly beaten down. Any scenes of levity are short-lived.


What, then, is the point of The Naked Island? On initial inspection it seems an almost perverse exercise in stretching the audience’s collective patience. In one notable early sequence Shindo has his two lead actors slowly carry water alongside the edge of the island towards the camera. They’re physically straining as they do so, because Shindo had Tonoyama and Otowa actually carry the buckets of water. When they finally reach the camera Shindo makes a jump-cut to the same scene, only a little further away from the actors – who must now walk all the way up to the camera again. They reach a close-up for the second time, and Shindo moves the camera back again. It’s an odd, unsettling scene because it defies the generally accepted rules of camera angles and editing. It’s somewhat jarring to watch. Its effect, however, is almost genius. It’s supposed to feel repetitive. By forcing the viewer experience the same actions again and again – the same tedious journey across the sea to collect fresh water, and the same gruelling climb to the island peak to use it – Shindo makes us really feel what it must be to life in the manner that the family does.

After such a long introduction we finally do reach some action; one of the children successfully catches a fish, and the entire family travels to sell the fish to a local restaurant and spend the earnings on a special day out. They eat a proper meal in a café. The sons are transfixed by a television set in an in-store display. After watching the family toil away on their island for the better part of an hour, we get a sense of what a day like this must mean to the characters. This bright, happy day is one episode in the middle of a film, however, and by the end of the story we have seen both deep tragedy and a subsequent return to the drudgery and back-breaking labour that made up the film’s first section.

The Naked Island was a popular art-house hit in Europe and North America, where audiences appeared to take the film very much as a naïve insight into the everyday Japanese farmer. In the New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther wrote that the film ‘embraced the rhythmic beauty of the landscape and the mountain-fringed waters of the bay and the rhythmic toil of its people’.³ In The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann rather oddly wrote ‘it is impossible to imagine these children growing up lost or bewildered; and it is no bourgeois beatification to say that the film lay bare the secret of this impoverished family; they are happy.’⁴

These reactions caused something of a backlash among Japanese critics and filmmakers, who bristled at the idea that the simple family of The Naked Island in any way reflected the rapidly recovering and technologically accelerated Japan of the early 1960s. ‘They seemed to prefer approaching the Japanese,’ said Kyoto University professor Michitaro Tada, ‘as a primitive people rather than as a technologically sophisticated one. That was their way of dealing with the Japanese – through a sympathy with the primitive.’⁵


While there is always a risk in reading too much autobiography in an artist’s works, in the case of The Naked Island it is difficult not to. Shindo was a survivor of World War II, one who saw the majority of his naval unit killed in action and whose home town was all but obliterated in an atomic explosion. He lived through the post-war reconstruction and the seismic loss of face suffered by the Japanese people as a whole.

When viewing The Naked Island I could not see it as anything other than a bleak, nihilistic allegory: here is Japan, broken and disgraced, its people trudging along because there is nothing else to do, its children providing brief moments of happiness before the world descends back into an endless, pointless exercise of labour. The Naked Island is not simply a naïve story of indigent farmers. The Naked Island is Shindo’s experience of Japan.
Japanese critics were correct in that Shindo’s film does not reflect the reality of their country in the 1960s. It is not supposed to; instead it is the cinematic equivalent of mourning. Where American critics like Kauffmann and Crowther saw a charming rural exercise I cannot say, because what Shindo presents to me is almost its polar opposite. It is a cold, cruel and torturously slow tragedy; a difficult masterpiece.

NOTE: The filmmaking essays on FictionMachine typically take a line of dialogue from a featured film for their titles. The Naked Island has no dialogue.

  1. Ronald Bergan, “Kaneto Shindo obituary”, The Guardian, 31 May 2012.
  2. Alexander Jacoby, “Classical Virtues”, Sight & Sound, July 2012.
  3. Bosley Crowther, “The Naked Island”, New York Times, 11 September 1962.
  4. Quoted in Joan Mellen, Voices from the Japanese Cinema, Liveright, New York, 1975.
  5. Mellen, 1975.

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