Ranking: #92/111

Director: Kaneto Shindo (Japan)

Genre: Pastoral Drama

This is a moving, poetic film about a harsh life of subsistence farming on a small and remote Japanese island. Its beauty lies in its delicate cinematography, in its recreation of the timeless rhythms of nature and agricultural work, and in the dignity of how a peasant family of four lives out a simple existence in isolated circumstances, respectfully maintaining its customs and routine. The Naked Island is a poetic portrait of a life of physical labour, a hymn to humanity’s most elemental way of life. It’s a hard, yet peaceful, existence, and the director shows both the stress of subsistence farming, as well as the joys of being free in Nature.

There’s a unity of time in the movie which shows the lives of a married couple and their two sons, trying to survive of their island during the course of a year. Their daily and seasonal cycles of life, and the rhythms of their labour, are faithfully depicted. They have to till and irrigate on a steep hillside. In winter, they plough the terraced land and sow seeds. Then, in spring the cherry blossoms bloom. The farmers are completely dependent on water which they have to repeatedly fetch by rowing boat from a neighbouring island. They become water-carriers as well as farmers and the images of them carrying pails of water on wooden yokes on their backs for miles are seared into the minds of the viewers. These are iconic cinematic images.

There are also beautifully flowing aerial shots of the rather unforgiving island, which becomes a main character in the story, like the inland sea surrounding it. They have to cross the bay constantly, not just to fetch water, but to take their son to school, too.

What I also love about the film is that, being virtually without dialogue, it uses imagery to convey the story and its meanings, which is a very cinematic form of expression. It must rank as one of the most limpid, fluid and flowing films ever made.

One day, they go for a family outing to a more densely populated island where they see a television: their first experience of the new global consumer culture about to take over the world. I enjoyed seeing their reactions to the show being broadcast on the screen, showing a virtual indifference to something which, to them, was unreal. 

When one of their sons dies later from a fever, the community spirit of the Japanese people comes through strongly, as the school children visit their small island to sing the school song in honour of the deceased boy. The parents carry the coffin up the hillside as they always carried the water pails on yokes uphill.

Shindo put his heart and soul into this movie for two reasons. Firstly, he was born into a farm life and he had a lot of respect for his parents toiling in the fields year after year. He wanted to pay tribute to them and their pastoral life. And secondly, the film company he worked for, an independent film producer called Kindai Eiga Kyokai, was virtually bankrupt at the time and he boldly invested his last available funds into making the movie. Its success saved the company.

Here was a brave man with great reserves of artistic integrity.

The movie is a gem and a treasure of world cinema.