At sunrise, the nearly indistinguishable silhouettes of a peasant man (Taiji Tonoyama) and woman (Nobuko Otowa) are observed on the horizon as they navigate their modest rowboat through the tranquil waters. Arriving on the main island, the couple disembark from their boat carrying large water barrels and walk along a footpath towards the freshwater reservoir of a village where they fill their water barrels to capacity, before rowing their boat home to a small island, and carry the oversized vessels through the steep and irregular trail along the hillside, balancing the cumbersome, shifting weight of the water across their shoulders through precariously yielding, long wooden poles. Observing their parents’ approach from the sea, the children scamper to feed the animals, tend to the stove, and set the table so that the family meal is promptly served by the time that the adults reach the summit. After hurriedly consuming his breakfast, the older son (Shinji Tanaka) puts his bowl away inside the house, retrieves his school bag, and proceeds directly to the rowboat, where his mother soon follows carrying another set of water barrels for the next appointed excursion to the main island. And so the silent, existential ritual of the isolated family unfolds as the somber couple endlessly toil under the unforgiving sun throughout the day – alternately transporting water from the main island and cultivating the arid soil of their terraced, planting field along the side of the remote mountain island – eking out a meager existence from the barren and desolate land.
Kaneto Shindo creates a visually distilled, minimalist, and understated, yet compelling and profoundly expressive portrait of human struggle, perseverance, and survival in Naked Island. Crafting a remarkably fluid and tightly edited film that is entirely devoid of dialogue, Shindo effectively exploits the characters’ silence in order to capture an organic rhythm that, in turn, reflects the cycle and ritual of human experience: the repetition of daily tasks that begin and end in darkness; the evocative, cross-cut shots of the father watering the wilting crops as the mother arduously transports water barrels; the cadence of displaced water from a rowing oar; the allusive depiction of seasonal change through images of harvested fields, village festivals, cherry blossoms, land tilling, and crop seeding. Recalling contemporary filmmaker Robert Bresson’s presentation of impassive characters, extended silences, and ambient sound, Shindo similarly evokes a sense of transcendence from an oppressive existence through the performance of manual ritual. In the end, the silently suffering inhabitants of the austere island achieve their own poetic and natural state of grace, not through overt contemplation and spiritual enlightenment, but through the humble acknowledgement of a universal sense of place and the resilient acceptance for the unknown – and unknowable – travails of human existance.
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