Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Shindo in LA: The Naked Island

Kaneto Shindō is the Japanese Manoel de Oliveira. At just two years shy of the century mark, Shindō’s latest film, Postcard, has been selected as Japan’s official foreign language Oscar submission. Ironically, Shindō thought his self-produced The Naked Island (trailer here) might be the final film of his career, way back in 1960. However, international critics embraced the work. Somewhat fittingly, it is the cornerstone of the Shindō retrospective starting today at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles.

A nameless man, his wife, and their two sons live a meager existence terrace farming on the rocky Setonaikai archipelago. We get the sense that time has stood still for this hardscrabble family. They are deeply tied to the unforgiving land, working in near total isolation. They toil as best they can, but just as we start to feel for their daily plight, an act of casual abuse undermines our sympathies.

Evidently, such is life amongst the peasant-proles. It will get far more tragic as Shindō’s documentary-style tone poem poverty continues. Gorgeously filmed and featuring a lush, highly sought after soundtrack by Hikaru Hayashi, Island is probably one of the most artful vérité films ever produced. Yet, like its closest analog, Margot Benacerraf’s Araya, Island arguably fetishizes the islanders’ poverty as much as it decries it. Indeed, it seems downright elegiac for their disappearing way of life, with all its drudgery and mean living conditions, despite the obvious resulting misery.

As befitting an old Marxist, these themes of existential vulnerability are a constant in Shindō’s films, including his ambiguous horror-ish films, particularly Onibaba, in which an old woman’s economic survival depends on the superstitious trickery she employs to keep her daughter-in-law in her household.

Despite the ideological championing of Island, Onibaba and Kuroneko are truly Shindō’s masterworks. Nonetheless, his pseudo-doc is a haunting film. Rendered nearly without dialogue, it is a powerful example of how imagery and music can compliment and accentuate each other. Kiyoma Kuroda’s black and white cinematographer is striking, perfectly framing Shindō’s visuals. Although they are Shindō regulars, Nobuko Otowa and Taiji Tonoyama could easily be mistaken for legitimate anthropologic subjects as the couple too poor to be named. Indeed, Otowa is ultimately rather devastating as the emotionally overwrought mother.

Island is a rich feast for the eyes and the ears, but that is about as deep as it goes. Though ostensibly genre films, Onibaba and Kuroneko have the arsenic that seeps into your subconscious. Island screens tonight, tomorrow, and Thursday (12/20-12-22) as part of the Cinefamily’s Shindō retrospective, with Kuroneko also screening tonight (12/20) and Onibaba screening this Friday (12/23). The latter two are highly recommended, at any time.